Greg Lukasiewicz is wearing a t-shirt. He owns Bull Taco. So any shirt with a collar would be like chrome rims on a wheelbarrow. On his t-shirt is a nearly nude burlesque dancer, kneeling as dictated by her chosen genre. It’s a tired Betty Page-era sex trope. Only there’s a trout or sea bass or some ugly fish where her face should be, which makes her the sort of pin-up uber-creepy Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver might’ve loved if his character was a fishmonger.
It raises the question that someone like Lukasiewicz would likely ask: With truly great food, is that intense desire you feel an impulse to eat what’s in front of you—or, you know…?
Greg is an artist. He’s intense. “Manic,” he clarifies, in a productive way. If he gets an idea, he’s physically unable to ignore it until it manifests in real life. His Bull Taco truck—a post-apocalyptic militia machine that likely smells of chorizo and smoke from Lukasiewicz’s brain—was such an idea.
So was Bull Taco itself.
Eighteen years ago, Lukasiewicz learned to be creative with food before he could cook it well. At his Monrovia restaurant Devon, he was messing with foams and foie gras ice cream and blue cheese foams right along with El Bulli. Then every chef got a centrifuge and a sous vide machine for Christmas, so he ditched that and started foraging for his own food.
He dislikes when ideas become trends. That’s usually his cue to move on.
At his first Bull Taco—a glorified Little League snack stand attached to the ranger station at San Elijo surf campgrounds—he served foie gras tacos. His dining chairs were those white, plastic one-piece deals, the leotard of the patio furniture industry. It had all the ambiance of a no-star joint where you’d expect the finest defrosted hot dogs and 94 ounces of soda that makes your fat cells copulate.
This was 2009, long before the trend of food trucks or eating meals in small, inglorious places of dubious sanitation. Yelp ate it up. The line of people looked like they were selling something more illicit.
I’m here to check out the new Bull Taco Leucadia with David Boylan, who hosts food radio show “Lick the Plate.” Two polite teenage girls work behind the counter. Their hair is akimbo and they, too, wear t-shirts. They’re young and cute enough to pull off this fashion statement. If aged 30 or above, their intentional mussiness might be mistaken for emotional distress or a large herd of unwashed cats waiting for them at home. Skateboarders would love to date them. Pro skater Bucky Lasek is a partner in Bull Taco Leucadia.
“Pickled watermelon radish with ghost pepper sea salt,” he says, handing us raw, round slices of the vegetable, which looks like a watermelon on acid. It’s nice, simple, with a signature Bull Taco extreme twist—one of the world’s hottest chile peppers infused into the little cubic zarconian salt crystals.
Lukasiewicz tells us a theory about Apocalypse Now, which he’s seen 50 times. “Those bodies hanging in that scene? Real bodies,” he says. “I know a guy who knows this.”
He tells the story of how he once hired a Japanese noise artist—a musician who literally plays interminable noise that molests human ears—to fly over from Japan to play at an Orange County nightclub he owned. The noise artist proceeded to give a 30-second assault—physically abusive to everyone in the room—and then run out of the club. His encore was to return and shove concertgoers until they chased him into the basement, where he threw furniture at them.
Lukasiewicz has stories.
“Beef tongue with truffle oil,” he says, dropping four brown beef tongues on a paper plate, topped with salsa verde. They’re nice, if a little under-salted. I don’t hate truffle oil like some snobs do. I also think granulated cheese is better on elbow macaroni than béchamel and gruyere, which may suggest a deeper fault line in my culinary pedigree.
Three men in their late-20s hang near the end of the bar in hoodies and trucker hats. They’ve obviously just surfed. Their facial hair has been given full permission to discover its own destiny. When did looking like a 1970s drifter become such a crucial way to live?
“Chicken hearts,” says Lukasiewicz, dropping what appear to be six unwrapped and glistening Cadbury eggs. Alone on a paper plate, the chicken hearts look nearly fecal. Presentation here is of the yeah-whatever-it-tastes-good variety. Dinnerware just adds dollars to this whole exchange, which neither Lukasiewicz nor his customers want.
The chicken hearts are chewy, with that damp-chalk texture every cooked animal organ has. I realize that sounds like a pretty awful texture for a mouth to experience, but I like it. It feels like the time you experimented with eating Play-Doh. Only the chicken hearts are absolutely delicious, while Play-Doh tasted like carpet lint and dirty kid hands.
“Any booze?” I ask.
“We’re going to get beer in two months. I messed up on the license,” he says with a shrug.
Ouch. In the restaurant industry, food is like the irresponsible roommate who never pays his fair share of the rent. Booze is the good-natured enabler that covers food’s ass.
“Gonna have a wall of craft beers over there you can pour yourself,” he says. He’s pointing to the one-half of the impossibly long, thin restaurant (like a diner without pie or meth teeth). The wallpaper is a room-sized photograph of a lush, green moss jungle—jarringly interrupted by a stark, red door. It’s a beautiful contrast, and reminds me how the jungle in the TV show Lost always had the stupidest, modern crap in it.
“Chicken feet tacos,” he says as a paper plate drops.
“Duck liver tacos,” he says as another flops. These tacos are so good I want to lay with them.
Next comes a whole fried catfish, eyeballs and all. If it seems like Lukasiewicz is a white guy running a Japanese yakitori masquerading as a taco shop, that’s not entirely off base.
“You used to have to search out the cutting edge,” he says. “Now with the internet, any cook can see what they’re doing across the world. Which makes it hard for anyone to be more cutting edge than anyone else.”
This all seems like an art project rather than a business. That’s what his wife is for, Lukasiewicz says. She listens to his manic idea flow, measures the real cost versus the opportunity cost, and chooses whether she should encourage or thwart him.
But Bull Taco now has four locations—San Elijo, Oceanside, San Clemente and now Leucadia. They just signed a lease for a fourth above Prepkitchen in Del Mar, and are scouting a few other spots. They have a farm in south San Diego where they’re experimenting with the world’s hottest chile peppers.
That means Lukasiewicz’s creativity works. Today it looks like surf rat taco-yakitori. Tomorrow, it’ll look different.