-10 Questions with Taco Zone's Brad Shanks by Joanna Hlavacek, Lawrence, Journal World

In our second installment of 10 Questions, Taco Zone co-owner, general manager and one-time rocker Brad Shanks (formerly of the indie outfit Blood On The Wall) chats about life after Replay Lounge, the surprising popularity of the tongue taco, and brotherly (in-law) love.

Each month, we're asking 10 questions to a different chef, restaurateur or Lawrence dining personality.

In this case, we're willing to give a pass on what counts as "10" and "questions."

Taco Zone started out as a food stand at the Replay Lounge, which has a pretty raucous vibe, as anyone who’s been there knows. Do you ever miss that dive-bar atmosphere?

I love that place and a lot of my friends work there, and I worked there as a bartender for a long time as well. I do miss being there. It’s a lot of fun — you know, on weekends, there’d be like, 5, 6, 700 people going in through that door, so it was always pretty wild. And it was a really great way for us to get our name out. People would show up to see a show and have some drinks, and then they’d see us in the corner and they’d try some tacos, and they’d keep coming back. So it worked out really well.

Is that how you got your start in the service industry, as a bartender at Replay?

I’ve bartended at other places, too. But that was my last job before I started Taco Zone. I’ve also worked at 715 as a bartender. So, two different places. (laughs)

With totally different ambiances. But bartending is bartending, right? Did you ever have any experiences as a bartender where people would just pour their hearts out to you?

A great bartender is a good listener. That didn’t happen that often, but there were people who would come in and want to chat. Usually, pretty interesting people (tell) interesting stories. I was always there to listen.

You tout yourself on the Taco Zone website as Lawrence’s first Southern California-style taqueria...

That was our inspiration for Taco Zone — Southern California-style taquerias. My brother-in-law (chef and co-owner Brian Ayers) and my sister (Courtney Shanks), who’s also a partner in Taco Zone, actually have this really great story. They reconnected in Los Angeles and started dating again after dating years and years ago. They ended up moving in together and getting married, and I’d go out to visit them all the time. They’d take me to these amazing taquerias all around Southern California. It was my favorite thing to do. So, when they decided to move back to the area, Courtney was asking what Lawrence needed or didn’t have, and I was like, “One of those Southern California-style taquerias would be amazing. We don’t have one of those.” This is our version of it, basically.

Compared to what people around here might be used to as far as Mexican restaurants in the Midwest, some of your menu is kind of exotic — your oxtail posole, I know, has done really well. Do you think people’s tastes are evolving?

I think so. Maybe there’s more opportunity in Lawrence than there used to be a while back, I guess. Well, maybe that’s not the best way to explain it. I would just say people are more open to trying out new things as they find out about them, really. It’s kind of like, if you don’t know about our guisado style of braising meats, why would you stop eating some other kind of Mexican food? I think people in Lawrence are very open-minded to new food opportunities, and it’s just growing and growing. I guess that answers your question. I don’t know, probably not. I drank a lot of coffee today. (laughs)

Don’t worry about it. Could you explain guisado for people who don’t know?

Guisado just means "to stew" or slowly braise. Brian’s passion is slow-braising meats, so it translated really well to the guisado style, which is really just slow-cooking meat for hours and hours and introducing new flavors and in the end you come up with our different kinds of fillings. It’s just a really great way to add a lot of flavor to meats that aren’t necessarily your typical thing. Like, we do a lot of lengua with roasted pepper and onions…

...Lengua meaning tongue.

Yeah, it’s tongue. It’s not your typical thing you’d find on just any menu. But the guisado style of just slowly cooking it and introducing these roasted pepper and onions really adds this heightened flavor to it that’s a little spicy and something you might not have experienced before.

And people are fans of the lengua?

It’s been amazing. We’re calling ourselves a taqueria, we are a taqueria, and we’re realizing, “OK, you can’t really say you’re a taqueria unless you have lengua on the menu.” We started off just getting people to try it, but I swear, from the moment we started serving the lengua to where it is now, it’s just jumped so far. People are ordering it more and more. And since we give you an option of three tacos, you can always pick three kinds. A lot of people have just been saying, “Oh, I’ll try the lengua,” and the next thing you know, they’re ordering three lengua tacos, you know? Because it is really, really tasty.

Your restaurant isn’t the only one around Lawrence to have made the transition from pop-up to brick-and-mortar in recent years. Was it about this concept of temporary dining options — pop-ups and trucks and the like — that’s become so huge lately?

Gosh, it’s hard to say. With food trucks, you have more of a freedom and opportunity to try things out. Same thing with small spots like this — having our stand on the Replay patio was kind of like, “Well, we only have enough room to make four tacos. Let’s make the best four tacos we can make.” You’re constantly trying to switch things up and challenge people with your food and see if anybody likes it, really. And in our case at the stand, we had such great feedback and great response that we felt really comfortable making this jump to opening our first brick-and-mortar spot.

