The taco is a miraculous food. What else can you say about a dish ubiquitous and versatile enough to hold Taco Bell and quesabirria on the same plate? Endlessly customizable, countless combinations of meats and non-meats, toppings and accouterments all find their home in the humbly folded tortilla.

 

The embrace of Mexican and other Latin American flavors can be seen throughout Arkansas, from food trucks serving up family recipes to restaurateurs putting their own spin on the classics. One need only look to Central Arkansas landmarks such as Doe’s Eat Place and its hot tamales, or Mexico Chiquito and its Arkansas-culture-defining cheese dip, to see just how intertwined the two foodways are.

 

In 2018, Mockingbird Bar + Tacos, then known as Dos Rocas, entered into this ongoing story. Originally owned by Paraguay native and longtime Root Cafe kitchen manager Cesar Bordon, along with wife Adelia Kittrell and Root owners Jack Sundell and Corri Bristow-Sundell, Dos Rocas was a testament to the strong connections between the American South and Latin America. The South Main neighborhood spot’s name, meaning “two rocks”, was a homage to both Bordon’s hometown and his adopted home of Little Rock.

 

The next year, the Sundells took full control of the restaurant, re-christening the space as Mockingbird in reference to the state bird. The Sundells combined the Root’s successful farm-to-table philosophy with Dos Rocas’ existing focus on Latin American flavors. This “farm-to-taco” approach, of seeing Latin American dishes through the lens of Arkansas produce, is another example of the melding of myriad cultures that has been happening since the taco first took off.

 

In August 2022, the Sundells sold Mockingbird to JLC Entertainment Holdings, a partnership made up of Cabot restaurateur John Campbell and wife Lisa, along with father and son duo Harry and Joe Einhorn. Under part-owner and Executive Chef Stephen “Buddy” Seals, the name and concept have not been abandoned, but instead tightened, polished and perfected. Today, the goal is to make “The Bird,” as it is affectionately known, a mainstay in the SoMa district.

 

“People want to see consistency,” Campbell said. “Here we are, kind of Dos Rocas 3.0 or Mockingbird 2.0. Going into that, we were up against, ‘Oh, this is the third version,’ so we really had to step up and prove ourselves.”

 

Done right, the humble taco is a remarkably detailed and nuanced dish, and the history of the street delicacy is no different. Even the origins of the word itself abound in theory. Some etymologies point to the indigenous Nahuatl words tlahco and tlaxcalli, with the first meaning “half” or “in the middle” and the second referring to a type of corn tortilla.

 

The experts at the Real Academia Española load the word “taco” with no less than 27 meanings. The definition most Americans imagine, translated roughly as “corn tortilla rolled up with some kind of food inside, typical of Mexico,” doesn’t show up until definition No. 10. Instead, the first definition refers to a short, thick piece of wood or other material used to fill a hole.

 

It’s this link that fills in the gaps for food historians such as Jeffrey Pilcher, professor at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food. Pilcher and others trace the use of the word back to Mexican silver mines in the 18th century. For the miners, tacos referred to explosive charges used to excavate ore; gunpowder would be wrapped in paper and shoved into holes carved into the rockface.

 

According to Pilcher, one of the first types of edible tacos described in writing is the taco de minero, or miner’s taco. Highlighting this connection in a 2012 interview with Smithsonian Magazine, Pilcher said, “When you think about it, a chicken taquito with a good hot sauce is really a lot like a stick of dynamite.”

 

Regardless of how recently it came to be, the taco was quickly adopted into a diversity of styles and flavors across Mexico. Unsurprisingly, the Baja peninsula and Pacific Coast regions are home to a wealth of seafood varieties, while the north favors options like carne asada and barbacoa. Fillings more adventurous to the American palate can be found to the south, including chapulines (grasshopper) and hormiga chicatana (flying ants).

 

In one especially interesting culinary inflection point, the Mexican-born children of Lebanese immigrants in the 1960s adapted the vertical rotisserie technique used to make shawarma and gyro, switching out lamb for pork and adding a chili marinade. The result? Tacos al pastor, with pastor (shepherd) a reference to the dish’s previously-ovine filling. Today, tacos al pastor are a staple in taquerías across Mexico and make regular appearances on menus in the U.S., proving that time can make a traditional dish out of any fusion food.

