Frank’s Guide to Rockaway: Tacoway Beach

As this summer comes to a close, we have one of our final stops for when you visit Rockaway. Who doesn’t like to eat??? You need to try the neighborhood’s best taco spot: Tacoway Beach.

Alex Corporan: Tell us the story. What’s going on over here? What’s been happening? 

Andrew Field: Well, it’s been a crazy year, to say the least. We first started in 2008. It was Friday, June 13th, actually. I had just moved back from Mexico where I had a restaurant with another friend from Mexico City, just surfing and whatever. I came back to New York after being gone for a bunch of years. I guess I thought I wasn’t going to surf for a while, and our friend Pat brought us out here and showed us around the neighborhood. My old partner had just bought a building on 96th Street and so we got to work and opened with the super basics. We got the kitchen up and running for that first summer and it was great. I think at that point we were running a super minimal operation and just starting to learn the neighborhood. Back then I could still wake up in the morning, go surf and then get to work. Cut to 14 years later, I barely surf anymore. I work all the time because the summer is so crazy. 

AC: Like a full worker bee, though, you’re always on it. Every time I come here, you’re running around nonstop with the beanie on, sweating. 96 degrees, you’re on, always. 

AF: I think there’s only one way. 

AC: There’s a secret behind the beanie, because no one really wears it in the heat like that. 

Mars Khan: It’s like Ratatouille I feel like, a rat underneath your hat controlling the cooking. 

AF: It’s calibration. 

AC: All the ideas are hidden under there. 

AF: Yes. The ideas are in the beanie. But yeah, I think back in those days, I still had time to wake up and surf and balance the work and beach life. That’s much harder now. 14 years later, our staff is up until like 2am in the middle of the prime of summer. We’re 26 employees so it’s a big operation. But yeah, in the early days that first year was great. We closed up and then I went back to surf in Mexico because I had to decompress from the summer. And then cut to the next year where you started to see more and more of the Manhattan crowd come out to explore Rockaway Beach. People would show up in black tight black jeans and leather jackets-

MK: Socks and sandals. 

AF: Yes, totally. It was cool because it was New York exploring further out. You think of New York and it’s primarily focused on Manhattan, and I think at that point that was in the middle of the financial collapse, the housing crisis. It was a pivotal thing where people were looking for something different. But, yeah, people were wearing black jeans and leather jackets and  hanging out on the beach. As a beach culture, I don’t think we really had that established yet. And then in the following couple of years, you started to see more and more people understand what surfing is. Obviously skating and surfing and those groups spend more time outdoors. I think in New York, we deal with the winter because we know the summers are so rad. So having people come out to the beach for those following years was just like, “Let’s get out, let’s put a towel down, let’s hang out. Let’s bring our friends. Let’s bring a cooler. Let’s get tacos. Let’s hang out.” And yeah, it’s been madness. 

“It was cool because it was New York exploring further out.”

AC: So you came to Rockaway from surfing and stuff. Why tacos out of all the food? Knowing that Rockaway wasn’t the typical beach town, what made you think tacos were going to work here? 

AF: We had a lot of funny stories about that. I don’t know if we knew what to expect. I guess surf culture, like for California surf culture, there’s Mexican food. It’s easy. It’s street food. I think the original Rockaway Taco shack didn’t have any seating. We never expected what happened to happen. And in my mind living in Mexico for almost five years, there were taco places everywhere. You’d pick a taco place based on all the little condiments, like all the salsa bars and those things. And that’s what made the food and the experience interesting. You would always look for the interesting condiment bars and those kinds of things. Here with the Health Department, we couldn’t keep everything out in the open. We were trying to strive towards something that you could eat quickly. If you had just gotten out of the water from surfing, you could run, grab something, you could scarf two tacos, and then head back to the beach; something super easy. The volume was the one thing we weren’t expecting. So I guess success comes with its own set of problems as well. 

AC: You can never really guess it, it’s just good to see it happen. And then you went from ten people to now a hundred people waiting in line trying to get a taco from you. 

