To my kids, Farmer Jason is just a lovable guitar-playing goofball in overalls who spices up their morning NPT viewing. But whenever Jason Ringenberg — the eponymous frontman for the '80s cowpunk sensation Jason & the Scorchers — breaks into a chorus of his kid-friendly "Guitar-Pickin' Chicken," I hear a complex melody of past and present. To me, Farmer Jason's simple, addictive tunes represent a medley of my bygone youth and my present-day parenthood. I hear the din of long-ago late nights with the Scorchers' Lost and Found cassette blasting from the car stereo, and the squeal of happy early mornings when I dance to songs from Farmer Jason's Rockin' in the Forest at Belcourt Theatre children's concerts. In the music and lyrics of this country-punk-star-turned-Emmy-winning-kiddie-crooner, what I hear is the promise that even though life as a middle-aged parent isn't all that "cool," it still rocks.
That's the same message, albeit in culinary terms, that's coming out of The Local Taco in Brentwood, where culinary rock star Deb Paquette is turning her high-voltage talents to a low-key family-friendly dining experience. Since closing her much-beloved North African-and-Mediterranean restaurant, Zola, earlier this year, Paquette and husband Ernie have been lining up jobs in the Caribbean, where they will head later this fall. In the meantime, Paquette's former colleague and Local Taco co-owner Jay Pennington lured her to Brentwood to help open the second Local Taco store and to develop the menu into something that can expand with the nascent Local Taco brand.
If you're familiar with the original Local Taco, which debuted in spring 2009 on Murphy Road, wipe that image from your mind. Situated near the southeast corner of the intersection of Old Hickory Boulevard and Franklin Road, the Brentwood store is a much more polished enterprise than its forerunner. While the first store has a casual beach-shack ambiance, with the majority of seating on the patio, the southern outpost introduces a thorough design concept, with a riot of colors, patterns, wallpapers, upholstery and glass garage doors, across a maze of multilevel booths and built-ins. Most notably, the Brentwood store has full table service at dinner, while Local Taco's Murphy Road operates like a taco stand with counter service.
The taco section of the menu reads largely the same at both locations (Korean barbecue, Buffalo chicken, Southern fried chicken, tequila-lime chicken and fish tacos appear on both lists), but Paquette's fingerprints are all over the new place, elevating the tacos to the level of creativity that many guests had hoped to see in the early days at Murphy Road. Look no further than the fish taco for a welcome reprise of Zola-style creativity, where a drizzle of smoked cauliflower remoulade adds unexpected depth to the wrap of golden-fried haddock, shredded lettuce and jalapenos. Smoked salmon tacos bundle cold-smoked fish with a medley of caper-horseradish crema, pickled onions, cucumbers and cilantro, while a Mediterranean-accented grilled lamb meatball taco bulges with eggplant, pickled cucumbers, feta and oregano vinaigrette. Paquette explores daily special tacos with fillings ranging from chicken Stroganoff to grilled salmon with mangos and cumin-tinged black beans. And, yes, that's Zola's famous Beet & Heat, with pumpkin seeds, bacon and goat cheese, listed among the salads.
While Murphy Road sticks close to the tortilla-rolled script that the restaurant's name implies, Brentwood pushes beyond handheld wraps to introduce appetizers and entrées that comfortably straddle the line between fine-dining and family-friendly fare. Grilled peel-and-eat shrimp slipped gracefully out of the their shells, ready for dipping in a sultry black-bean butter. Crisp taquitos stuffed with tender duck and chewy figs, served with candied cranberries and a syrup of agave, chili and peanuts, went over equally well with kids and adults, proving the theory that creative excellence transcends the boundaries of age. (Sort of like when Mommy gets "Guitar Pickin' Chicken" stuck in her head.)
And while our kids blissed out over Jarritos sodas, cheese quesadillas and fried chicken tacos, we indulged in the nostalgia of our Zola-loving days, with entrées that were unmistakably Paquette-inspired. Peruvian steak delivered a decadent pile-on of wide ribbons of thin-sliced grilled New York strip smothered with cool guacamole. Beneath the manly mound of meat and avocado lurked a low-profile quesadilla, browned to a crisp and filled with mashed potatoes and caramelized onions.
The highlight of the meal was another still life that would have sat as comfortably within the sand dune-muraled walls of Paquette's sultry West End dining room as it did among the cheery margarita-swilling and baby-toting crowd at Local Taco: a plank of flash-fried salmon with a sandy coating of crushed pumpkin seeds nestled on a crisp quesadilla filled with diced sweet potatoes, golden raisins, ginger goat cheese and caramelized onions. Finished with cool lime crema and an intense cranberry glaze and topped with generous mounds of mango salsa, the dish delivered the inventive variety of temperatures, colors and textures that perennially landed Zola on best-restaurant lists from the Nashville Scene to Gourmet magazine.
Of course, the Paquettes are blowing this taco stand called Nashville in a month or so, and it remains to be seen whether the Local Taco team can faithfully carry out Deb's recipes. For now, though, the Brentwood restaurant is off to a promising start, and you've got a chance to stop by and wish "bon voyage" to a longtime local favorite. While you're there, you just might discover a new one.
The Local Taco opens at 11 a.m. daily.
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