Rocco Mangel of Rocco’s Tacos & Tequila Bar.
This story is from February of 2008. At the time I posted this on a website I created that featured places to go and things to do in the Palm Beach area. It’s interesting to look back at this because Rocco’s Tacos has grown to be such a solid restaurant brand in Palm Beach County over the past 10 years.
I recently had a chance to chat with Rocco of the hip, new Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar. It was soon apparent to me that this restaurant is turning into a destination all on it’s own on Clematis. It has only been open for three months, but the impact it has made on the downtown area is already being noticed by people around town.
With a grandfather who was general manager of the Copacabana and a father in the restaurant biz, Rocco Mangel has restaurants in his genes. He arrived in the West Palm area on Labor Day of 1997 at the age of 24 ready to work in the busiest restaurant around. At the time that was Big City Grill owned by the BigTime Restaurant Group(BTRG). The fact that Big City wasn’t hiring waiters at the time didn’t stop Rocco. He told them he’d take anything so he started as a bus boy. He soon had the job he wanted and spent the next 4 years making relationships that would prove invaluable.
From the restaurant business Rocco took a detour into nightclubs. A new wife helped encourage him to leave that behind and he was soon head maitre d’ of an upscale Mexican restaurant and tequila bar in Boca Raton called Moquila. Three months later he was general manager. After learning what he could, he decided to take six months off. During that time Rocco had one of those chance encounters that changes everything.
“I went to City Cellar to get a steak to go and ran into one of the Big Time Restaurant guys, Bill Watson” recalls Rocco. That led to talk about the then empty space that was once occupied by Big City Grill. With a promise by Bill to call, Rocco left. Much to his amazement, Bill did call and a meeting was set up with the owners of the BTRG, Bill, Todd Herbst, and Lisabet Summa. Rocco knew Mexican from working at Moquila and that was the direction they decided to go in to start a new restaurant. From that meeting a partnership was formed with BTRG and Rocco.
Next on the horizon was a road trip. “We wanted to make the restaurant decor as authentic Mexican as we could.” So down to Mexico went Todd and Rocco. They visited restaurants in Guadalajara and Tlaquepaque to learn about the kind of food they wanted. They looked at the furniture made in Tonala. “We had a really good time in Mexico” Rocco said with a grin.
Once back in the States, the lease was secured and work was started on the menu “it was a combined effort where we came up with the wonderful menu”. The two main creators were Lisabet Summa, culinary director at BTRG and Rocco’s Tacos executive chef, Nunzio Billante. Nunzio himself comes from a restaurant family. His family owns Bellagio at CityPlace. Where lesser chefs may have chosen to take the easy route and rely on nepotism, Nunzio wanted to stand on his own and create his own way in the culinary world. With a background of having worked with chefs like Rick Bayless of Frontera Grill in Chicago, Roberto Santiba of Rosa Mexicano and Chef Ivy Stark currently of Amalia in NYC, Nunzio rounds out the phenomenal team that makes up RT.
Work on the decor soon started and with all of the Mexican made furniture, fixtures and glassware, it is as authentic as the food. The tone of the restaurant is set even before you step in the door. The front doors are painted a bright green. “We actually took a Patron box, brought it to the paint store and matched the Patron green exactly.” With that light-hearted approach, the mood is set. You won’t want to miss the masks in the front reception area. They are from Dia del Muerte and are supposed to ward off evil spirits. There are 35 in all and they make quite an impact. Looking around inside, you can see that the lighting is an important part of the restaurant. The amber tones in the chandeliers help create a beautiful, and very flattering, glow. The chandelier in the front of the restaurant is 9 feet across. It has 154 stars. Rocco and Nunzio put them together themselves. That same spirit of camaraderie also carries through to their day to day working relationship. Says Nunzio “There’s no bumping heads. [If] We don’t agree on something we talk about it. We come up with a solution.”
After you’ve eaten here once, you’ll realize that at Rocco’s it’s all about the food. The ambiance is perfect. The tequila is unbelievable. Who knew there were so many different types of tequila? 175 choices at Rocco’s alone. According to Rocco, “Wine is to Italy as Tequila is to Mexico.” But, the food and the great prices will have you coming back for more. I’ve been a couple of times and each time I’ve had to walk off dinner along Clematis.
When I asked Rocco about the spice on the chips he told me that it’s a special spice made up just for the restaurant called “Rocco’s Spice” so I didn’t learn any secrets there. I did find out that the reason the guacamole guy, the guy who will come to your table and prepare guacamole in front of you and to order, uses Haas avocados is because they have a creamier and sweeter texture than the avocados that grow around here. I tried to pin down Rocco on his personal favorite from the menu and if he had to pick one thing, he said it was the Durango. It’s a combination platter with a barbeque pork tostada, a skirt steak taco and a quesadilla con queso.
With Rocco’s Tacos open now on Clematis it seems like a freshly scented breeze straight from Mexico is blowing down the street. Rocco has heard quite a few comments about it already. “I had a police officer walk in and tell me that he never thought that he would see this many nicely dressed and well behaved people on Clematis street again. That’s a nice compliment.”
