February 14, 2018

While Retail Market Has Challenges, Restaurant Scene Continues Growth

TURNING HEADS: The distinctive graphics on the windows of what will become the Mexican eatery Tacoria this spring are among the signs of a growing restaurant culture in town. (Photo by Erica M. Cardenas)

By Anne Levin

None of them claim culinary backgrounds. But the quartet of ambitious restauranteurs behind Tacoria Mexican Street Kitchen, currently under construction at 110 Nassau Street, immersed themselves in the art of food preparation before opening their first eatery in New Brunswick two years ago.

“We’re all making tacos now,” said Sean Patel, of the partners and best friends. “We went to a kind of cooking camp for 30 days, 10 to 12 hours a day. And we’re now on our third location.”

Projected to open in mid-spring, the Princeton branch of Tacoria follows successful locations in New Brunswick and Montclair. Opening here has long been a dream. “We have been coming to Princeton since we were young kids,” says Patel, who is 35 and lives in North Brunswick. “I wasn’t smart enough to get into Princeton [University] so I guess this is my way of making that up,” he joked.

Between them, the four partners have backgrounds in biology, economics, engineering, and information technology. They knew they had a lot to learn before venturing into the food business. “It was a three-year project before we opened up,” Patel said. “We love to travel and we went everywhere. We consulted with different chefs and talked to everyone we could.”

There was no room for a freezer in the first Tacoria in New Brunswick, so the partners learned to make do with fresh ingredients. “We went with that model and it has actually worked out great,” Patel said. Offering a fresh take on Mexican food, Tacoria is “quick, on the go, and with an average ticket of $10 to $11,” said Patel. “We’re not an expensive meal by any means.”

Tacoria is one of several restaurants to appear on the local scene in recent months. While some empty storefronts illustrate challenges in the retail market, there is, lately, no shortage of dining options in different styles and price ranges. There have been some closings and relocations, too, adding to the changing scene.

Recently, Tre Piani in Forrestal Village closed its doors. So did Taco Truck in Princeton Shopping Center, but it has been replaced by Surf Taco. Also in the shopping center, Chopt began serving its trademark salads just before Thanksgiving. Edo Ramen on Witherspoon Street closed, but Lan Ramen popped up around the corner on Hulfish Street, in the downstairs space once occupied by Infini-T, the cafe that was irreparably damaged by a storm in 2016.

Local Greek opened on Leigh Avenue in November, followed last month by the sleek Two Sevens on Witherspoon Street next to AvalonBay Princeton. Tiger Noodles moved down Nassau Street to larger quarters at 252, downstairs from the Tigerlabs co-working space. Ajihei on Chambers Street changed hands and is now Ajiten, still specializing in Japanese cuisine.

Eatery@Princeton is open for business at 180 Nassau Street, specializing in grilled cheese, market bowls, and other fresh foods. The Frutta Bowls chain is planning to move into the space that was a longtime home to Hulit’s Shoes.