If you’re driving around City Park, Highland, or Governor’s Park looking for Pinche Tacos, keep an eye out for the logo—a donkey in a red star—and the words Tacos Tequila Whiskey. You won’t see “Pinche,” which is Spanish slang for the F-word, on the sign, on the building, or on the menu. That’s because when Kevin Morrison opened his first brick-and-mortar at the corner of Colfax Avenue and York Street in 2011, the city frowned and said the name couldn’t be in print. But after a year of serving street tacos from the Pinche Taco trailer at the Cherry Creek Farmers’ Market and Civic Center Eats, the name stuck.
By then, Denver was already wild for Morrison’s take on tacos, especially the queso a la plancha, which folds griddled Cotija cheese, avocado, roasted tomatillo salsa, and lime into a palm-size tortilla. That was the first of Pinche’s tacos to gain notoriety and it remains Morrison’s favorite. “It’s a good representation of Mexican cuisine. It doesn’t have to be spicy or have lots of ingredients, it can be simple,” he says.
What most people don’t know is that opening a taco business wasn’t Morrison’s first choice. “I wanted to do a burger place but within three months six burger joints opened. Tacos were second,” he says. It was a shrewd business move; Tacos Tequila Whiskey has grown from a mobile operation to include four locations, including one in Phoenix, Arizona. The newest outpost opened in March in Governor’s Park. And then there’s Fish N Beer in RiNo, a casual seafood and oyster restaurant, which Morrison opened in November 2016.
But before tacos and seafood, Morrison was in the sandwich business (he co-founded the Spicy Pickle in 1999) and before that he was in the produce business selling specialty baby lettuces, herbs, and vegetables. Food and cooking has always been a part of Morrison’s life—his first food memory from his childhood in Indiana was watching his grandmother make rolls for Christmas dinner. “We called them Nana’s Rolls and they were a savory yeast roll with cinnamon-sugar topping. I remember leaning over the table and watching her make them.” he says. Eventually, he traded college for culinary school at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Illinois.
After graduation and a few kitchen jobs, he landed in Chicago at Paul LoDuca’s highly acclaimed Vinci. It was 1992 and Morrison was 27. “He hired me on as his second sous chef. And he’s the guy who told me ‘Keep it simple, three ingredients is all you need.’” Morrison says. “He was hard on me, and he pushed me. I wouldn’t be where I would be today if I didn’t work with Paul.” Morrison still sees LoDuca every couple of years but he credits his current-day mentors as Frank Bonanno and Dave Query. “They don’t bullshit me. They tell me how it is,” he says.
These days Morrison spends less time in the kitchen and more time running the restaurants and managing his employees. But three days a week he jumps in and preps, just to get a feel for things. “It’s amazing what you can learn by listening.”
Read on for three more things you likely didn’t know about Morrison:
- On potentially career-ending moves… I was working at Vinci and we were right up the street from Charlie Trotter’s. He and his wife were in for dinner and I was in training for sous chef. I was working the salad station, and he ordered a panzanella. I had cut myself earlier that day and I made his salad and when I went to wipe my hands my Band-Aid was gone. I was thinking ‘Shit! Charlie Trotter is going to eat my Band-Aid! I’m going to be on the news, Chicago is going to kick me out!’ I looked down and it was on the floor.
- On “life-changing” dishes… I’ve had cancer twice and been through divorce. That’s life changing. Not food. Food can be amazing and it can build memories but it’s not life-changing.
- On no regrets… I was with the Spicy Pickle for 10 years. My business partner and I had three stores of our own, then we started franchising, and then we went public. Someday I’m going to write a book called From Spicy to Sour in Three Years. I got fired from my own company that I started. It was horrible but I don’t regret anything I’ve done business-wise. I like learning the hard way. I’ve learned what not to do.”