 

The taco eventually made its way to the United States in the early 1900s, following Mexican immigrants looking for work in mines or on the railroad. As the decades wore on, families adapted their recipes to use different ingredients, such as hamburger meat, cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce and tomato, made plentiful by the American food-processing industry.

 

Tacos dorados, or golden tacos, fried into a deliciously crunchy shell, are the style that ended up taking the United States by storm. According to Gustavo Arellano, journalist and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, the first celebrity chef of Mexican food was actually a Southern housewife, Bertha Haffner-Ginger, whose 1914 California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book feature the earliest known English-language taco recipe.

 

If the idea of a crunchy shell filled with meat, cheese, shredded lettuce and tomato rings a bell, it’s for good reason. Glen Bell, founder of Taco Bell, started selling those now-omnipresent crunchy tacos in 1951. His inspiration was the Mitla Café, a restaurant across the street from his burger stand. Opened in 1937 and still run by the family today, Lucia Rodriguez’s restaurant had people lining up daily for her signature 10-cent tacos dorados, and Bell wanted in.

 

As Arellano explained to MEL magazine in 2020, “The entrepreneur befriended staff and family alike, working his way into the kitchen in order to decipher the secrets behind the beguiling taco that was proving so popular in what was then San Bernardino’s barrio district.”

 

Bell decided to try his hand at a fast-food taco for the masses, and after a decade under the names Bell’s Drive-In and Taco Tia, the first Taco Bell opened in 1962. In addition to making the frying-and-serving process more efficient, Pilcher posits that Bell’s real success had to do with being a non-Mexican serving tacos across the lines of segregation separating Mexican and white communities.

 

“Basically, he was able to make his fortune because there were large numbers of people who didn’t want to go into a Mexican neighborhood to buy tacos, and yet who were excited by the exoticism of this dish,” Pilcher said.

 

While Glen Bell set off the chain of events that would culminate in such brazen items as the Crunchwrap Supreme and Doritos Locos Tacos, Mexican Americans themselves carried their recipes all across the United States, mixing a new layer into the nation’s melting pot. Today, taco traditions have evolved into an ever-expanding list of fusions and reinterpretations.

 

Uber-popular on the West Coast are Korean-Mexican tacos with bulgogi beef and kimchi. Clever crossovers to the South and the North reiterate the flavors of Nashville hot chicken and paneer tikka masala, served in a tortilla made of naan or roti, in case you’re curious. Tex-Mex, Fresh-Mex, Deli-Mex, Ark-Mex; in all these cases and more, the taco has become a tasty template for experimentation and innovation.

 

Writing in Gravy, the journal of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Arellano made his case for why, in many ways, Mexican food is an inextricable piece of the Southern U.S. food puzzle. Southern food has always been a blending of influences, of using what you have and getting the most out of it, of diverse histories and backgrounds. Defending the honor of Southern Mexican food from West Coast purists, Arellano concluded, “Carne asada tacos are now as Southern as biscuits and gravy, whether people want to believe it or not.”

 

Back in SoMa, Mockingbird was at a crossroads, with new ownership needing to strike a balance between history and novelty. Not unlike the taco itself, success has been a matter of adaptation, of taking an already-beloved form and putting it in the context of the culture around it.

 

Chef Seals estimated that he kept about 15 to 20 percent of the original menu, but even the items that did stay were tweaked to his personal style and standard. The umami-packed, three-hour-smoked carrot taco is still a menu staple, as is the shiitake mushroom option. The newest vegetarian-friendly offering, the street corn taco, is a creamy, cotija-cheese covered delight topped with peppers, onions and jalapeños.

 

Mockingbird’s award-winning cheese dip is a no-frills, flavor-packed statement piece.

 

Some of the most popular menu changes, however, have taken place outside of the taco plates. The smoked wings, available in either a spicy macha sauce or pecan glaze, are quickly making a name for themselves as the best in Little Rock. The cheese dip – a simple but artfully done mixture of high-quality cheese, pureed jalapeños, water and more of that irresistible house-made seasoning – nabbed first place at the 11th annual World Cheese Dip Championship last October, further solidifying The Bird’s place in Arkansas’ culinary canon.

