Chef and owner, David Wright talks about his love of Mexican food and the journey to opening his new Uptown hotspot, Del Fuego Taqueria.
Food is synonymous with New Orleans culture and as the city changes, it’s exciting to see the culinary culture evolve with it. Twenty years ago, you’d never walk down Magazine Street looking for a great taco joint, and nowadays you can’t drive past Juan’s Flying Burrito without spotting groups of hungry customers waiting for a table.
Chef David Wright – an avid lover of Mexican cuisine, sensed the shift a few years ago when he began the process of opening Del Fuego Taqueria.
Wright grew up in Napa Valley, California and from an early age he recalls loving Mexican food above all other kinds of cuisine.
“It was always the requested food on my birthday every year,” he says. “I can’t tell you how old I was, I just know it was a love affair from the first time I ate it.”
Throughout his culinary career, Wright followed a traditional fine dining path, but his love of Mexican food kept creeping back into his mind.
“I never had a chance to cook in a Mexican restaurant because I was on a fine dining route throughout my cooking career,” he says. “I wanted to open my own restaurant and I had a couple of ideas, but Mexican was always kind of number one in my head.”
In an attempt to compromise with his passion and his sensible culinary upbringing, Wright decided to combine his fine dining ideals with his love of Mexican culinary culture, and he discovered that this marriage of ideas worked for him.
“What I wanted to do was take the street food aspect of it, but kind of apply a fine dining mentality, where everything is fresh, everything is made from scratch – even the tortillas,” he explains. “Mexican food isn’t generally considered fine dining, although that’s changing. It’s considered street food, but if you travel through Mexico, you’ll find out that’s totally untrue.”
As for the name they chose, Del Fuego translates to “of the fire” or “from the fire,” in Spanish, which Wright felt was fitting to describe the process of cooking and the spicy character Mexican food often showcases. The phrase, however might also be used to describe the tumultuous journey he and partner Shannon Soloman took in opening their restaurant.
Wright and Soloman knew they wanted an Uptown location and in 2010 began scouting areas like Oak Street, Freret Street, Maple Street and Magazine Street to no avail. It wasn’t until their realtor brought them to a decrepit old building next to Brothers Three Lounge on Magazine Street, 18 months later, that they found their new home; although it took some time to warm up to it.
“We walked inside and I looked at my realtor and said, ‘why did you bring me here?’ ” Wright says, with a chuckle. “I walked into the downstairs and it looked like an episode of Hoarders.”
After a while, Wright and Soloman began to see the potential of the space and signed a lease a couple months later. They then had to gut the building and do a complete renovation, which Wright admits made him nervous.
“We designed the entire space, which is cool but also scary at the same time because if something turns out to not work, then it’s all our fault,” he says.
It took some time for them to complete the renovation, and go through the lengthy, seven month, red-tape-heavy permitting process. But with their persistent attitude, and a little bit of elbow grease, (Wright knocked a few walls down himself,) they opened their doors in June of this year.
“I was at City Hall at 3:00 p.m. the day of our soft opening and that was the day they actually put the liquor license in my hand,” Wright says. “I hopped in the car, walked into our door like, ‘we got it!’”
As for funding, Del Fuego got a loan from New Corp Business Assistance Center, which Wright praises as a great alternative source for small business owners who may have a hard time qualifying for a traditional SBA loan.
Even with a successful opening in June, Del Fuego has faced a few challenges, the most surprising of which has been perfecting their tortillas.
“I lost sleep over it the first few weeks,” Wright admits. “There were nights when the tortillas weren’t good and I never thought that that would be one of the most difficult challenges. We spent enough on the machine, I wasn’t just about to chuck it and start buying tortillas.”
A few tortilla fumbles aside, Del Fuego’s 1,300 square-foot restaurant has been well received by the neighborhood. Wright says that many of their customers are locals who come on foot and almost all of them come back.
“We have a lot of repeat customers, which is very flattering,” he says. And as the weather cools down, Chef Wright is excited to explore some new menu options.
Pozole lovers can expect this steamy Mexican favorite to hit the menu in the coming months and the restaurant will be offering some family-friendly fun during Dia de los Muertos weekend (November 1 and 2) when kids can come decorate sugar skulls while mom and dad enjoy a margarita.
As for this new wave of NOLA-style Mexican food, Wright is excited and optimistic.
“I think the time is right for it,” he says. “People are interested in Mexican cuisine and want to go beyond the basic tacos and burritos. Mexico is a huge country with dozens of microclimates, and the food in all of those microclimates can be vastly different. I’m excited to learn more and turn that knowledge into delicious food.”
Del Fuego Taqueria 4518 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70115 Lunch 11-3 p.m. Monday-Saturday, Dinner 5-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday