By Emily Muirhead – UW News Lab/Special for CHS
Past sugar skulls on Broadway, hanging red pepper lights and under a glowing yellow sign sits the aptly named Neon Taco.
“The idea is we’re doing Mexican street food while having a symbiotic restaurant-bar relationship,” chef and owner Monica Dimas tells CHS. “It has the best drinks with really great food to go along with it.”
This new Mexican kitchen is located at the back of Capitol Hill’s Nacho Borracho bar, which after a year of success with late night crowds has upgraded with the new in-house taqueria.
This culinary collaboration started this month just in time for Nacho’s one-year anniversary. The food is accessible to patrons through a small kitchen window where one can order and pay for food, while running a separate bar tab. It’s a model that worked for Nacho’s sister down on E Olive Way where Montana features the ridiculously delicious Kedai Makan walk-up as its related but independent drunk food (and sober eater) provider.
Dimas, 30, previously focused her cooking on pop-up gigs around the Seattle area, including making Mexican hangover soups for Nacho Borracho’s Saturday brunches. Although the bar and kitchen share a roof and patrons, they are independently run. Dimas aims to enhance traditional Mexican food with contemporary twists, surpass standards of subpar bar food, and complement the mostly Mexican-themed drinks served on tap just a few feet away.
Nacho Borracho owners Rachel Marshall and Kate Optaz teamed up with Dimas to prove that “gut bomb” bar food isn’t the only option. Instead, the Neon Taco team tries to bring the same level of thoughtfulness to their food that goes into Nacho’s often festive drinks such as their avocado margarita or pink guava moscow mule.
“Sometimes people can fall into this trap of not understanding what great food can be,” Dimas said. “Especially at different times of the day. You don’t have to go to Dick’s to have a burger at 1 AM”
This partnership has thus far worked in harmony with the bar’s laid back vibes.
“Monica has a really calm and peaceful energy,” Marshall said. “She doesn’t bring a lot of chaos along with her.”
“Kate and I are not food people — we’re not chefs nor interested in being chefs. It makes a lot of sense to partner with someone where our weaknesses are.”
Dimas is Mexican, and grew up in a household eating her mother’s home cooking, which she credits with developing her well-rounded palate. She said her family rarely went out to eat, and so she initially never considered a profession in the food scene. Despite this, at the age of 18 she landed her first gig helping out in an Italian restaurant’s kitchen in Yakima. Soon after, she found herself outgrowing the restaurant scene in Eastern Washington, and headed to Seattle to expand her culinary horizons. She has since worked at restaurants such as Spinasse and Ethan Stowell’s Mkt.
Neon Taco offers both old school and new school tacos with more unusual ingredients. She plans to incorporate items like Chinese-style drunken chicken or sweet bread into her new school tacos, to create culinary concoctions unique to her taqueria. She only uses tortillas made by hand– a skill she learned from her mother.
Not all of Nacho’s over-the-top style has been left behind. Neon Taco also offers soft pork rinds dressed in cabbage and fresno chiles
and the Sonoran dog — a bacon wrapped hot dog with Mexican garnishes. UPDATE: Sorry for the hot dog oops! Dimas says that Neon’s lengua (beef tongue) is especially tasty.
“I feel like food doesn’t have to be super traditional for it to be authentic,” Dimas said. “Food is always evolving and there’s a reason why it changes over the course of time.”
Nacho co-owner Opatz said the response thus far from patrons has been positive, adding that the drinks pair smoothly with Dimas’ food. On occasion, Dimas will make homemade horchata or agua fresca that can be paired with alcohol from the bar.
While passionate about producing quality food and running her kitchen, Dimas said she never wants to be so invested in a restaurant that she must be there every day to keep it functioning properly. She likes the idea of a chef-driven restaurant, but said she would rather focus on growing a business that provides a great experience for employees and patrons.
Even though Neon Taco’s menu has only a handful of entree items, Dimas is confident in her food selection and preparation.
“I would rather have a simple, concise menu that is really tasty,” Dimas said. “You’re not going to get anything that’s not awesome.”
Neon Taco is located inside Nacho Borracho at 209 Broadway E and serves Monday through Friday 3:00 PM to 1:30 AM, and Saturday-Sunday noon to 1:30 AM. You can learn more at neontacoseattle.com.