Food News

Taco the Town: The Latest Word on the Chain That Got Its Start as Pinche Tacos

An array of tacos at Tacos Tequila Whiskey.
An array of tacos at Tacos Tequila Whiskey. Tacos Tequila Whiskey
"When I started with the food truck, I was a chef launching a business — and the next thing you know, I had four restaurants and two concepts in two states," recalls Kevin Morrison, owner of Tacos Tequila Whiskey, which celebrates its tenth anniversary on October 31. "It was quite the learning curve."

That food truck was called Pinche (Spanish slang that translates to "fucking" in many kitchens) Tacos, which Morrison launched in 2010. "I'll never forget the first event we did. It was at the Stapleton Farmers' Market, and I went and vomited because I was so nervous," he admits.

And the taco truck wasn't even his first business venture. In 1999, Morrison co-founded the Spicy Pickle, a sandwich shop that grew from modest beginnings in Capitol Hill to a chain with over forty locations before Morrison left the company to return to his culinary roots. (All of the Spicy Pickle locations eventually shuttered, though a former employee brought back a single shop on Lawrence Street in 2015.)

Before going into the sandwich business, Morrison had worked back-of-the-house roles in Chicago and Aspen and done a stint as sous chef at Barolo Grill. The truck was simply a way for him to get back on the line without a huge investment. "Honestly, there was no thought of 'How I am I gonna grow this? Am I going to turn it into a restaurant?'" he says. But that's exactly what happened.

In its first year, Pinche Tacos was a hit at farmers' markets. Morrison notes that while today "there's a lot more competition," elevated tacos weren't yet a trend in Denver, and Morrison was having fun running the small but busy operation. "We had no full-time crew," he says. "I was doing everything, and just for one event, it was like a 24/7 project. If you looked at the sales for the hours I worked, it probably wasn't a good move."

Then in March 2011, Pinche was named Westword's pick in the Best of Denver food-truck category. The win prompted Morrison to consider taking the concept to a brick-and-mortar. "We went out, raised some capital, and then we opened Halloween night," he recalls. The original Pinche Tacos is located at 1514 York Street, just off Colfax Avenue in the City Park neighborhood. "It just felt right; it was awesome," Morrison says of the first time he went and looked at the space. It was also affordable: "If the business went belly-up, I could get a job cooking again and afford rent on my own."

The restaurant's opening day the coincided with more big news. "Me and my wife at the time, we found out that morning we were pregnant with twins," Morrison recalls. "Once again, it wasn't like, 'How are we gonna make this happen?' We just did. We just did it," he says, laughing.

Less than a year later, Pinche Tacos got another boost when Bon Appétit named it one of the fifty best new restaurants in the country. "That was wild," Morrison says. In February 2013, he added a second location at 3300 West 32nd Avenue. By then, though, something had changed: the name.

"There was no market research, there were no studies," Morrison says of the process of choosing the original moniker. "I don't know if it was just being naive or what, but it was like, 'We're in Denver making tacos — who's going to hear about us?'" But as the business grew, so did the group of people who objected to what they deemed an an offensive name, including a key person at the state liquor board.

Today the brand is officially known simply as Tacos Tequila Whiskey, but many fans never made the switch. "I love when people say, 'Yeah, we still call you Pinche Tacos.' It feels good," Morrison admits.
click to enlarge After a decade slinging tacos, Kevin Morrison is ready for ten more years. - TACOS TEQUILA WHISKEY
After a decade slinging tacos, Kevin Morrison is ready for ten more years.
Tacos Tequila Whiskey

The business kept growing. Over fifteen months, he says, "We went on a rampage and opened three new restaurants, one of which was out of state, and one was a new concept." In late 2016, Fish N Beer debuted in RiNo; in 2017, Morrison made a move to Arizona with the opening of a Tacos Tequila Whiskey in Phoenix; and in March 2018 he opened Denver's third Tacos Tequila Whiskey, at 215 East Seventh Avenue.

After that, though, the challenges came hard and fast. A fire in late 2018 shut down Fish N Beer for over four months; the Phoenix location closed in the summer of 2019. "Phoenix just did not work," Morrison explains. "Love that city. Who knows? We might be back there one day. But honestly, I made some poor decisions about putting the right people in the wrong positions, and realized it's more than just your systems and your food and cocktails when it comes to going out of state."

Then COVID hit. "It taught me a shitload of lessons," Morrison says of the past nineteen months, making the upcoming celebration of a decade in business the perfect time to reflect on the future of the brand. "Our approach is quite a bit different," he adds.

Many of the changes stem from Morrison's self-reflection. "I realized that I need to be a better owner and a better leader," he admits. "Our culture is the most important thing we can do in business, and I learned that the hard way. I was the typical back-of-the-house guy with the temper."

The pandemic gave him a kind of reset on his outlook. "It helped me have more empathy — not just for my little bubble, but for my vendors, for other people in business," he says, and it also gave him a different attitude about what success means financially. "Breaking even is not a bad thing anymore," he notes.

"The goal is to make this an industry where people want to stick around and want to have careers," Morrison explains, adding that the long hours and the work hard/play hard culture of the past is unhealthy and unsustainable. So he's brought on a new team member whose job is to focus on culture. Other changes, such as open-door policies, increasing salaries, cutting back on hours for management and going from 50-to-55-hour work weeks to 42 to create a better work/life balance, are all in process.

Mental health is also now a focus. "I've always suffered from anxiety and depression," Morrison explains. "And I've always just dealt with it — or felt like I dealt with it. But now I'm really dealing with it by being more active physically and really trying to pay attention to how I'm feeling mentally. And we're implementing that to the staff slowly."

The shifts that are happening now at Tacos Tequila Whiskey and at restaurants all over the country haven't been easy for some longtime industry vets, including Morrison. "I fought it for the longest time," he admits. "But it's different now, and you either have to adapt or you're not going to be around."

One thing that won't change, though, is Morrison's dedication to high-quality, creative tacos. Food is his first passion and remains a driving force. "We look at the taco and think about how to elevate it. How do we continuously elevate it and have value there?" he muses.

He's keeping the creativity rolling at the Governor's Park location, which was recently rebranded as Taco Bar. The goal is to test a more fast-casual concept and give the kitchen managers a chance to change the menu regularly, using Tacos Tequila Whiskey's binders full of recipes for specials and creative dishes as reference.

Tacos Tequila Whiskey has also opened a spot at Empower Field, which Morrison says has been "really fun and a new learning experience." Plans are in the works to take the concept to Denver International Airport, too, most likely in late 2022 or early 2023.

"Looking back, it's been a crazy ride," Morrison concludes. "I'm kind of glad I didn't project out what I was going to be doing, because I'm not sure we would have gotten there. ... I'm really grateful for the opportunities that have come our way, and I truly believe you'll get the right opportunity when you're ready for it." 
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin