Mexican
My Mexican Story: Why Boston Taco-preneur Max Toste’s Old Bandmates Used to Call Him “The Maxican”
The Lone Star Taco Bar co-owner talks agave obsession, his mother’s huevos rancheros, and Mexican street food dreams.
04-18-2017
Terrence Doyle

A version of this interview originally appeared on AmericasTestKitchenFeed.com on April 13th, 2015.


 

Co-owners Aaron Sanders and Max Toste opened Deep Ellum—a bar at which one can procure a classic cocktail or a brunch that consists of, among other things, duck confit hash—back in 2007. After five years and a wildly successful venture later, the duo decided to open Lone Star Taco Bar in 2012. Lone Star is where Bostonians go for the smoky taste of mezcal, and for tacos reminiscent of the ones peddled by street food vendors in Mexico or the famed taco trucks of Los Angeles.

I recently caught up with Toste to talk about Mexican street food, top-notch tequila, and his southern Californian roots. Here’s what he had to say.

Where does your passion for Mexican food come from?

I lived in California when I was a little kid, and I was kind of weaned on Mexican food. I moved there when I was a baby and grew up, until kindergarten age, eating tons of Mexican food. It was very formative for me—beans and rice and tacos, that sort of thing. 

I’d spent some time in Mexico years back, and when I was on tour with my band years ago one of the guys called me “The Maxican” because I would find Mexican food everywhere we went.

How did Deep Ellum, and then Lone Star Taco Bar, come about?

We’d [he and co-owner Sanders] been looking around for our own thing, and we found what is now Deep Ellum. And the idea with Deep Ellum was to make the most awesome neighborhood bar we could make. Basically, we opened a gastropub without knowing it. I didn’t know what a gastropub was, but apparently I opened one.

So, fast forward a few years, things go well, we build a back patio—the landlord is eager to get us to take over the space next door. There had been a few failed locations in there, and we didn’t want to expand Deep Ellum—we liked the size, we liked the feel of the bar, we were busy all of the time. We felt like expanding would be a mistake, that it would mess with the bar. But, more time goes by and the landlord is still eager to get us in there.

So what happened next?

It becomes open again—and at this point I’d become completely obsessed with agave distillate. We’d had a couple of taco parties on the deck at Deep Ellum. It was really fun, and we did all of these margarita variations, and it kind of got us thinking about other ideas for things.

So, we’re hanging out one day at pre-meal—and I’d been on a real cooking kick. I went to the bodega down the street, got some masa harina, a little tortilladora, and I was making tortillas and tacos and a little pitcher of margaritas for the staff that night. I was on the bar—this is back when we had a smaller staff and I was on the bar a lot—and we’re sitting around: One of the gals that was working from me who was from Los Angeles; Evan, who worked for us at the time and was from Austin; and Dave, who was working that night and grew up in Arkansas and Dallas, were all like, “Damn, these are great tacos.”

Was that when you knew you guys should be occupying the space next door?

It was sort of a lightbulb moment, and this was right around the same time the the space next door was becoming available again. Basically we said, “Let’s do something different next door that will not compete with what we’re doing, and that will work in the neighborhood.” So I went and wrote my dream menu, and I wanted to promote Mexican street food. We’re bar people; that’s what we do, we run bars. I didn’t want a sit-down restaurant feel. So I thought, “Well, tequila, mezcal, Mexican street food. It will be super fun. It’s a small space, so even if not everyone gets it—well, who cares? There are only 48 seats, whatever. I don’t have to get 100 people a night to get it, I only have to get 48 people at a time to get it.”

What about the drinks?

Developing the cocktail side, it was all about bigger, juicier, more refreshing drinks [than we have at Deep Ellum]. Developing the bar program was really fun—bringing in all of the best mezcal and tequila that I could find. Really having a well-edited selection.

What inspired the menu at Lone Star?

I sat down and wrote my dream Mexican street food menu, with a few specific things that I had grown up making and grown up eating. My mom had learned how to make a few Mexican dishes, and we always grew up eating huevos rancheros on Christmas morning. The ranchero sauce we use at Lone Star is loosely based on the one that my mom used to make. It’s got more chiles in it—more depth of flavor—but it’s inspired by that. And that was the thing that made me start thinking about how to develop the menu, layers of flavor. And that’s the real difference with proper Mexican food. It’s deceptively simple—if you look at our menu there are very few different ingredients—but there’s a lot of use of chiles.

In what way do different chiles contribute to depth of flavor in Mexican cuisine?

Say you have chile de arbol, chile ancho, chile pasilla, chile guajillo, serranos and poblanos—you’ve got a lot of chiles, but it’s not necessarily going to be spicy. That’s not the point. The point is that it has layers of flavor—the depth of flavors you get from the raisiny quality of an ancho, the smoky earthiness of guajillo, and then the bright vegetal quality of serrano and poblano, and so on. That’s where you build your flavor, and the whole menu was designed to recreate the flavors that I had [experienced], but filtered through my own head. It wasn’t necessarily recipes from the old country; it was a lot of inferring.

The beef barbacoa is one of the most popular tacos at Lone Star—how did that recipe come about?

Rian [Wyllie], our chef, is really great and has a ton of experience braising and smoking stuff—a big part of Deep Ellum’s menu. He’s got a real gift for charcuterie and dealing with meat. So, I had this idea for a barbacoa taco, and the idea was, “Ok, we’re going to make it with brisket,” which is not necessarily traditional. Barbacoa is more of an idea than it is a specific thing. Barbacoa can be a goat that’s rubbed down with spices and thrown into a pit with hot rocks and covered for a day; then you dig it up and have a party. That’s kind of what barbacoa came from. To interpret that in the kitchen I thought, “We make corned beef for our reubens [at Deep Ellum], and he’s cooked a corned beef pretty much every day for five years, so this guy knows his way around a brisket. ‘Alright Rian, let’s cure it, smoke it, and braise it, and then you run with that idea.’” And he just knocked it out of the park.

Who developed your carnitas recipe?

I worked on carnitas in my kitchen for almost that whole summer before we opened—I must have made 50 pounds of carnitas, just wanting to get it properly confited right, and the right seasoning, and the right chile verde flavor.

Whose idea was it to put sour cream in the guacamole?

My mom always used to add sour cream to her guac, so that was kind of the secret ingredient.

What would you say is the key to the success you’ve experienced in Boston?

You start with an idea, you start with recipes, and you deconstruct them and then put them back together in a way that makes them the best. I have an idea what the perfect carnitas taco is going to taste like, and now I have to make that a reality.

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