You’ve been pretty clear that you’re not the chef in this endeavor. Have you learned to cook at all since opening the restaurant? I cook at home just like anybody else. Sometimes it’s good; sometimes it’s bad. But Brian actually started his first cooking job at Herbivore's, which was an old vegetarian restaurant just two doors down from here. Then he got a Julia Child scholarship from going to Johnson County (Community College) for culinary school, and then he went to Le Cordon Bleu in France. He graduated there at the top of his class, and he’s cooked in Michelin star restaurants and he’s been all over the world — he’s cooked in Australia, New York, D.C., Philadelphia. He’s been doing this for over 20 years. And then there’s me, Bartender Brad, who’s worked in some restaurants. I’ve brought some of my own knowledge to the table, but I’m learning a lot from him. I feel pretty lucky and honored that he’s my brother-in-law and that we’re doing it together, because without the food, what d’ya got, really? (laughs)

When you’re not at the restaurant, where do you like to eat?

I really love Leeway Franks. They’re similar to us in that they’re a small little spot trying to do their thing. Their food is incredible. When I was at 715, I used to say, “It’s so nice to work at a restaurant where you want to come and eat or stay for a while after you get off work.” I love that place. I love the Burger Stand a lot. I think what they’re doing over there is just perfect. It’s exactly where I want to go to watch a game and eat a burger. I love Hank Charcuterie, I love 1900 Barker, and Alchemy Coffee’s really cool as well. I love their breakfast sandwiches there in the morning on the weekends…so good. Little Saigon Café out on 23rd Street — I love that spot as well. I could go on and on. Which is nice, because I think about being in Lawrence while I was in school, which was, oh gosh, 20 years ago, and our options were like, (now-defunct downtown bar) G. Willikers. There were very few spots. There was Free State, and that was it.

You mean as far as fine-dining options go?

Yeah, basically. I love that place, too. Their beers are incredible. I could go on and on.

Note: Not wanting to leave anyone out, Shanks later added via email that he enjoys the coconut donuts at Ladybird Diner.

-Taco Zone Will Open a Permanent Spot in Downtown Lawrence by Sarah Gish, The Kansas City Star

Taco Zone, a pop-up taco shop at Lawrence’s Replay Lounge, soon will have a permanent spot in the Kansas college town.

Brad Shanks and brother-in-law Brian Ayers launched Taco Zone a year ago. The weekends-only stand serves tacos stuffed with slow-braised meats prepared by Ayers, a classically trained chef.

Fillings rotate weekly, but favorites include green chile chicken, chorizo and potato, grilled corn and black bean and cochinita pibil — slow-roasted pork shoulder wrapped in banana leaves.

Taco Zone started as an experiment.

“We wanted to see if we could have a spot in the food scene here,” Shanks says, “and it went really well.”

Now the business duo is preparing to open a permanent shop at 13 E. 8th St.

Shanks says the new Taco Zone will be “a glorified taco stand” where customers will order and pick up food at the counter. The expanded menu will feature made-from-scratch aguas frescas, burritos, tortas, quesadillas, and chips and guacamole.

“It’s not a bar, but we will carry a very small selection of beers and a margarita,” Shanks says.

The roughly 1,000-square-foot space is still under construction. Shanks and Ayers are targeting mid-April for an opening date.

Shanks is still finalizing Taco Zone’s hours, but he says the shop will be open for lunch and dinner every day except for Monday, when it’ll be closed. Taco Zone will likely stay open until 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday — so it could become a late-night dining destination for bar hoppers.

Don’t worry, Replay regulars: Taco Zone’s pop-up taqueria will still be posted at the bar on weekends. The stand is open on Friday and Saturday evenings and will expand to Sundays in April.

-Taco Zone Plans to Open Downtown Restaurant by Chad Lawhorn, Lawrence Journal World

Eons ago when I was in college, taco night meant 33 cent tacos at the Taco Tico. You would put $10 on the counter, your belt on the table, and settle in for a couple of hours of gastronomical delight. But that doesn’t appear to be the college taco scene anymore, and we all may get to check it out for ourselves soon enough. The Taco Zone, a business that got its start serving upscale late-night tacos in Lawrence bars, has inked a deal to open a downtown restaurant of its own.

Documents filed at City Hall show that the Taco Zone has filed plans to remodel a vacant storefront at 13 E. Eighth St. to accommodate a new restaurant. The location is a couple doors down from the Sandbar and is in what used to be an e-cigarette shop.

“It is definitely going to be a regular brick and mortar store,” said Brad Shanks, who co-owns the business with his brother in-law Brian Ayers. “It will allow us to expand our menu a bit.”

Shanks said he expects the restaurant to open in early spring, but was shy about sharing other details for the business’ plans at the moment.

Taco Zone got started by serving tacos on the patio of the Replay Lounge in downtown Lawrence. Shanks said the plan is for the Taco Zone to continue serving at the Replay, but the Eighth Street restaurant will broaden its market.

