Probably the hottest place in terms of restaurant buzz in the Des Moines area over the past couple three years has been Tacopocalypse, a unique Mexican/Korean-fusion spot that livens up the basic taco with fillings such as lemongrass pork, bacon chorizo, and Korean Chicken. Tacopocalypse's larger-than-life- owner Sam Auen is finally getting to do things in a restaurant his way. So much has been written about Tacopocalypse over the past few years that I'm not certain I can add anything to say. But I'm still gonna give it a try...
Sam Auen grew up in Denison, IA in west central Iowa. He spent a lot of his early youth with his grandmother who was a devoted fan of chefs Julia Child and Jeff Smith (The Frugal Gourmet) and their shows on PBS. By the age of 6, young Sam already had come up with his own pancake batter recipe. By his teens, he was working in an Asian restaurant in Denison learning about the basic Korean foods that he employs in his food at Tacopocalypse.
Pictured right - Sam Auen. Photo courtesy Des Moines Register.
By 18, Auen - a self described punk rocker, metal-head and skateboard dude - had a kid and he decided that he needed to get some structure in his life. He ended up joining the Army and was stationed in Tennessee for three years. Auen once said that the Army got him ready for life working in a restaurant kitchen because he got yelled at all the time.
After getting out of the Army, Auen's father died in the 90's and he went on a long road down drinking problems, drug abuse and a failed marriage. He found himself working in - ironically - a Taco Bell restaurant when the bottom hit. Pulling himself up, Auen worked his way through a series of restaurant jobs before he got hired to work in the kitchen in the contemporary Italian restaurant Cafe di Scala in Des Moines. While working at Cafe di Scala, Auen signed on at the now closed Beggars Banquet, an old fashioned deli in downtown Des Moines. Sam Auen caught the eye of many with his "outside-the-box" thinking with some of his food items, and also his tempestuous behavior in the kitchen.
From Cafe di Scala and Beggars Banquet, Auen was hired by George Formaro to work in the kitchen at two of his places - Centro and Gateway Market. Auen, who was a vegan at that time, took some of his ideas into the Centro Kitchen and Formaro let him run with it. Auen showed Formaro that vegan food could be interesting and flavorful. But one of the more interesting things about Auen - he never tasted non-vegan foods while he prepared them. Formaro was incredulous when Auen told him that he never tasted the non-vegan food. In fact, no one tasted the food as he prepared it. But the flavors in the food he was preparing were simply outstanding to Formaro. To this day, Formaro still is amazed the control of flavors that Auen displayed during his time at Centro.
After a short stint at Zen, a sushi bar located in the lobby of the Kirkwood Hotel in downtown Des Moines that closed in early 2010, Auen decided to go the route of tacos and try some ideas that he had fusing Korean and Mexican food together. He decided to try out some of his ideas at the Cumming Tap located in Cumming, a small town just south of Des Moines. The Cumming Tap is a popular destination for bicyclists who use the Great Western bike trail between Des Moines and Cumming. On Tuesday nights, Auen would set up shop and serve his tacos. The tacos were outstanding and Auen gained a following for his Taco Tuesdays (which also garnered him a "cease and desist" letter from Taco John's).
Auen set up shop on Saturday's at the Des Moines Farmers Market (click here to see the Road Tips entry on the Des Moines Farmers Market). However, that didn't last more than a couple of years as Auen - always one to test the boundaries of not only food, but life itself - and the organizers didn't quite see eye-to-eye on matters. From there, Auen entered an agreement to sell his tacos in the bar at the old Bombay Bicycle Club in suburban Clive. When that place was sold and the new owners didn't want to renew the business relationship, Auen was more than ready to open his own place.
He found a building on Des Moines Ave. on the north end of Des Moines' East Village. Success came in a big bang for Auen and he found that the little place was too confining - not only for him, but for his customers. He then found a larger place about three blocks away in the heart of the East Village on East 5th Street (see map) and that's where he is today. Tacopocalypse's success has given Auen a chance to branch out. In April, Auen opened Krunkwich Ramen House in his old location on Des Moines Ave. (see map). And I've heard that he is looking to open a pizza place somewhere in the East Village sometime this summer.
I had just driven in from Minneapolis that day around 1:30 p.m. and had a 2 p.m. appointment with a dealer who was not far from Tacopocalypse. I found a parking spot across the street and went into the restaurant housed in a nondescript building on E. 5th St. The inside could be best described as being rather utilitarian with sort of a contemporary industrial vibe to the place. It's comfortable, but not fancy or pretentious at all. A smattering of young urban hipsters and business people were having lunch when I was there.
The front counter is where you order your food that is made in the open kitchen off to the side. The menu is on a board behind the counter. They also have a "B.O.D." a.k.a. the Burrito of the Day at Tacopocalypse - that day's offering was a ginger chicken with fried potatoes. It sounded interesting enough that I almost ordered that. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Sam Auen, but he wasn't there. (When I told my dealer later on that I had lunch at Tacopocalypse, he asked if Sam was there. I told him that I didn't see him, so my dealer said, "Sometimes you hear Sam and don't see him." I didn't hear Sam either, so we surmised he probably wasn't there.)
But I was there for the tacos and I wanted to try a couple different ones on my maiden trip to Tacopocalypse. One of the items on the menu was a Bulgogi taco. I'm not familiar in the least with Korean food and I had to ask the young girl behind the counter what Bulgogi was. It's tender beef that is marinated in Bulgogi sauce - basically sesame, garlic and soy sauce - and then grilled. I came about *this* close to pulling the trigger on one of those until I saw the wasabi brisket. Ooooo.... Wasabi and brisket - two of my favorite things in life! I had to have one of those. And if you're a regular reader of Road Tips, you know that I love pork carnitas. Tacopocalypse has a braised pork taco that was just screaming for me to order it. I figured that I could get a couple tacos and if I wanted a third one - probably the Bulgogi - I could go back and order one.
There's no alcoholic beverages served at Tacopocalypse, so don't think about even ordering a margarita or a Corona. I ended up getting a water out of the dispenser and picked up a couple tubs of the hot sauce they have near the drink counter.
The tacos weren't all that large and void of stuff that hides the taste of the meat. The wasabi brisket had a wasabi sauce added to it and it had just enough of a spicy bite to grab your attention. It was simply an exciting taste sensation. The brisket was tender and flavorful on its own. The soft corn tacos - made in-house - held together very well and gave the overall taste of the taco a fresh and authentic flavor.
I didn't know how the braised pork taco was going to top the wasabi brisket taco, but it came close. The marinade they use for the braised pork also gave it a bit of a spicy taste, but you still got the succulent flavor of the pork with each bite. It, too, was an interesting taste. But I would call the wasabi brisket taco the winner between the two.
I had to get going to my appointment so I only had the two tacos, but that was more than enough for me. I admire Sam Auen for his creativity and for taking Mexican food in a different direction. (Or did he take Korean food in a different direction?) But, I have to say that I went away somewhat disappointed. I mean, the tacos were tasty and interesting. However, I had read so many write-ups on line over the past few years about how the tacos at Tacopocalypse were "end-of-the-world" great. I was led to believe they were by others who've been there before. I thought they were very good and interesting, but not the best I've had. But Tacopocalypse also left me somewhat intrigued enough with some of their other offerings - such as the Bulgogi taco - that I'll have to go back at some point.