 

taco bucket list mockingbird

Among the Bird’s non-taco offerings, the smoked wings are a smash hit.

 

An improved-upon holdover from previous menus, the carnitas are a personal favorite of Seals’ and a bestseller to boot.

 

“My sous chef Caleb Velasquez, it’s actually his recipe, and they’re the best carnitas I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t change them if you paid me,” Seals said. “From the oregano to the cinnamon to the chipotle, he rubs all the things into it. He sears it really hard in the cast iron before braising it in the oven. It’s got guajillo peppers, bay leaves, garlic cloves and cinnamon sticks in the liquid, and when it comes out of the braising liquid, it’s already fall-apart tender. He cooks it again on top of the stove and reduces it down again until it’s imparted with flavor all the way through, tender, juicy and just perfect. They’re absolutely perfect.”

 

“Absolutely perfect” pretty well captures Seals’ approach to cooking. After kicking off his career at Burger King at 15, he spent over a decade at Cracker Barrel before honing his craft further in the kitchens of the Capital Hotel, John Daly’s Steakhouse and Cabot’s Greystone Country Club. It was at this last stop that Seals caught the attention of John Campbell.

 

For John Campbell (left) and Chef Stephen “Buddy” Seals (right), Mockingbird’s success is just a taste of what’s to come.

 

“I was at a Mother’s Day brunch that [Chef Seals] did,” Campbell said. “I was just blown away at how quickly the food came out and that everything was just spot on.”

 

Campbell and JLC Entertainment didn’t have anything concrete yet, but with big plans on the horizon, he offered Seals a spot at his Pizza Pro franchise in the meantime. When the opportunity to buy The Bird came along, Seals was impressed with how ready-to-go the whole operation seemed. Armed with almost two decades of experience making the most out of any kitchen space, Seals focused on turning an already-successful concept into a truly thriving one. To achieve that, efficiency has been the name of his game.

 

“Cracker Barrel drilled that stuff into you. They didn’t have a lot of space on their line, but we could feed something like 1,000 people on a Sunday,” Seals said. “It makes you really appreciate every step that you take as being something important. No wasted steps, no wasted anything.”

 

Rather than taking the drill sergeant approach, Seals trusts the people in his kitchen to buy into his vision. As a natural leader and people person, Seals provides the tools, the guidance and the support, but at the end of the day, his crew is motivated by a love for the work and a pride in doing it well.

 

“I think the quality and the efficiency of the food, and the bar as well, really makes us stand apart,” Seals said. “You can come in here, and there could be a full restaurant; in 10 minutes, you’re going to have your hot, delicious, beautiful food in front of you.”

 

Efficiency by way of cross-utilizing ingredients is a key strategy for Seals, and using quality products in a variety of ways has proved especially useful when putting together the Sunday brunch menu. Thus, the killer smoked wings became wings and waffles. The fresh-Mex bowl was a hit with lunch and dinner guests, so he made a brunch version with fried potatoes, chorizo, street corn and cheese before topping the whole thing off with a fried egg. The tres leches cake – also one of sous chef Velasquez’s recipes – was transformed into a tres leches french toast, complete with a cinnamon whipped cream and blueberry compote. A quesadilla altered for breakfast ingredients was a no-brainer.

 

There is one ironic gap in the brunch offerings, however.

 

“Everyone is like, ‘Why didn’t you do breakfast tacos?’” Seals said. “That’s too obvious, right? That’s too obvious.”

 

As for the rest of the menu, Seals hopes to eventually lean into more appetizers and a few bigger entrees. In any case, he’s not interested in anything too drastic, just small, tasteful changes. Campbell, for his part, is confident in Seals, in his team and in the deep calling they feel to serve people, whether at The Bird or one of their future concepts.

 

“Bar none, I’ve never seen anybody do what he does out of what he’s got to work with,” Campbell said. “You’ve got to make a profit, but the actual reason we’re in this business is because of the hospitality. Food is a love language for a lot of people. A good meal can change somebody’s day.”

 

“Good cheese dip will change your life, too.”

taco bucket list

 

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