TAMPA — A surfer-inspired taco stand that gained national fame after appearing on an episode of the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives is about to expand.
California Tacos To Go is opening a second location in Tampa and plans to add four or five more in the Tampa Bay area.
At the helm are Greg Lynn and Chris Nelsen, local restaurateurs with Outback Steakhouse roots. They worked together at Lee Roy Selmon's, where Lynn was president, and Cheeseburger in Paradise, which used to be owned by OSI Restaurant Partners. OSI is now Bloomin' Brands, which operates Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill and other brands.
The newest California Tacos, at 808 S Dale Mabry Highway just north of Henderson Boulevard, will be a modification of the walk-up location in north Tampa.
Set to open later this month or early July, the restaurant will have double the space — 1,200 square feet — and indoor seating for 20. Lynn says it will have the same laid-back feel with stained plywood, spray-painted chairs and surfboard decor.
"What I don't want is for us to lose our culture and feel," he said. "It won't look exactly alike, but I don't want it to feel contrived, sterile and antiseptic."
Charles Morrell opened California Tacos in 2009 at 1450 Skipper Road, serving fresh, fast, West Coast-style Mexican food. Its fish tacos, the most popular item, are made with tempura grouper, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and shredded cabbage.
The tiny takeout shop grew a cultlike following among foodies hungry for San Diego-style tacos, which generally have fewer ingredients and aren't as cheesy or gooey as Tex Mex-style tacos. Business nearly doubled in 2011 after the restaurant appeared on Guy Fieri's hugely popular Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
Lynn was working at Lee Roy Selmon's when the chain added tacos as part of a summer, seasonal menu. As research, he tasted 15 to 20 tacos from across Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and found three he loved. One was from California Tacos.
Soon after — and itching to break out on his own — he discovered California Tacos was for sale. He bought it a year ago and started pursuing expansion plans six months ago.
"We want to combine the mom-and-pop concept with the systems and controls we know we can do," he said.
Lynn hopes the central, South Tampa location will attract new customers unfamiliar with the California Tacos brand. If successful, the concept could be franchised. Like at the north Tampa store, a woman in surfer clothes holding a surfboard will lure people in from the street.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.