Jimmy Contreras lives by an excellent rule: When life hands you a setback, you get to mope about it for exactly one day.
The owner of Taco y Vino, the taco-and-wine bar in Bishop Arts beloved by much of Dallas’ service industry, remembers using up his one day of despair when coronavirus shut down the city’s dining rooms.
“You have to recognize it when things are shitty,” he says. “I give myself one day to feel really shitty about my situation, to get really drunk or feel sorry for myself. And then the next day, I gotta go out and change it. It’s something I’ve lived on forever.”
And that’s how it worked in March, as coronavirus descended on the city. Taco y Vino organized one of the fastest and most proactive responses of any local restaurant — because Contreras had taken one day to wallow, and then sprung into action, calling general manager Carolyn Harden and brainstorming takeout specials.
Even before Dallas dining rooms were ordered closed, Taco y Vino’s front porch was guarded by a hand sanitizer dispenser and a sign warning customers that they must use the sanitizer to enter. Even before our local government took action, service industry leaders were asking Contreras to open charitable bar tabs, so they could buy meals for unemployed colleagues.
Three days before Dallas announced its stay-at-home order, Taco y Vino announced its signature coronavirus offering: six tacos and a bottle of wine for $30.
It’s the signature deal of our weird, surreal food service world, because it’s easy to remember, it perfectly captures what the business is about and it’s irresistibly priced. Plus, Taco y Vino is thoughtful on the execution, using a Sharpie to label the tacos in their boxes.
“We were really lucky to come up with that,” Contreras says, modestly. Initially the deal included a bottle of cava; now cava is one choice along with bottles of red, white and rose wine.
If you’re hauling your bag of tacos across town, you might need to think about which ones transport the best. The choriqueso — a divine marriage of spicy chorizo and molten cheese that produces the good, yummy kind of grease — can soften up even the toughest tortillas, while my brisket, carne asada and carnitas tacos traveled perfectly.
For those lucky enough to live nearby, the six-tacos-and-wine special has become a neighborhood favorite.
“I’ve been just shocked at how much the community, particularly Oak Cliff, has supported us,” Contreras says. “They’ve been out in droves and have helped ease this transition a lot.”
Outside groups and community organizations are even spreading the word themselves without asking Contreras first. Dash for the Beads, an annual race in Oak Cliff, sent out an email mentioning Taco y Vino’s special.
“I’m getting this support blindly,” Contreras says. “People aren’t even telling me, they’re just doing it out of their goodwill. Stuff like that, I don’t want to say it makes it monetarily worth it, but it makes you feel good.”
In a recent Observer article about how restaurants should reopen, Contreras emerged as one of the most cautious voices. He plans to continue relying on takeout and delivery orders even after Dallas permits restaurants to reopen, out of concern that dining rooms may help circulate a second wave of disease.
"I was a server way longer than I’ve been a restaurant owner. You live not even paycheck to paycheck, but shift to shift, and I can’t imagine being in that spot now." – Jimmy Contreras
But there’s one thing Contreras isn’t hesitant about, even in this age of depleted revenues, and he wants everyone to know it: his support for service industry employees who have lost their paychecks.
“We never told a service industry person that they couldn’t get food,” Contreras says, firmly. “Even if they didn’t have money. I was a server way longer than I’ve been a restaurant owner. You live not even paycheck to paycheck, but shift to shift, and I can’t imagine being in that spot now. If anyone — if you want to put it in there, that a service industry person who needs it always has a taco plate at Taco y Vino, I’m totally down for that, because I want them to know that they can always get a meal here. Because that’s a big deal to me.”