AF: I had a restaurant in Mexico with another friend and we would close the restaurant and go find taco places. So I think it was just like, what makes sense on the beach? What’s fast and easy? Keep it fresh. And during the summer, the construction of the taco is all super cold, fresh components. You have a hot tortilla, have a hot protein or a hot filling. And then all of the other component condiments are the fresh elements on a hot summer day. It’s a more refreshing sort of thing. You don’t want to be on the beach with a giant bowl of chili or something. Especially when it’s hot outside, a cucumber mango salad is acidic, fresh, and spicy. I think those are the things that we were trying to look for when creating the food and creating the menus. Just trying to keep that stuff fresh. 

MK: You had another location before this one? What can you tell us about it? 

AF: The original location was on the corner of 96th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard. It was an old taxi stand. The bus stop was right there, so they’d get off and go right to us. And it’s a block from the beach, so everybody coming off was like, “Whoa, what’s going on here?” I think the attraction directly to the sidewalk, like how the order windows would open right to the sidewalk, gave it a very visual component both on the customer side and on our side. Because for the employees, lots of kitchens are in basements in the city. And so for us on the kitchen side, we would look out into this movie screen because all the action was passing. You’d get the guys with the three-wheel motorcycles, music going crazy. There was a friend of ours that had an old MG and he would pull up right in front. Someone found a quarter pipe somewhere out of the grave and put it in front of the fire hydrant to skate. 

AC: What was that one moment where you were just like, “Oh, shit, here it goes. There’s no turning back.” When was that moment? 

AF: I remember that moment very well. There was a New York Times article and I think the title was “A girl sublets her place in Brooklyn and moves out to Rockaway” or something like that. I even remember the reporter coming up to my friend and being like, “You did what?” She was like, “You moved out of Brooklyn to move to Rockaway? Why would you do that?” And she was so confused. And we were like, “What do you mean? It’s the beach, it’s awesome. Why don’t you come hang out? Why not go have a drink with us on the jetty at midnight?” And so that article came out and then obviously they have a large reader base. That was the moment. But that was also the moment where we didn’t know how to keep up with the volume. Once that article came out, week to week it just got busier and busier. I’m a crazy restaurant person so I was just like, “We have to keep up with this.” Teeny tiny space, trying to figure it out, limited staff. We had this tower of watermelons that was pushed up against the wall behind one of the tables because we were just like, “How do we make enough watermelon juice?” Every square inch of space, we were trying to figure out how to keep up with that. 

MK: And really no predicting it, because as more and more people are coming, you can’t really guess how many in a certain weekend. So that must have been wild. 

AF: That was crazy. There were moments where we would run out of food by 7 o’clock and people would be coming off the beach and their faces were just like, “What do you mean you don’t have anything left?” There was this one time where I was like, “I have no food. I don’t have anything to serve you. I have this one scoop of beans.” And I literally took the spoon, I picked it up and I was like, “This is what I have.” They were like, “Well, can I have that?” And I was like, “…No. You just want a scoop of beans?” 

MK: So then how did you move from that spot to this spot? What was the order of events for that? 

AF: Yeah, so in 2012, Rockaway was hit with Hurricane Sandy. That was, for the neighborhood, a really, really tough moment. We had just won the contract for the boardwalk to take on the concessions, so I was part of a different group to activate the Parks Department concessions. 2012 was when you saw Rockaway really start to climb way more in interest and people going to the beach. Surf culture at that point was exploding. 

AC: Sandy definitely put a spike in the road. Rockaway was thriving right then and I remember all the urban kids started surfing, all the skateboarders started going out, all of us started coming here and then boom, Sandy. 

AF: And 2011 was the pro competition in Long Beach. Kelly Slater did some crazy, crazy 360 on some huge wave. And they nailed it; that swell came, they ran the competition for like three days, and the next day the ocean was flat as a pancake. So they totally threaded the needle one. They nailed that moment, and then the next year was Hurricane Sandy at the end of the summer. October 29th was Hurricane Sandy. So that was really hard. Everything got destroyed. We were without power for almost three months, the whole neighborhood. And then at that point I think we started to make different decisions. Spending so much time building out a place and all the money. And then it was just kind of like, “How do we look to the future and make this better?” Also, I loved that spot, I loved that space, I think we were growing out of it. At that moment, even just with production space, we knew that juggling watermelons wasn’t going to last too long. So after 2014, we moved here to 87th Street next to Rockaway Beach Surf Club. That gave us a different style, that gave us the seating room, and we were just adapting to it and growing with it. It’s tricky because you only have six months of income to be able to pay all the bills for 12 months. That part was always tricky, so I guess the progress has been fast and slow. Fast in some ways, slow in others. But yeah, after the summer I would go surf for at least a couple of weeks to recharge. And then I’d be back here like, “OK, how are we going to make the next year better?” 

