Bobby Heskett learned the rules young. He started at his parents' Pancho's Villa restaurant in San Antonio at age 8 as a busser. Eventually he worked his way up to cooking, and he learned those rules, too. • Then, at 30, Heskett broke them all. On June 6, he and his wife Kristel, a former youth librarian in Temple Terrace, opened Capital Tacos in Land O'Lakes. It's hard to pack so much revolutionary spirit into such a tiny place, just 12 seats at the right-hand end of an innocuous strip mall. The Hesketts are doing things their way to such a degree that even Old Blue Eyes might get balky.
In short, it's a wonderful breath of fresh air. Heskett is an amateur furniture builder, and thus everything in the small restaurant has been crafted by hand. The benches are made of packing pallets, some old, some new, thin strips of wood jammed tight to make lovely patterns. He has made pendants from light bulbs encased in mason jars, and one back wall is festooned with colorful bottle caps. The former pizza place is both homespun and industrial-hip, the spotless stainless steel kitchen taking center stage.
A sizeable share of orders are to-go, something that Capital Tacos does a little differently: Disposable silverware, straws and to-go boxes are made of biodegradable potato starch. Capital's commitment to not bloating landfill with Styrofoam comes at a cost, these supplies commanding nearly four times the price of the regular stuff. But that's how the Hesketts roll.
And then there's the food. Avid travelers both, they've spent time lingering in the taquerias of Denver, Austin and elsewhere, putting together a dream list of Tex-Mex dishes. There's regional Mexican thrown into the mix, and a little Baja seafood for good measure, but it's a clear-eyed and independent take on the kinds of gutsy Latin flavors we don't see nearly enough of around here.
Take, for instance, the special of the month, a cochinita pibil. It's a Yucatan dish of slow-cooked pork marinated in citrus juice, annatto seed, cocoa and some other magic, then roasted wrapped in a banana leaf. It bears a family resemblance to mole, with a balance of sweetness and heat and savory, with a sumptuously rich texture. As with all the fillings at Capital, you can have it as a taco ($3.50), burrito ($7.75), wet burrito topped with sauce ($8.75), nachos ($8.25), salad ($6.75) or bowl with rice and beans ($7.50). I snarfed mine as a taco, the doubled corn tortilla barely corralling the fillings, a tangle of pickled red onion providing a perfect crunchy-tangy counterpoint.
Flavors are wholesome and lively, as with the Austinite, juicy carne asada paired with caramelized onion, avo, sour cream, a tiny flurry of jack, cheddar and chihuahua cheeses and a bit of chipotle ranch salsa. It made a great taco, especially when accompanied by a side of spicy slaw ($1.95), the cabbage grilled and cut roughly for an interesting and robust take. We tried the Catawampus as an order of nachos, crunchy nibs of fried chicken piled onto house-fried chips with lettuce, pico, queso and shredded cheese. Delicious, but we thought it could use a notch of heat. Heskett poured us a ramekin of the house hot sauce — not incendiary, it smoldered and flirted with a beguiling mix of fresh and dried chilies.
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A short list of craft beers, sodas like Mexican Coke and Sidral Mundet, and very solid sangria and wine-based margaritas support the short menu. And a single dessert makes a great table share: angel food cake is sliced thin, enfolded around a scoop of vanilla ice cream, the whole thing frozen and then deep-fried and topped with whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
Thus far, the Hesketts are approaching marketing in a predictably unpredictable way. Capital is a Twitter darling already, Pasco County foodies traveling great distances for the memorable housemade guac. But Heskett also sends an employee out every Thursday all duded up to talk to Pasco residents and hand out 200 free taco tickets. Just another Capital idea from this newcomer.
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.