In 2008, chef John Cuevas was named a semifinalist for a James Beard Award, the restaurant world's version of an Oscar. He cooked at the upscale Montage Hotel in Laguna Beach, California.
"It sits on the Pacific Ocean on probably 30 of the most pristine acres available," he remembers.
Starting Friday, Cuevas will spend his days assembling tacos in a remodeled cinderblock building near Boise State University.
He is totally stoked.
Cuevas and his wife, Julie, are opening Madre, a fast-casual, boutique taqueria in the Lusk District at 1034 S. La Pointe St. The California-raised couple moved to Boise last year to take the plunge into restaurant ownership.
"We love what's going on food-wise here," he says.
Madre won't be quite like the others. Classically trained in French cooking, Cuevas created "playful American" cuisine at the Montage. The situation allowed him experiment. He has similar ambitions for Madre.
"We're going to be a playful bunch, and we're going to start really simple, and we're going to progress," he says. "I hope our menu changes on a one- or two-week rotation. As we find new things and see that the people that are visiting the restaurant are willing to go outside the box and try something different, we'll continue to progress."
"I firmly believe that thousands of things taste really good in between a tortilla."
Madre tacos are priced from $3.50 to $5. They are more substantial than street tacos, Cuevas says. But you'll definitely want to crush at least a couple.
"We want it to be an a la carte taqueria," he says. "We want people to venture out and try one or three different ones."
Start your taco adventure slowly with Og Crispy (ground beef, shredded lettuce, jack cheese, salsa/$3.50) or Carne Asada (grilled onion, avocado, salsa arbol/$5). Then try Idaho Spud & Chorizo (crispy potato, tomato mojo, jalapeno pesto/$4), Braised Short Rib (kimchi, fried peanuts, sesame-soy chile/$5) or Pork Carnitas (apple, confit tomato, caramelized onion/$4).
Chart new waters with Ensenada Fish (blackened fish, shaved cabbage, spiced crema/$5). Go shroomin' with Maitake Mushroom (crispy bacon, fundido, salsa roja/$4.50). Or stay in the garden with the vegetarian Avocado (grilled citrus, jicama slaw, crema/$4).
Eventually, Cuevas wants to guide Boiseans on a journey to unexplored taco galaxies.
"I'm going to hold their hand," he says with a chuckle. "We're going to do a taco of the day, and for instance, a taco of the day could be pan-seared diver scallop and pickled ramps with roasted corn and truffles."
Madre is across the street from student housing, so it will offer a Starving Student plate — two tacos with rice and beans for $12. It's also on the same block as The Shed bar and grill and Lost Grove Brewing. So the taqueria serves 11 regional craft beers and half a dozen Mexican beers, plus a few wines by the glass.
Hours will be limited for the next week. Soft openings are 5 to 9 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday through Wednesday. But starting Thursday, April 26, Madre should be fully open for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Customers will order at the counter with follow-up table service from mostly college-age staff. Diners will be able to soak up spring weather on the patio, which has a fire pit.
Cuevas hopes seats will be filled with open-minded patrons. Especially ones eager for fresh, house-crafted ingredients.
James Beard nod or not, this chef is fired up about cranking out some tacos.
"I look at food as the same — whether it's French or taco or cooking at home or making a sandwich," Cuevas says. "There's passion, there's love behind it, there's creativity.
"It's going to be edgy stuff, but it's going to be comfort (food). There's not going to be foam here and a dollop of this there. ... Fun, comfort, approachable, different is kind of what I'm trying to accomplish."