At Macho Taco Cantina on Highway 98, Chef and Owner Stephen Bucalo paints outside the lines with a precise brush. Bucalo’s 9-year-old son set the canvas when he threw out the name “Macho Taco” at a family dinner. His sister, a graphic designer in New York, did all the design work, and Bucalo got to work bringing his 21-plus years of restaurant experience and innovative ideas to the Mexican-inspired soul food concept.
Chef Bucalo grew up in the South but has New Yorker parents and an extended family in Italy. Family meals and slow cooking are part of his DNA.
“I wanted a combination of food that I was really passionate about and interested in with the opportunity to be able to put a twist on recipes to make them unique to my background.”
His influences show in dishes like the Flatbread Taco piled high with barky burnt ends, pickled onion, and zingy poblano peppers. “I love slow-cooked food. And I think tacos are just a great vehicle. You can pretty much put anything on a taco. I use a lot of South American flavors but with my own concept. Barbecue has also been a huge part of my life and I think smoked meats and the slow cooking process goes back to my Italian heritage.”
Chef Bucalo sees dishes and thinks about how he can transform them into better versions more aligned with what he likes to eat, like enchiladas. “My favorite element of an enchilada is the crispy edges. I thought to myself, why can’t we have that crispiness all through? That led to our Smothered Enchiladas which are fried first to make ensure everything is crispy, and then we cheese sauce it and put our enchilada sauce on. The result is every bite is crisper instead of being mushy.”
But it doesn’t stop at enchiladas and taco fillings. Mole is a wet sauce used in Mexican cooking for marinades and braises, but Bucalo made a dry rub variation using 50 different spices from cocoa powder to sunflower seeds for his chicken. “It’s a way to pay homage to flavors I love, but with my twist. The batter for our cauliflower bites and the new salt and pepper shrimp is a tempura, but we use Fritos. It’s giving you that awesome corn and salty flavor, you recognize it, but you can’t quite get your head around what it is.” Yummy, that’s what it is.
One thing you won’t find at Macho Taco Cantina is pico de gallo, the ubiquitous topping for tacos. Bucalo refuses to make pico because as it sits, the flavor profile changes. He wants guests to get that same fresh flavor in every bite. But there are lots of hot sauces and salsas to choose from. The wall of hot sauces is the first I’ve ever seen and there are some goodies, including some locally produced.
Complementing the wall of bottles are vibrant murals and artwork. Local artist Lindsay Tobias created the breathtaking painting of Frida Kahlo facing the bar. Ricky Cavaness, a tattoo artist and photographer who splits his time between Santa Rosa Beach and Nashville, created the multi-colored octopus covering the front wall. The tentacles reach across the restaurant as the sea creature munches on some chips and guacamole, adding to the unique cantina vibe Bucalo strives for. “I don’t want to be a stock standard. I don’t want to be known as a traditional Mexican restaurant. I want people to come in and have a different experience with me.”
Brunch and an inventive cocktail program round out the menu. Dishes like Bucalo’s favorite brunch item, Creme Fraiche Pancakes topped with candied lemon, whipped cream, and maple syrup anchor the brunch menu alongside hefty Smothered Breakfast Burritos filled with marinated skirt-steak, black beans, pickled onions, grilled poblanos, eggs, queso fresco and topped with queso and sliced avocados. Then Huckleberry Frozen Lemonades and a staggering selection of margaritas wash all that Mexican-inspired soul food down.
“We combine different flavors and cultures to make a cool melting pot of taste—you might not see these two things together normally, but wow, when you try it, you see it works.”
“We keep testing boundaries. We’re painting outside the lines, but there is control as we create new flavor profiles—we’re not just throwing things together; we work to perfect everything.”