It looks like the Taco Zone has a menu that changes frequently, but it definitely isn’t Taco Tico fare. (Which is probably good because about $8 into a night at Taco Tico you would begin to remember what put the “ico” in Tico.) The Taco Zone’s Facebook page lists dishes such as Salsa Verde Braised Pork, Chicken Tinga, Chili Rojo Beef and Sweet Potato, and a Chicken and Chorizo taco.

Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/chow-town/article15488981.html#storylink=cpy

- Taco Zone, Replay Lounge, Lawrence, KS by Keith C., The Inspired Tastebud

-May 24, 2014

In the most unlikely of places in the town of Lawrence, Ks lies a golden gem for fans of classic New Mexican style taquieras.  The Taco Zone is humbly located in the corner of the Replay Lounge, an alternative bar located off Mass and 8th street.  The food is simply spectacular.  Slowly braised for hours, they offer traditional proteins like Chile Rojo Beef and Yucutan Pork that detonate on the palatte with exciting, complex, well-layered flavors.  Those suffering from mental disorders which prevent the consumption of meat will find that the vegetarian menu is exceptionally well crafted and offers meatless tacos which are extroardinarly palatable and have clearly had the same care and expert attention given to them as any of the other menu items they offer.

The ambience suffers greatly due to the bar atmosphere and the Taco Zone operates during bar hours which require a cover just to get to the ordering counter.  Tacos are served on flimsy paper plates and there are often no places to sit and eat unless you show up earlier than the crowds.  This is a minor and forgiveable atrocity as the Taco Zone consistently delivers food which  would easily justify a white table cloth and a bill twice as heavy on the pocket.

Service is excellent and kitchen processes have been streamlined down to a one man show.  They now accept credit and debit cards and prices are incredible given the quality and taste of the tacos they are peddling.  Patrons can expect to be full for under 10 bucks a head and as of this writing 6 bones will get you three tacos of your choice from a weekly rotating menu of 3 meat and 1 vegetarian receipes, a small portion of spicy pickled vegetables and a small compliment of a house made smoked habanero chile sauce which will significantly kick up the heat quotient on anything it touches, including human eyeballs so watch the fingers.

The Taco Zone rates 4 out of 5 tastebuds for delivering incredible tacos which double as $6 dollar plane tickets to the best taquieras in the heart of Alberquerque.  This is a must try for anyone who enjoys chile spice and the vegetarian menu provides an actual option for diners which isn’t just a second thought to appease picky eaters.  The Taco Zone will have trouble attracting diners who don’t want to push through a sea of bar-goers, but the food is so good its easy to envision the future opening of a permanent location which can offer more seating and an overall more enjoyable dining experience.  -KC

- Best of Lawrence, Best Tacos of 2014

- Best Bar Bites: Bar None by Sarah Gish, Ink Magazine

"Take it from Lawrence locals: The best nights out on Mass Street begin and end with great grub."

Taco Zone

"The first rule of Taco Zone is that you don’t talk about Taco Zone.

'A lot of people say, ‘We love your food, but we don’t tell anybody about it because we don’t want the secret to get out,'says Brad Shanks, who co-owns Taco Zone with his brother-in-law Brian Ayers.

The pop-up taqueria serves authentic Mexican tacos filled with slow-braised meats prepared by Ayers, a classically trained chef who recently moved to Lawrence from Los Angeles. Taco selections vary by the week, but there’s always a beef, pork, chicken and vegetarian option.

Taco Zone’s recent recipes have included green chile chicken, chorizo and potato, grilled corn and black bean, and cochinita pibil, slow-roasted pork shoulder wrapped in banana leaves.

'That one’s a big hit,' Shanks says of the cochinita pibil, which is served on a warm corn tortilla with pickled red onions and cilantro.'"

-Future Food Wonders by Sara Shepherd, Lawrence Journal World

Looking for the next iconic Lawrence menu items

"Al pastor, chicken tinga, calabacitas, cochinita pibil -- suddenly the Replay patio is so... global.

The poularity of these Mexican street tacos, served 'til 2 a.m. on Replay's back patio, has snowballed since Taco Zone started up in March.  The selection changes nightly and features some authentic Mexican staples, some new interpretations and some veggie options

Maybe a food stand on the Replay patio won't stick around another 20 years. But wouldn't it be cool if it did?"

-Kitchen Convo: At Taco Zone in Lawrence, KS by Mathew Klickstein, Ink Magazine

Brad Shanks is babysitting an infant for the first time ever. “How do I keep the baby alive?” he laughs, with a hint of adorable mania.

He can figure it out. He’s a clever man, after all. One who has devised an innovative way to put out one hell of a taco.

It’s at Taco Zone, a semi-permanent enclave of the Replay Lounge, where you’ll find Shanks serving up his brand of sizzling “gourmet street food.” It’s a branch of dining that’s receiving attention with emerging personalities like Roy Choi (largely credited as the father of the movement) and Jon Favreau’s “Chef,” a comedy-drama about food trucks released earlier this year.

Shanks, who credits brother-in-law Brian Ayers with being Taco Zone’s “culinary expert who actually creates the recipes,” remains endearingly humble about the craze that has no sign of slowing down.