Chef Mark Henry isn’t shy about sharing that he and his team at Rooster’s House of Ramen have a broad scope for their umbrella company, Elevated Carnivore Group, to propel Colorado Springs’ food scene forward with a collection of diverse restaurants. That moment is here, and Henry, with Troy Burke, his chef de cuisine or “jefe de cocina,” delivers the next cultural installment in the shape of a genuine Mexican taco shop, Happy Belly Tacos.
RMFR sits down with Henry and Troy amongst the initial construction to unearth what we can expect from the menu and for the space and to find out what inspires their Epcot-esque contributions to the local food culture.
“We’re going to keep it real classic in a sense,” says Burke. “We’re going to keep it towards the roots of what a Mexican or New Mexican taco may be. Simple ingredients done well with a lot of love put into our food. We’re going to make sure everything tastes good.”
The hope is to open Happy Belly Tacos on Tuesday, September 11, but Henry says “it’ll definitely be a Tuesday in September” to pay homage to the day of the week dedicated to the art of the coveted folded food. Even the hours on the door will emulate the motto: “Every day is Tuesday here.”
Happy Belly Tacos intends to keep things simple by posting an entirely a la carte menu on the wall so guests can order when ready at the counter. Although the offerings are fairly straightforward, Henry plans to make keto, gluten-free and vegan accommodations and gives patrons the options to choose their tortilla, fillings and gather additional condiments at a self-serve salsa station. A variety of fire roasted salsas, a lettuce salsa verde, sauces made in partnership with Jojo’s Sriracha and traditional cilantro, onions and pickled vegetables sourced from locally-grown, organic produce mimic the do-it-yourself mannerisms of a reputable taqueria, “the way I feel a taco shop should be,” says Henry.
“If you go home and make tacos you have all these fresh vegetables,” continues Henry. “You can’t go out for tacos and get stuff like that. Much like Rooster’s, we’ll have something for everybody, but we really want just to have a place for people to come have fun, eat good food and do something cool for the city.”
Yet the menu is “a little bit more than just tacos,” says Burke, with the inclusion of burritos, tostadas and yes, drunken tortas, plus “something up and coming that I think is really going to take off.”
“It’s called parrilla,” says Burke. “It’s kind of like if a taco and a quesadilla had a baby. You caramelize the cheese inside the tortilla and then build your taco on top of that.”
Burke and Henry reference a recent trip to Denver as the origin of discovery for this new and improved textural taco where they found themselves in an inconspicuous shop, unable to even order, pointing to various menu items and receiving their total on a piece of paper held up by the cashier.
“Neither of us knew what it was,” says Burke. “And it was, amazing.”
Henry further explains the breakdown of tacos a la parrilla as “you build your tortilla with your cheese and then toast it cheese side down so it gets nice and melty. Then you add your protein to it and do it just like you would a regular taco, so it’s still folded. As you eat it, it changes because the temperature cools down and the cheese coagulates and it gets a little bit chewy and stringy and it holds together really well.”
The other surprise element that Henry says “most people won’t see coming from me and this company is that we’re going to write a menu and it’s not going to ever change.” He confirms that guests will always be able to find signature items such as carnitas and carne asada and acknowledges the integration of specials (look for lobster tails or Korean beef) but firmly states that the overall list remains steady.
“Tacos are always in season and we’re going to write a home run menu to start with and fine tune the recipes,” says Henry. “The goal is consistency every day from that point forward.”
The presentation is slated to appear using taco stands on casual dining ware that reflects “our style and the food that we’re known for but a little bit less dressed,” says Henry. “It’s not going to be in a plastic basket that we throw out the window. We still love what we do and we still understand that people eat with their eyes first. I think the street food scene, a lot of times presentation goes by the wayside and that get’s misinterpreted as the chefs don’t care as much, which I don’t think is accurate. So we’re going to spend a lot of time and intentionality behind the preparation and then have really good accoutrements on the side for you.”
The accompaniments aim to be stand-out with borracho beans made “using some really great beer” (possibly Avery Brewing‘s El Gose), and elotes, which Henry attributes as Burke’s culinary swan song. A soda machine offers Jarritos Mexican soft drinks and horchata while the bar focuses on Mexican and local beers in addition to a much-needed mezcal-centric cocktail list.
“Mezcal is a hell of a drug,” says Henry. “I don’t think we have a great representation of mezcal in this city and I know a very talented bartender in this town with a strong affinity for it.”
Henry reaffirms that Happy Belly “is a taco shop, not a Mexican cantina,”and that the plates nor the the interior will resemble kitschy, obvious interpretations. “Bright, hip, with a lot of raw materials,” says Henry, with a vision that includes wood, galvanized pipe and vibrant hues for the tables and chairs underneath an over-sized ceiling fan as the central focal point.
“We want to keep an open-air feel, breeze coming through, like you’re at a taco stand on the streets of Jalisco,” says Henry. “A lot of fun, very laid back, with no pretension.”
The ambiance of the location at 125 North Spruce Street is an area that’s raw but in transition as a new, up and coming extension of urban development, already with notable spots like 503W and Cerberus Brewing Co. in the vicinity. Although it’s clear it’ll be an ongoing process of gentrification, Henry says he’s excited to be join the neighborhood and that “downtown is growing and I think this is very quickly going to become a part of that.”
“Cleaning it up will add something to the scene over here and overall will be a good move,” says Henry. “Elevate the scene that you’re a part of, which is always the goal. This city is still headed in a very good direction and I think this part of town just needs something.”
As the signage posts up this week Henry too hoists a new title as a budding restaurateur which isn’t something he completely accepts as he says he’s “not sure if we’re necessarily opening restaurants per say, but more like places to come party without an invitation.”
His intention for a fiesta-like atmosphere leans into the decision to stay open late, beginning with hours that run from 11:00 a.m. until midnight before determining if they can push until 2:00 a.m.
“One of the last pieces we’re missing in making Colorado Springs super fucking awesome, is nightlife,” says Henry.
We couldn’t agree more.
Another commonality we share is that there is an inherent need for more legitimate tacos, and we’re certain that whatever flavors Henry and his staff produce, always holds true to a bold and creative cooking style.
“We’re not going to change the way we do food,” says Henry. “We’re still going to apply the right technique, use big, bright flavors. We’re trying to do really good tacos the way that people want them and I think there’s a lot of room for doing great tacos in this city.”
The relationship Henry has with Colorado Springs mirrors itself within the faith he shows in his staff. Each time we talk he reminds us of their incredible growth, commitment and personal goals, almost like witnessing a parent speak sincerely about one of his own. His choice to promote their ideas shows a wise effort to maintain talent and enthusiasm within Elevated Carnivore Group and encourages passionate chefs to become industry leaders and adds to Colorado’s thriving repertoire.
“I think it’s a really good show for the company and for the staff for us to do stuff that they want to do,” says Henry. “It creates more opportunities for people within and if you’ve got the right people in the kitchen that are having fun with the food that they’re doing, the customer is going to benefit from that for sure. Just good food done by people who that love to do that type of food.”
For Henry, he honors his first love with Happy Belly Tacos, protein, beyond bowls of Asian fusion, and now in new circular vessels in which he wants to “treat the meats right, cook them correctly, handle them appropriately and make really good tacos that people just want to fuckin’ slam. Who doesn’t get excited about tacos? Just taco party, every day.”
*Header image courtesy of Happy Belly Tacos