Tacos, burritos and torta sandwiches are standard fare for a Mexican restaurant. But Drunken Tacos Nightlife Café in Clifton Heights flips this familiar menu on its head by using East Asian flavors to create surprisingly spry and versatile meals that can satisfy the palate of any nationality. Also — as the restaurant name suggests — the drinks are worth more than a few sips.
Drunken Tacos is run by Inho Cha, the man who owns and operates Drunken Bento, a sushi and Korean restaurant located only a few doors down on West McMillan Street. A native of Seoul, Cha opened Drunken Bento eight years ago after graduating from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, where he studied violin.
Earlier this year, Cha decided he wanted to open a Mexican restaurant after being treated to the tacos made by his Latino kitchen crew at Drunken Bento. The quality of the Mexican and Guatemalan cuisine his staff served after work was so excellent that Cha had a feeling a new restaurant would thrive if he were to embrace their traditional recipes and introduce his own Korean influence.
“My favorite hobby is to eat out,” he says. “There’s no Mexican restaurant in Clifton except for the one on Ludlow (Los Potrillos). There’s Chipotle, but that’s different.”
Upon entering Drunken Tacos, the open kitchen behind the fully stocked bar greets you with the scents of hot pepper and grilled meat. The decor is simultaneously rustic and modern, creating a comfortable and welcoming environment. If the weather is fine, the south-facing wall, comprised of garage-door-style windows, can slide up to open onto the street. And with late-night hours — until 2:30 a.m. on weekends — Cha is hoping to become a neighborhood staple.
“We have a good reputation from Drunken Bento, so we didn’t really have to advertise at all when I opened this restaurant,” Cha says. “There was a different sushi restaurant at this location and they tried to compete with me and it didn’t work, so they gave up. There’s no reason for me to have two sushi restaurants on the same block. I wanted Clifton people to have more options for late-night food with a nice atmosphere, where they’d want to hang out.”
The Drunken Tacos menu offers a selection of “apetitivos” — chips and salsa, guacamole, surprisingly spicy queso dip, Mexican street corn, etc. — a handful of burrito and torta options and 10 taco styles, served on a corn or flour tortilla. There are standard ingredients like beans, steak and queso fresco, with extra unexpected fillings including daeji tacos with spicy pork, and one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes: bulgogi tacos.
The bulgogi incorporates Cha’s mother’s recipe for Korean-style marinated beef — its sweet flavor harmonizes with the heat from sliced jalapeños and fruitiness of grilled onion. It’s spicy enough to warn those with an aversion to capsaicin to try something less intense, such as the pollo taco (chicken with red cabbage, salsa verde and cilantro) or vegetal (mushrooms, purple cabbage, beans, sour cream, pico and queso fresco).
“My next plan is for a kimchi and tofu taco for vegetarians,” Cha says. “A lot of people do not like kimchi in Cincinnati, or they’re afraid of spicy cabbage. But in big cities it’s different. In Chicago, L.A., New York, everybody loves kimchi.”
Along with a lengthy beer list, specialty cocktails like a Mexican Mule (tequila and ginger beer) and almost 20 types of tequila, there are seven “house margaritas,” available by the glass or pitcher. The traditional margarita is more tart than sweet, which may surprise a few ’rita rookies who are accustomed to overly sweet strip-mall Mexican drinks. FC Cincinnati fans have been known to arrive at Drunken Tacos en masse before heading to Nippert Stadium for pitchers of “Just Peachy” margs (peach purée with rum) — colored bright orange to match FCC spiritwear.
Before it was called Drunken Bento, Cha’s first restaurant was named iZen, eliciting the modernity of iPhones and contrasting with the ancient mysticism of Zen Buddhism. It didn’t catch on as well as he wished. He changed the name to iZen’s Bento when he started offering boxed lunches, or bentos, as a dining option. This was before Cha purchased a liquor license. Once his restaurant started pouring drinks, business really flowed and he changed the name to Drunken Bento.
“I got inspired from my favorite Korean Hip Hop band, Drunken Tiger,” Cha says.
Because the restaurant operates bar hours, Cha expects a lot from his kitchen staff. “We prep in the morning, then after lunch, again after dinner and then one more time, for late night. It’s more work, but it’s more fresh,” he says. Cha maintains a near constant presence in his restaurants. Casual diners will know him by sight after only a few visits.
“I want very, very friendly customer service from my staff. I joke around with people all the time, with my employees while they’re doing work. After work I yell at them, after they’ve clocked out, if I saw something wrong. If I yell at them during work, they can’t smile. After work I become evil. There’s a balance,” Cha says with a laugh.
“Restaurant business is all about the long run. I don’t see tomorrow or the day after tomorrow; I see two years. I try not to follow the money. Money naturally follows me later on. It’s always reputation first, rather than money. Everyone at my table is my teacher.”
Drunken Tacos Nightlife Café is located at 200 W. McMillan St., Clifton, 513-721-9111, facebook.com/ucdrunkentaco.