By Kathleen Reynolds
From the innovative culinary minds who brought Napa Heritage Eats, Napa Valley Lobster Co. and the Best Food Truck Ever, comes Mothers Tacos. ‘Mothers’ opened in January of this year at 3150 Jefferson Street in the Grape Yard Shopping Center, in the space formerly occupied by Pizza Hut.
Founded by husband-and-wife team Ben and Ali Koenig and their business partner Charles Whittaker, the idea for ‘Mothers’ was planted back in 2017 when the Koenigs visited Ali’s family in Mexico City. Another visit to CDMX (Mexico City) in 2022, this time with Whittaker, cemented the idea for the group. Through crispy slices of juicy meat over a handmade tortilla, topped with a slice of pineapple, diced onions, fresh cilantro, and spicy salsa, the trio immediately fell in love (or back in love) with the city’s taqueria culture and knew they wanted to bring that experience state-side.
Unlike other local Mexican establishments, the group behind ‘Mothers’ aims to be ‘taco puristas’ (Taco purists), by featuring a menu focused almost solely on the taco.
“Everyone has a version of tacos,” says Charles Whittaker, the growing hospitality group’s operating partner and Director of Operations. “It’s a universal food and we know that there is no shortage of tacos in Napa. Tacos from Mexico City have a certain edge, a certain vibe and flavor profile that we obsess over. We wanted to bring that experience to the Valley.”
“We are not aiming to be a typical stateside Mexican restaurant, where tacos are merely a component of a much larger menu,” says Ben. “To us, a taqueria needs handmade tortillas cooked fresh on a plancha, salsas made ‘from scratch’ every morning and meats marinated piece by piece. We have placed an overriding emphasis on flavor and quality across the menu, which we hope is apparent from everyone’s first bite.”
The group spent over eight months in recipe development and worked with a Mexico City native and James Beard award winning chef out of Austin throughout the process. The recipe development team also consisted of Anthony Calderon, lifelong chef and currently the General Manager of the group’s flagship restaurant, Heritage Eats.
“Tacos are hard,” says Ednha Landin, General Manager of ‘Mothers.’ “There is a great amount of nuance to a taco, despite the perceived simplicity, and we want to make sure we are staying true to our initial vision, putting out the best taco possible. We deliberately chose to not serve burritos, for example, or even tortilla chips. The focus of the menu means we can pour ourselves into the taco.”
The store has a fresh and clean décor reminiscent of a shop you might see in Mexico City. Walls are lined with white tile. Several brands of Mexican beers and soda stand in a self-serve chilled case. The team worked with Gospel Creative, a boutique branding and design firm out of Mexico City on the brand and interior design, with the goal of creating a taqueria vibe that could have its place on any number of the bustling streets of Mexico City.
The utilitarian Mexico City design of ‘Mothers’ is as ubiquitous as a diner style in America, steel and white tile, with accents of red and green.
“Tacos are meant to be for the ‘every man,’ a ‘working class’s’ food, so the vibe, space and price point needed to reflect that,” continued Ben. “The sounds of meat being chopped, the visual of the masa being balled, pressed and cooked on a plancha, the smell of roasting peppers and sizzling al pastor, and the upbeat music all contributes to what we feel should be an experience that appeals to every sense.”
As the Valley ascends out of one of the wettest winters in recent memory, the team is currently putting the finishing touches on plans to add a 1,000-square foot patio on the south side adjacent to their location.
“We have approved plans to expand our parklet on the side of the building,” says Charles. “We’re just waiting for the opportunity to build.”
Responding to local feedback, the culinary team is also planning to add off-cuts (Lengua, Tripa, Cabeza) to the menu in the Spring. They hope to appeal to the LatinX population and the more hardcore taco lovers in the Napa Valley.
The taco menu offers Pastor, shaved from the ‘trompo’; Suadero, which is slow cooked beef and CDMX staple; Chilorio, Sinaloan-style braised pork; Carne Asada, marinated grilled steak; Pollo Asado, chargrilled marinated chicken; Pescado, beer battered fish; and three vegetarian options, one vegan.
“Mothers Tacos was always meant to be a growth brand,” says Ben. “But we have no immediate plans to expand beyond Napa.”
“The most important thing to know is that we’re distilling the concept of authentic and craveable. We’re real and true to the concept, working non-stop to be the best we can.”
“One of our favorite things is having natives of Mexico City try our food. They’re tough critics and rightfully so. But after they’ve eaten their tacos and they look at us with eyes wide and say “uno mas,” we know we’ve done our job.”