AF: We’ve been here since 2015 now and building the kitchens in the shipping containers was also a thought. If a storm came, we could disconnect them, move them on a truck to higher ground, and then bring them right back. That part was good. I think in those moments you start to reevaluate lots of your decisions and how much time it takes to put all the pieces together. Same as staffing, same problems that you have all the time. You want to create a career for somebody. It’s tricky in the restaurant business. I think time is the biggest asset. I’m here every day, first one in and last one out. I’m an energetic human being, I like to do it. I don’t mind working hard, that’s what builds the character. Even when we were on 96th Street, all the crazy objects that we would hang up on the walls and piece together, it ended up becoming this collection of time. We always have those disposable cameras. I don’t like cookbooks and I’ve been offered to do a couple of cookbooks, but I’m like, “What am I going to put, a bunch of recipes?” I didn’t want to do that. So every year we do like two or three disposable cameras and just leave them in the kitchen, and it ends up being some of the moments where you’ve just gone through a crazy service, serving fourteen hundred people, your apron’s destroyed, it’s all dirty. You got avocados on one side and hot sauce on the other. That captured a bunch of them. So I guess my cookbook idea was more of this collage- 

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AC: Collage lifestyle of what’s going on in the kitchen and how everyone’s operating. 

AF: Totally. There’s plenty of cookbooks out there. If you want to learn how to make tacos, you can go get a cookbook on how to make tacos. 

AC: How did the furniture come about? How did you figure out the look and feel of the space? What was the inspiration? 

AF: Brandon from the Surf Club is a metal worker. Most of these tables were actually floorboards and stuff that people would bring by after Hurricane Sandy renovations. At that point, we all had to go to our houses. Everybody was getting new electrical systems. Everybody was putting in new insulation. And people were throwing out tons of stuff and a lot of the driftwood, a bunch of the bigger chunks of wood were all from homes that were destroyed. Brandon’s also really good with the plants. His plant vibe is always on point. I would love to do that, I’m just always stacking avocados in order of ripeness. So it’s a team effort. And I think everything in the kitchen is as well. You as a chef are only as good as your crew. So in order to get your crew on the same page and teach them all the recipes and the style of that, I think we have our own language that we speak in those busy times when it’s chaotic. In the kitchen, when you have that, you have to have that direct line of communication and keep it as precise as possible. That’s part of the kitchen vibe. And again, I think lots of people come and see how we have to operate, jumping over the furniture and carrying big boxes of avocados through three or four hundred people. Sometimes I use the back door to go around and out on the street because it’s a faster way than trying to weave through everybody. The colorfulness, the eclectic part is Rockaway, I think that’s the neighborhood. It’s a megamix, right? You talk to the true local crowd, it’s a mega mix of different vibes and different people. 

AC: What do you see the future of Rockaway looking like now that there’s extra people coming in with the hotel and a lot of other changes happening? Are you going to roll with the punches or just keep the vibe the same? 

AF: I think diversity is always the most interesting thing. And I think for sure, the hotel has been awesome. I think there’s definitely a demographic, especially outside of New York. In New York we’re surrounded by tons of different cultures and likes and tastes and economic values. I think it’s all part of New York. I think we need more diversity. We need more businesses for sure. I think you look at other places like the Jersey Shore, you look at Ocean City, Maryland, and you look at the amount of commerce that is there. I think we need more. I understand only having six months of actual business to pay the bills, that can get really tricky. Between all of the restaurants, we did a count one year based on the number of people that were coming over the bridges and the tolls from the MTA. We were touching 8% of the people that were coming to the beach. Not all, probably about seven restaurants would share the information. I was doing a rough number, but the sales, the price per head, we weren’t even touching 10% of the people that were coming over the bridge. So that, as an economic part, shows you there’s plenty more room for growth. I think we’ve tried to do that over the last 14 years. And we’ve always tried to do something fun in the offseason to extend the season through October. The Women’s Surf Film Festival this year is at the end of September. 

