La Duni’s Taco and Duni Borga love their work and work at their love. By Hanna Raskin • PHOTO BY MARK GRAHAM
Espartaco and Duni Borga know they’re not at their cutest when they’re working.
But when the pair travels and leaves behind all the stresses that come with running four (soon to be five) locations of their uber-popular Latin restaurant and bakery, they’re downright adorable.
“When we get away, we get away as lovers,” explains Duni, who met Espartaco (he goes by “Taco”) more than two decades ago.
Both Taco and Duni say their partnership hasn’t always been easy and continues to tax their staffers, who aren’t always sure which Borga is in charge. When married entrepreneurs ask Taco for advice on how to negotiate the sticky topic of working with one’s spouse, “The first thing I tell them is, ‘If you can deal with the darkest part of your relationship on a daily basis, you might have a chance,’” he says. “The restaurant business is so difficult...You have to be patient.” Patient with the pace of restaurant success and patient with each other. Taco, 47, and Duni—who wouldn’t provide her age, though Taco says she’s “much younger” than him—first met in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Taco owned a club, and the perks that came with knowing a nightclub insider appealed to Duni, a native of Bogota, Colombia, who was anxious to get a foothold in the L.A. scene. The two soon began dating. “Then, one day, he looks at me and goes, ‘I’m moving to Dallas,’” Duni remembers. “There’s no beach, no nothing, no way.”
The couple stayed in constant telephone contact, but didn’t reunite until Taco tracked her down at a cousin’s house, delivering an impassioned speech worthy of a Hollywood romance.
“He looked at me and said ‘I have nothing to offer you, but let’s work together on a future,’” Duni says. She drove back to Dallas with him to help open Zuzu Handmade Mexican Food in 1989, a phenomenally popular Mexican chain, with which he would remain until Arby’s bought it.
The two stayed together until Duni relocated to New York, where she spent four years working in restaurants and baking as a hobby, before Taco summoned her to France.
“I was opening ZuZu in Paris and I invited her to come with me,” Taco says. “She’d never been to Paris. We fell in love again there.” Duni returned to Dallas in 1996 to rejoin Taco. She began studying child psychology, a discipline Taco respected but firmly believed was a bad fit for the woman he’d marry three years later. Recalls Taco, “I remembered she really liked baking in New York. I said, ‘Why don’t you take a one-day cake decorating class?’ She loved it so much.”
Rather than continue with her child psychology studies at UT-Dallas, she enrolled in a pastry course at El Centro. She remembers being terribly intimidated on the first day, surrounded by professional bakers clad in chef coats. But the more rosettes she formed and cake layers she frosted, the more she felt she belonged. “And of course, every day, she would bring home something delicious,” Taco says. “It was unbelievable. She was just in heaven.”
Duni soon asked Taco to help her open a bakery. He responded by whisking her off to Europe, where they visited all of the continent’s best pastry houses—including Laduree, which provided inspiration for the new restaurant’s name.
Taco was visiting family in his native Spain in 2001 when Duni learned they’d finally secured a location on McKinney Avenue.
“She calls and tells me she has two pieces of news for me,” Taco says. “We got the McKinney location and the second piece of news is, she’s pregnant. So I have to run to Dallas.” Realizing the McKinney space was far too big to support with coffee and cake, Taco insisted on adding five savory dishes to the bakery’s opening menu: pollo aljibe, Cuban pork, pollo menta salad, tomato hearts of palm salad and carne asada. “They are still amongst the best sellers,” Taco says. La Duni was soon a full-service operation, and was singled out by The Dallas Morning News in 2001 as the year’s best new restaurant. Then Esquire praised the eatery in a rave that helped Duni land a three-day gig at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. When a representative greeted them at the airport, Taco recalls, his sign read “Welcome Duni.” Taco, who’s always handled the restaurant end of the business, suddenly realized his wife was responsible for much of La Duni’s overnight success.
Despite being big proponents of patience, Taco would rather speak frankly, Duni preferring instead to skip the talk and just charge ahead. Both admit, though, that they argue, especially when they’re developing a new product. Taco says Duni doesn’t like the monotony of making and remaking a recipe: La Duni’s famous cuatro leches cake, for example, went through 30 iterations before Taco felt it was ready for sale.
“I can never say what I’m thinking because what she’s saying when she asks me if I like it is, ‘Don’t you think this is perfect and love it, as is?,’” Taco says. “I have to take the temperature and see how the moon is and then maybe I have the right answer.” And yet the couple says they’ve figured out how to weather their dust-ups. “We’ve made a choice of never going to bed angry,” Duni says. “There’s nothing worse than feeling a cold bed.”