Wapo Taco! opens first US restaurant in Hallandale

Dishes made al pastor and the smell of sizzling charcoal will mark the opening of Wapo Taco!, a new taqueria chain that debuts its first U.S. location in Hallandale Beach this weekend.

The franchise is an American version of restaurant chain El Farolito, which serves tacos at over 20 locations in Mexico and has been in business for half a century.

"It's a family venture," said Luis Musi, a 28-year-old co-owner of Wapo Taco! whose uncles and other family members run El Farolito. "Older generations were used to Mexico and weren't interested in bringing it to the United States."

That changed when Emmanuel Garcia, a 32-year-old Puerto Rican chef and entrepreneur, visited one of El Farolito's locations in Mexico City and struck a deal with Musi, his cousin Francisco and two Mexican designers to bring the concept to American customers.

They chose to start their venture in South Florida because it's not as "saturated" with taquerias as other areas like Texas or California, according to Garcia.

"Florida has a huge Hispanic population, and there aren't a lot of independent restaurants like this one," said Garcia, who also owns the BurgerFi next to the taqueria, located in the Diplomat Mall on Hallandale Beach Blvd.

With an "Americanized" name, modern design and $500,000 investment, the owners of Wapo Taco! aim to serve traditional plates paired with sides like fresh salsa, chunky homemade guacamole and even MexiCoke, a Mexican version of the soft drink that is made with sugar cane instead of corn syrup.

The group expects to open a flagship location in Coral Gables this month, which will be three times as big as the 40-person location in Hallandale Beach. Another location at the Caesar's Palace Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas is also in the works.

In contrast to its Mexican counterpart, Wapo Taco! will feature table service as well as a bar-type seating area. "In Mexico, people just stand at the bar and order, and there is no host," said Luis Musi.

In order to incoporate the informal dining experience of Mexican taquerias, servers bring plates to customers as soon as they're ready to be eaten, instead of waiting for full orders to be delivered at once. This allows customers to share their foods and try different plates, most of which can be eaten without silverware, Garcia said.

"Tacos are a social food," he added.

The restaurant's colorful, pixel-inspired interior design was the work of Hector Esrawe and Ignacio Cadena, two Mexican designers who wanted to step away from the traditional look of El Farolito.

"We want to represent an image of Mexico where contemporary design also rules," Cadena said in a phone interview.

The walls of Wapo Taco! are inspired by weaving patterns of Oaxaca craftsmen, he said, and its branding caters to an American market accostumed to products that feel both authentic and new.

mfelix@tribune.com or Twitter @mj_felix

If you go

The new chain of taquerias will open its first U.S. location this weekend at 1955 Hallandale Beach Blvd. in Hallandale Beach, with a soft opening Friday and an official one Saturday. Another location will open in Coral Gables by the end of the year.

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