MK: Tell us about the events. 

AF: They used to do the Women’s Surf Film Festival in early August and now I think that’ll be right after Labor Day this year. The Body Surf competition is always the week after Labor Day because the lifeguards aren’t there anymore and can’t yell at you. The vibe of the beach is a little better. And then Rock Stock, St. James and all those guys do that in early June. That brings that energy. But I think, same thing, we need more economic activity. This past weekend, we had to shut the ordering system down three times because it was too jam packed. 

AC: Wow. That’s a good thing. 

AF: Yeah, it’s a good thing. Except for when you have a bunch of hungry people yelling at you. 

MK: They want that scoop of beans. 

AF: Yeah, exactly. The lonely beans. 

AC: So what makes Rockaway magical? What’s the energy that brought you here, like “This is it. I love this place. I’m parking here.” 

AF: There’s a lot of things that make Rockaway incredibly magical. I think the urban beach part is so interesting. And even the training of people like, “Hey dude, pick up your trash.” If we’re only touching 8% of the economic activity in restaurants, that means everybody else is bringing coolers and bringing big bags of chips and all those things. And so it’s like, “Hey, let’s try and educate people on how to take care of this beach.” In an urban environment with eleven million people in your surrounding area, of course that’s going to be hard. I like the grittiness to it, just as in New York, you’ll stand around on a corner in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and it’s crazy. There’s that New York grit to it. But that also goes back to the time factor, like we’ve built that over time. We’re all humans, we all have to integrate. We all have to spend a day at the beach. Coming to the beach and jumping the water is way better than sitting in your apartment blasting the air conditioning. 

AC: I agree with that. 

AF: So I think as a health matter, as a part for the environment, the easiest thing to do is get on the train, get on the ferry and come and jump in the water and hang out.  

AC: The best feeling on earth. 

MK: It’s so accessible too. 

AF: Yeah, I think just as a moment to disconnect from the crazy urban city moment. And then, you can be out on the beach, you can be in the water, in and out, and you’re good. Also New Yorkers learning what beach culture is. I think that part is fascinating. It changes every year. That energy is different every year as we learn more about climate change, surfing, and just the Jamaica Bay, too. I think there’s so many cool things over there that are untouched, and to be able to be in New York and find that little slice where you’re almost alone, that has its magic, too. So you can be towel next to towel, right on the sand, and you could probably reach over and just grab a beer from somebody else’s cooler and it would probably be OK. Nobody would yell at you. But then you could also go down to the 9th Street where the dunes are, and you could be by yourself for a minute. I think those parts are magical. Those were definitely the things that caught my attention and kept me here. And it’s 14 years now. 

AC: So what does it mean to you, to be Frank? 

AF: Let’s just be real. I think we’re all humans. We live in a city surrounded by 11 million people. Life can get crazy, we deal with it on the other side of the counter all the time. And I think that’s definitely the vibe right now of all the people. There’s this understanding that restaurants have been through a rocky COVID year and people have been super understanding. We’re humans, too. We make mistakes. And dealing with that kind of volume, if you can just be frank with them, be straight up and just be like, “Hey, we’re overloaded. Give us a second. We’re going to catch up and we’re going to take care of you.” We’re professionals in hospitality. We want to make sure you’re here to hang out. We want to make sure you have a good time. When it’s working, it’s no problem, obviously. When it gets a little too overloaded, that’s when people get a little frustrated, which is totally understandable. But yeah, just be straight up and be real. I’m not trying to hide anything from you. I’m doing my best. You see me all the time. You’ve been here for a bunch of years. I’m not over there just hanging out, you know? 

“You can sit there and you can find that little slice of something totally different. I think that’s magic.”

AC: You’re always on the go. You’re here and there. I see you when you sneak out, then come in this way. 

AF: Yeah. But yeah, I think it’s New York. Just roll with it. I think it’s the best city in the world. Come out to the beach, find that beach vibe. It’s still part of that urban environment. But again, you can sit there and you can find that little slice of something totally different. I think that’s magic. 

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