Meatless Mexican

TacoLu has come a long way since its inception in 2008. From relocating to a bigger space on Beach Boulevard six years ago to adding more than 100 staff members, Northeast Florida’s source for Baja-style traditional Mexican tacos has undoubtedly arrived. TacoLu has become a staple in the community—it even won not one, not two, but three categories in our Best of the Beaches readers’ poll. (Best Locally Owned Restaurant, Best Mexican Restaurant and Best Tacos)—and to meet the dietary needs of many of its patrons, TacoLu has decided to release a new vegan menu selection next month.

Fear not, TacoLu lovers, the majority of the restaurant’s menu will stay the same. The most notable addition to the list of menu items will be a variety of new vegan tacos, enchiladas and quesadilla alternatives. Owners Debbie and Don Nicol have decided to include these vegan options to make their menu more inclusive.

“We realized that vegans are people, too,” Don told Folio Weekly. “Honestly, 80 percent of our menu is already vegan because you can take cheese and meat off anything we offer. I didn’t want to just put a note next to every menu item that could be made vegan, so the new vegan menu was decided upon to simply highlight these options.”

In building TacoLu’s newly expanded repertoire, the Nicols let established menu items be their guide. Popular fixings like a cilantro-lime vinaigrette, roasted corn salsa, pico de gallo and TacoLu verde salsa were combined with new ingredients and—¡ahí está!—the Tempeh Taco, Bangin’ Taco, Vegan Avo, Vegan Veggie and Vegan Chorizo tacos were born. Two new enchilada options are in the works: a basic vegan version and a vegan chorizo enchilada. For those vegans craving the delicious cheesiness that is TacoLu queso, Debbie and Don present “vegan cheese dillas,” cheese-based quesadillas with optional black beans, roasted spinach, corn and mushrooms.

“To me, creating this new menu is just our way of expanding the brand and reaching out a little bit further,” Don explained.

Though management has always been wary of conforming to any “mainstream” restaurant norms (don’t expect a mac-n-cheese taco on the menu anytime soon), this decision has been a long time in the making. Debbie has even dabbled in the world of vegetarianism and vegan cuisine herself. And she is not alone. According to The Vegetarian Resource Group, 37 percent of the national population always or sometimes eats vegetarian (including vegan) meals when dining out. Furthermore, the region with the greatest number of vegetarians and vegans happens to be the South.

Having the freedom—and success—to custom-tailor a vegan menu is a luxury the Nicols never imagined they would enjoy. They sold their first restaurant, Sticky Fingers, in 2005, convinced that they were done with the restaurant business for good. However, their firm disinterest in working under someone else’s leadership is what ultimately led them to TacoLu. When they decided to return to the food service industry, their expectations were low. Success meant earning enough to pay the bills, vendors and staff … and possibly save toward their children’s future college tuition. After all, TacoLu is named after their daughter, Lucy.

“I think anyone in their right mind who, on a whim, decides to open a restaurant doesn’t expect for it to be largely successful at first, but they obviously hope for it,” said Don. “After five or six years, it got to the point where I just wanted to keep from screwing this whole thing up. TacoLu became either ours to keep, or ours to lose.”

While there was interest in the restaurant from the start, it took about six months for the Nicols to be thoroughly convinced of its impending success. By their first New Year’s Eve, Don recalls, he realized the immense potential of TacoLu. He and Debbie decided to have a party for the occasion, and the turnout solidified their hopes.

“At this point, we didn’t necessarily have huge numbers, but we were doing pretty good,” Don recalled. “That night, we ‘cheersed’ each other and I remember my wife said to me, ‘I hate you for this idea, but I love you for this idea.’”

He then shared with us that TacoLu essentially became their third child. Their oldest, Henry, was just six years old, and their youngest, Lucy, was three years old when the restaurant’s doors opened. Just like their two young children, TacoLu came to require a lot of time and energy.

“The restaurant was a originally a seven-day ordeal for us,” said Don. “Today, we’re closed on Mondays so that I have time to get absolutely anything done. Like I said, we really never expected much, so my business plan has steadily remained, ‘Show up every day and try not to screw it all up.’”

Don credits the more than 120 “kids” he employs for keeping him and the restaurant from going “stale.” He added that his kitchen workers are constantly putting together new menu items to sample for themselves, and that every so often one will “stick.” (For example, “The Fabio” is named for a current employee’s creation. Give it a try.)

“I’ll admit, I’m really in uncharted territory. I’ve never been involved in a restaurant as crazy busy as this one before,” Don admitted. “We teach our staff to stay true to the integrity and mission of our restaurant; in return, they keep us young.”

TacoLu Baja Mexicana has succeeded beyond the Nicols’ wildest dreams. No longer just a local taco joint, it has become a must-try restaurant, tourist attraction, valued employer and community partner. And, if the Beaches community is going to continuously come out to support their business taco by taco, the co-owners deem it is finally time for a more inclusive menu.

“The biggest, most important thing to us has always been that people keep coming back to TacoLu. I’m not sure it’s because we make an effort to always support our community, but I’m sure that’s part of it,” Don emphasized. “If a vegan menu is what the Jacksonville community wants, a vegan menu is what the community gets.”