Robbinsville’s restaurant scene is set for a boost when the successful TacoRito restaurant opens a second location in Town Center this spring.
The new BYOB will have plenty of seating for casual dining in. But it should also enhance Robbinsville’s take-out scene, joining the likes of DeLorenzo’s Tomato Pies, PaPa’s Pizza, Dolce and Clemente’s and Yummy Sushi as ready options for locals on nights when they just don’t feel like cooking.
Restaurateur Sam Zheng opened the original TacoRito on Main Street in Hightstown in 2014. Inspired by the success of the Chipotle Tex-Mex chain, he set out to create a restaurant similar in style, but with a more traditional menu and vibe. He hired a cook to help him develop a small menu to open with — 15 items that were light on Tex, heavy on Mex.
The food was good, Zheng says, but business wasn’t great in the first year. Hightstown and surrounding East Windsor were already served by a number of traditional Mexican restaurants, and competition was fierce.
Facing the possibility that he would have to close, Zheng added a variety of new items to the menu that he hoped would prove popular enough to keep him in business. Though he isn’t a trained chef, he knows what he likes to eat, and used his own tastes to come up with new offerings. He concocted “crazy” versions of his quesadillas, empanadas and nachos, and “TacoRito” versions of his baja tacos, burritos and rice bowls to tempt customers.
TacoRito’s empanadas, for example, were pretty traditional in preparation: ground beef or shredded chicken and cheese, stuffed in a tortilla and deep fried. For his crazy empanadas, Zheng adds chipotle mayo and sour cream to the mix, along with a creamy avocado sauce for dipping.
For his TacoRito tacos, Zheng took the traditional baja tacos — grilled shrimp or fried fish topped with shredded cabbage, pineapple, salsa verde, corn, tomato, jalapeño, cilantro and guacamole — and gave them a twist. TacoRito tacos substitute out the corn and pineapple for creamy chile verde and chipotle mayo.
Customers responded very well to the new menu items. So well, in fact, that just a few years down the road, Zheng is ready to open his second location in Robbinsville.
“You have to do something different in order to compete,” Zheng says. “We took the Mexican ingredients we already had and tweaked the menu, and people loved it.”
The Town Center TacoRito will open as soon as this month with the amped-up versions of the Mexican standards available from the start. But Zheng stresses that his cooks are flexible and that many items on the menu can be ordered traditional (Mexican style), standard (Tex-Mex), crazy, TacoRito or build-your-own. Many platters come with rice and beans either mixed in or on the side.
TacoRito does have vegetarian options, including tofu-based dishes, and Zheng regularly adds new specials to the menu, like the chicken avocado soup, which is served creamy with onions, cilantro and cheese. For dessert, there are fried Oreos, mini donuts and churros.
“I’m constantly changing the menu, adding new things,” Zheng says. “We want everything to be fresh, we want things to move.”
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Zheng, 28, knew he had made a bold decision when he opened TacoRito in Hightstown in 2014, with Fiesta Brava already well established in town and El Rancho in Twin Rivers. But Hightstown was where he grew up and where his mother, Amy, owned a building with an available storefront.
Zheng, a graduate of Hightstown High, is originally from Fuzhou, a city in southeastern China. He moved to the U.S. with his mother when he was five years old. His uncle and mother have long worked in the restaurant business, operating Holy Wong a few doors down from where TacoRito is today.
Zheng says he started helping out around the restaurant when he was eight, but was never seriously involved in restaurant operations. After high school, he studied international business at Temple University. He had a family member whose business was making cutlery for the fast food industry, and he wanted to do something like that.
He started up his own business after graduating, called College Mart Express. It was an online business that delivered items, mainly groceries, to college students, usually within two hours. When that business failed, Zheng was looking for a new enterprise.
After visiting Chipotle for the first time, his next step became clear. With his mother’s blessing he turned the tiny space at 110 Main St. into a no-frills 25-seater with Mariachi music playing over the speakers. He remembers the difficulties of working with Rosa, a tenant of the building, to come up with the initial menu. Rosa didn’t speak English, and Zheng didn’t speak Spanish. They used Google Translate to communicate. Rosa has since moved on.
TacoRito Hightstown does mostly take-out business, so the space is adequate. But Zheng says he wants Robbinsville to have more of a café feel. The new restaurant will be two and a half times the size of the original.
And it might have more than Mexican food. Not long ago, Zheng got another inspiration when a friend took him to a place in Philadelphia that serves ice cream on waffles. After TacoRito is up and running in Robbinsville, Zheng has plans to open up a similar operation in the same space. He describes it as a Let’s Yo with waffles, and says that might be ready three or four months down the road.
It sounds ambitious, but given the challenges Zheng overcame to make the original TacoRito a success, few would bet against him. He can laugh now thinking back to those lean early days, before the tweaked menu helped the business take off. “There was a point where my mom said, ‘This was a bad idea. I don’t know why I let you do it,” he says.
TacoRito, 2346 Route 33, Robbinsville.