The world’s largest tiny restaurant

T/aco spreads the holiday cheer

Photo by Susan France.

It’s been just over a decade since T/aco (1175 Walnut St.) first opened its doors near the corner of Broadway and Walnut in Boulder. The urban taqueria was established by DiningOut partners Josh Dinar, Jeff Suskin and Geoff Smith and debuted its straightforward street taco concept in May 2012. It’s since snowballed in popularity for its largely scratch-made menu of Mexico and California-inspired classics all set atop house-made tortillas.

Though it’s not only the food that has endeared
T/aco to the community. On any given night, the place is chock-full of devoted regulars who return multiple times a month to eat, drink and unwind in the compact and bustling dining room. “It’s the world’s largest tiny restaurant,” says managing partner Peter Waters with a grin.

Waters has been with the company since opening day and can still be found on-site, fully invested in keeping his managerial style decidedly boots-on-the-ground. He greets guests, makes margaritas and occasionally pops back to the kitchen to work the line. “My goal was always to put myself in the customer’s shoes. If I was a guest, what would I want,” he says.

While most places attempt to follow some version of this philosophy, T/aco has honed the subtle art of hospitality, employing the same level of service often reserved for more upscale establishments. Guests can expect a warm reception and attentive service delivered in an entirely unstuffy and jovial fashion. The heaping plates of tacos served family style don’t hurt either.

“Geoff was out in San Diego and saw the popularity of the modern taqueria,” says Waters. So with the help of opening chef Matt Collier — an area local who had been working at Chicago’s famed taco emporium Big Star — T/aco was built around a combination of tried-and-true classics like grilled cotija, fish and carnitas alongside out-of-the-box taco creations like buffalo chicken and duck mole. 

After Collier departed in late 2012, the chef-driven model was replaced by an all-cook kitchen and has continued to operate that way ever since, though Waters says the menu is still 60-70% the same as the opening list. “We’re kind of like a Chinese restaurant. You can’t take off the chicken fried rice,” he says. “There’s a 10-taco tie for third place,” he continues, noting that all the fan favorites will remain on the menu through a full reboot set for January.

Beginning in the new year, T/aco will reinstate a paper menu full of familiar gems alongside a secret digital menu of rotating specials that can only be accessed by QR codes stashed throughout the restaurant. New items will include a Philly cheese steak taco, a Korean pork belly taco and the “chicken sink,” topped with pineapple-marinated chicken, bacon, cheese and ranch dressing. The burritos, which became a popular to-go pivot during the height of the pandemic, will also grace the secret menu. 

Photo by Susan France.

In 2015, Waters decided it was time to start making the tortillas from scratch. The kitchen staff — an almost all-female ensemble, practically entirely from Zacatecas, Mexico — have been expertly producing the foundation since. “It was a big way these women were raised in Mexico that allows us to do this with such ease,” says Waters, noting that the only men in the kitchen are relatives of the existing staff who specifically handle prep while the ladies adeptly assemble the finished product. “It was this beehive. There are no training manuals,” he continues, explaining the synchronized dance executed by the longstanding employees.

Each December, Waters begins selling gift cards, with 100% of every gift certificate sold going directly to the kitchen staff and their families. “It helps us be more generous at the end of the day,” he says. The program was established six years ago as a response to a growing group of regulars who independently took interest in giving thanks to the hardworking crew. “I had guests who wanted to tip out the kitchen for the holidays,” he says, mentioning that guests would show up with envelopes full of cash meant to be handed directly to the cooks. “When people were being very generous, I wanted to give them gift cards.”

Since then, the big-heartedness has only grown. “The people who have an emotional connection to this place can give back without asking for a handout. It’s an opportunity for customers to feel emotionally attached,” says Waters. Close to 80% of all the gift cards T/aco sells each year are purchased in the month of December. “You don’t make it in this business that long unless you’re doing something right,” he continues.

“Matt Collier used to say, ‘I don’t want people waking up craving Mexican. I don’t want people waking up craving tacos. I want people waking up craving one of our tacos,’” Waters says. Items like the mushroom taco with rainbow chard, grilled cotija with pico de gallo and the barbecue pork taco with chipotle coleslaw, Oaxaca and cheddar cheeses, and diced tomato certainly have the power to become a lasting first choice. 

That the restaurant has been able to follow an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” model while taquerias cut from a similar cloth have become all the rage is a testament to just what can happen when staff and customers become family. In an industry where turnover is the norm, T/aco has managed to create a space where folks can expect continuity and quality. The holiday special is simply an added bonus for staff.

Going forward, Waters is looking forward to introducing the new menu and devoting additional attention to the growing catering side of the business: “I’m excited to be bringing the T/aco experience outside the restaurant.”