Taqueria Morita opens in the Central West End

After two years of moving locations as the seasons changed, Taqueria Morita, the popular restaurant concept from Take Root Hospitality, has sunk permanent roots in the Cortex Innovation Community in the Central West End. The 4,000-square-foot, free-standing building  at at 4239 Duncan previously housed a Wasabi Sushi Bar location, which shuttered in December. Here’s what to know before you go.

The Atmosphere

“For Taqueria Morita, the building footprint was perfect,” says Take Root Hospitality co-owner Tara Gallina, “so the remodeling was fast and largely cosmetic.”

Shelley Niemeier, co-owner of SPACE, the architectural-design company that helped create the retrofit, echoes the sentiment. “Our goal was a simple one: to make the space light, bright, and cheerful,” Niemeier says. “Painting, reupholstering, minor design work…and the place was ready to go.”

Niemeier says her team “leaned on the branding that TOKY had already done” by painting the walls a refreshing shade of teal, a core color that evokes the waters of the Baja peninsula, the genesis of the restaurant’s cuisine. The same color was subtly repeated in the seatbacks along the banquettes. “Removing the existing black wallpaper and replacing it with teal and salmon colors was literally a night-and-day change,” Niemeier says.

A focal point will be the colorful vinyl mural being installed along a 20-foot interior wall. Designed by TOKY’s Shannon Levin, the mural depicts a lush tropical scene with whimsical spirit animals that have a befitting provenance.

Along another wall, “the sushi bar was easily converted into a live-action mariscos counter,” Niemeier says, “which the partners had wanted to do anyway.” Behind the counter are cubbies filled with planters, terra cotta pots, serviceware, and an assortment of self-illuminated Mexican tin stars.

The 80-seat dining room is anchored by a 12-seat central bar. The existing slatted, cantilevered soffit above remained in place and unaltered, as did the bar below, including the TVs, which will air sporting events, “a different vibe than what we’re used to,” Gallina admits.

The Menu

Taqueria Morita is inspired by chef/partner Aaron Martinez’s Mexican heritage and takes its name from the morita chile, a smoked and dried red jalapeño pepper.

“Baja-style cuisine is the heart of what we do,” Martinez says. “Fish tacos, of course, mariscos of all kinds, grilled octopus, ceviches, maybe we’ll get into some machaca... We serve some corn tortillas, but flour tortillas—the ones used in norteno-style tacos—are the standard in Baja and here as well.

Taco options on the inaugural menu include fish tempura, pork carnitas, smoked potato, and oyster mushroom, with epazote crema, peanut salsa macha, and goat cheese. Also available are “large-format” items, such as grilled whole fish and pork belly chicharones, a build-your-own-taco platter of sorts served with escabeche and pickled vegetables, two salsas, and corn tortillas.

The snack (or antojito) menu includes a cauliflower ceviche tostada, chorizo and potato taquitos, barbecue sweet potatoes, and a grilled broccolini Caesar. 

Martinez is excited to be able to offer mariscos (fresh seafood and shellfish) as well. “In places like Ensenada, mariscos carts are popular,” he says. “In L.A., mariscos restaurants are popular. I want to get into that here. Before, with limited space and refrigeration, it was hard to produce different ceviches, shrimp cocktails, oysters, crudos, razor clams on a bit of ice, things like that. We can now do that and much more.”

That includes catering, which will incorporate a slightly different menu, from tortas and rice bowls and taco-focused box lunches to pans of carnitas and asada, “with all the taco building accouterments, so people can do their own thing,” Martinez says.

As for the drinks? Leila Miller, Take Root Hospitality’s beverage director and former Taqueria Morita general manager, created a beverage menu featuring four cocktails on tap: currently, it includes the signature margarita, a cocktail made with mezcal, a paloma, and a rotating agua fresca. The aforementioned Margmorita is a not-too-sweet version made using lime juice and agave products (including a Mexican, agave-based triple sec), as well as a rim with salt, pepper, onion, and garlic powder, as well as morita peppers.

The space came equipped with two wine coolers, one of which now contains bottles of tequila. “Our draft margaritas are best served ice cold, so they don’t dilute,” Gallina explains. “Starting with cold tequila makes that process easier.”

Also on tap are two beers (Modelo and Hopewell) and two wines (a white and a red). “The bar was designed for speed,” adds Gallina. “The items we sell the most of are on tap, so they can arrive quickly.”

The Service Model

The prior service model at Taqueria Morita was an outdoor, walk-up counter. At the brick-and-mortar location, guests order at the table using QR codes, with runners delivering the food and beverage, a hybrid system in which “staffers take care of guests once they’re seated and for the duration of the experience,” Gallina explains.

No one is happier with the new system than Martinez. “It sounds so basic to now be able to serve people inside and outside under a covered patio,” he says, “but operating an outdoors-only restaurant—setting up the kitchen every day and breaking it down every night—was fun for a minute but got to be a challenge.”

Additional Company Updates

Vicia, the group’s flagship restaurant, will be shifting to a la carte menu in May. “Although we loved the Farmer’s Feast format, we found that having only one, fixed price menu option was too limiting,” says Gallina. “Post-[pandemic], people were excited to try all sorts of new experiences, but 1712266418 diners are in a different place. By providing a la carte service, we can reach more people more often.”

Another way to do that will be at Vicia Wine Garden, which will take the garden-side pavilion space vacated by Taqueria Morita. It’s slated to open this summer. 

At Winslow’s Table, guests can now book the downstairs cellar room for breakfast, lunch, or dinner for up to 30 guests. “People walk downstairs not knowing what to expect, so it’s fun to see the smiles on their faces when they see the room,” Gallina says. 

At Bistro La Floraison, patio season is imminent. “Guests love the terraced patio because it adds an alfresco bistro experience to what is already happening indoors,” Gallina says.

And regarding the future of Taqueria Morita, Gallina says the group “would love to do another one of these, but it might be a minute,” because “good turnkey opportunities don’t come along every day.”

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