Casual eatery will be downtown Laguna’s eighth Mexican restaurant
By Daniel Langhorne, Special to the Independent
The Laguna Beach Planning Commission approved a revised conditional use permit for a 56-seat, family-style Wild Taco restaurant to replace the vacant Johnny Rockets location at South Coast Highway and Ocean Avenue in downtown Laguna Beach.
Thomas Carson, owner of Bear Flag Restaurant Group, sought the commissioners’ approval to sell beer and wine at the second, and likely last, Wild Taco location. Carson said the new eatery will focus on serving wild-caught seafood and other wild game such as elk.
“One of the reasons I’m in this business is I wanted to make some place where young kids eating healthy could be more of a cool thing rather than the usual fast food that’s frozen and comes in a box,” Carson said.
Although he initially planned to only open one Wild Taco in Newport Beach, Carson said he was drawn to open another in Laguna Beach after hearing about the central location downtown. He fondly recalled visiting the Sawdust Art Festival with his mom, who also took him to Crystal Cove while she did her plein air painting.
Carson hopes Wild Taco will stand out from the seven other Mexican restaurants in downtown Laguna Beach because it will serve wild fish caught using his company’s swordfish boat. He also says the unique blend of Baja California and Santa Fe-style cooking will complement the palates of both locals and visitors.
Commissioner Susan McLintock Whitin said she was concerned that there is not enough diversity in the food served by downtown restaurants, and that allowing Wild Taco would only compound the problem.
“With La Serena and Rasta Taco within striking distance of this location, I feel as though it is reaching a saturation point,” she said. “We do need more variety in types of food.”
Alexa Welsh, operator of Rasta Taco, said the winter months already drive down her business by 70 percent and that the addition of another competitor would make it more difficult for Laguna Beach’s existing restaurants to survive.
“I have to slash staff, cut back, and streamline because the margins are so terribly thin,” she said.
She also said the commissioners should expect Wild Taco’s prices to rise after they open because of the exceptionally high cost of renting a location on South Coast Highway. Newly-appointed commissioner Jorg Dubin echoed this concern during his first meeting on the dais.
“When I look at the menu you’ve put into the package here, the price points seem great, but economically, I’m not sure how that’s going to manifest later on,” he said.
Commissioner Ken Sadler reminded his fellow commissioners that their job is to focus on making sure the business is a good fit in the downtown ecosystem. He said Wild Taco will be unique because it offers both full-service and takeout options, as well as an affordable kids menu.
“We can’t really be so much concerned with the financial model or the running of the business,” Sadler said. “While I understand the concerns of the competing restaurants, I think this differentiates itself enough from them that I’d be willing to support it.”
Architect Lance Polster said Wild Taco will return to the Planning Commission in the coming months for a review of its plan for new signage and alterations to the restaurant’s entrance.