Something to Crow About
Subtle flavors win the day over fiery spice at Black Rooster Taqueria.
John Calloway’s hand-pressed corn tortillas are the base for his tasty tacos.
Legendary chef Norman Van Aken once told me that his secret fantasy is to escape his restaurants and open a taco truck. After eating at Black Rooster Taqueria, I think I can guess how those tacos might taste.
John and Juliana Calloway’s Black Rooster Taqueria opened in the former Tony’s Deli space on Mills Avenue this past April, after an eight-month construction process. (Tony’s, which had been on Mills since 1980, relocated to downtown Sanford.) In fact, bloggers and tweetniks had been posting about the opening of the “farm to taco” restaurant since early 2015, while the long journey from banks to inspections to opening took more than 2½ years. Loans are tough, city regulations are tougher, but the prolonged activity may have given the restaurant a social media-fueled buzz of anticipation.
“John opened dozens of restaurants for other people,” Juliana says, “but we’d never done one from the ground up.” A classically trained chef, John Calloway had worked in restaurants in New York, Los Angeles, Brazil and Dubai. Juliana worked in the hospitality and social media fields for years, and when it was time to settle down with their new baby, the growing food scene in Orlando (where Juliana grew up) fit their plan for a small, chef-focused restaurant.
Black Rooster wouldn’t be out of place in any metropolis. In fact, it looks very much like similar hip taco joints in Los Angeles, Brooklyn and Mexico City. There are works on the saffron-colored walls by Orlando artist Randall Smith, and multi-colored tables and chairs built by John’s own hand (he had to vent his frustration somehow while waiting to open). A typeset memory wall above the kitchen displays ingredients and influential places and names, including that of the couple’s son, 4-year-old Ryder, who helps John test recipes.
Those recipes become familiar-sounding dishes that elevate the form. I’m not a fan of corn tortillas, but the hand-pressed versions at Black Rooster have made me a convert. Crispy red grouper tacos—beer-battered fish piled with pickled cabbage, avocado and fresh cilantro—and seared, marinated beef asada, served with smoked bacon, pickled poblano chile and queso Oaxaca, make for richly flavored delights. Smoky achiote pork, slow cooked in a banana leaf for 36 hours and layered with pickled onion, cilantro and a fruity, mellow habanero salsa, shows originality and respect for simple, well chosen ingredients. Tacos are $3.25 to $4.75.
Black Rooster Taqueria
Originally from New Jersey, John lived and worked in Mexico for four years. His inspirations come not only from that time, but from Juliana’s Colombian family, and the influences show. Calloway’s dishes are simple, clean and multi-leveled, savory more than spicy, which occasionally elicits curiosity from diners accustomed to the blow-your-head-off heat of other “Mexican” places. Calloway has a specific viewpoint, and his complex flavors are not to be masked by blistering chiles (a request for hot sauce will elicit a squinty-eyed response from Chef). From ceviches, salads, and desserts, pumpkin-seed dip with tomatillo to refreshing fruit-infused agua fresca, there is a subtlety to Calloway’s cooking—not to mention that it’s just plain good.
The Calloways anticipate opening other locations of Black Rooster, as well as other concepts, in the future. But even if they never expand beyond this one tiny location, their redefinition of the humble taco may be accomplishment enough.
Two unusual dishes deserve your attention. Sope ($3), a thick corn masa cake topped with beef and pork meatballs, beans and black mole, is a revelation of how much flavor can fill a small dish. And the unique chocolate-chipotle flan ($3.50) combines pudding, chocolate chip cookies and dense smoky and spicy pepper topping for a satisfying finish.