Getting a chance to visit with Rocco. Have one of his, I’m sure soon to be famous, tacos. I wondered what it felt like to be doing something that he seemed to be so passionate about. Rocco told me “When I gave my opening speech I said that 10 years ago today I was a bus boy. And people, they appreciate that. My staff respects me more because of it. I’ve done it. I tell them all the time “bring it.” Bring on your hardships. Let me know because I was there.”
Also written for my website in May,2008.
With little more than her Around-the-World ticket and a guidebook or two, the owner of Barzina is about to set off on the trip of a lifetime. For the tenth time anyway. While some people would be holding going away parties and telling everyone they meet about their big plans, at Barzina the most you’re going to see is a little notice in the window and a sale going on inside. It’s just the owner, Gretchen’s annual four-month buying trip. Now that the season is officially over, Gretchen and I were able to chat one slow Saturday afternoon about her plans and adventures she’s had on past trips.
Gretchen started Barzina in Palm Beach 18 years ago. When she first opened her store, she went to market in Dallas thinking that since most of the stores here shop in Atlanta or New York, she’d be able to find a different selection of merchandise. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as it turned out that a lot of the lines would show in different markets. “It wasn’t unique enough” Gretchen told me. Many people would have let that problem defeat them, but Gretchen thought outside of the box and decided to combine her love of travel along with our seasonal commercial market to her advantage. About 13 years ago, she took her first trip to Italy for two weeks. The next year she added France and England. Then Greece and Turkey. After that she thought of Asia. Another shop owner from the Avenue had gone to Asia “She told me how much she detested it. So I thought I’ll go one time just so I can say “been there - done that” [but] I fell so madly in love with Asia.”
This year, leaving June 1st, Gretchen starts her trip out in Beijing. It’s funny, there are things that don’t occur to me as I’ve never been to a country that uses a different alphabet. Gretchen showed me a piece of paper with her favorite restaurant in Beijing written on it. In English it says “My Humble House” and then there are the Chinese characters. Gretchen explained to me “You never get in a cab in China without having written, Chinese directions. Taxi drivers don’t speak English and they don’t read English. The first time I went to China, we jumped into a taxi and said “Take us to The Bund” and I had a guidebook in English and I showed him the guidebook. [Finally] he got out of the taxi and yelled “Does anybody speak English?” So a guy came over and translated and then we were able to go.”
Another time when Gretchen was in China, this time traveling with a friend who is a chef, the friend was determined to eat snake. So off to a snake restaurant they went. “It had cages of all the animals outside. There were ducks, cats, dogs, all kinds of birds, fish, eels, and snakes. I ate rice for days.” After they sat down, they were asked to pick out their snake. One snake was too big, one too small, and like Goldilocks, finally one was just right. It’s head was then snipped off with scissors, weighed and taken into the back to be cooked. According to her friend, it was delicious and tasted just like chicken. As a funny aside to the story, Gretchen had tried to get some asparagus at the restaurant to eat. “We had been to the market earlier in the day and I saw the most beautiful asparagus. I was dying for some so I thought I’d draw a picture. So I drew a picture for the waitress. I handed it to her and she looks at it and says “Ha Bur Day” and she gave me an extra bowl of rice.”
Having traveled now to China for so many years, Gretchen has had the opportunity to find some wonderful pieces for her shop as well as make unique connections that the ordinary traveler may miss. I think it’s like being a detective. One thing, asking a question or making a comment may lead to a unique product or restaurant then that leads her onto something else and then it can go on from there. How she found the Red Capital Ranch is just such an example.
One of Gretchen’s resources is Conde Nast Traveler. Her favorite issue is the Hot List. She goes through all of the restaurants, cuts out the ones that interest her and makes plans to visit them. One year, there was a restaurant mentioned called Red Capital Club in Beijing. She went there for a number of years until one year, the hostess asked her if she would like to meet the owner. Thinking she was about to meet David Tang, she readily agreed. Instead of a Hong Kong billionaire she was pleasantly surprised to meet an American lawyer whose mother lives in West Palm Beach (small world). He was just opening a boutique hotel called the Red Capital Residence and asked her if she’d like to see it. “He put us in a bicycle rickshaw. We went whipping through the slums of Beijing to the Residence...I’m like okay, this is it from now on, I’m staying here.” A couple of years later the owner built the Ranch. It’s along an unreconstructed part of the Great Wall of China. Gretchen is going back there again this year, this time taking her oldest son with her.
After Beijing, Gretchen is traveling to Ulaanbaatar, Shanghai, and then Hanoi. On her first trip to Hanoi, she was walking out of her hotel with her daughter to go shopping when a cyclo (a bicycle with a seat for a passenger in front) driver tried to convince them to hire him for a ride. “There were all of these drivers parked outside and we were not going to do it. So, as we were shopping, walking along, there was a guy following us, pedaling, shouting “Come on ladies, come on madam, I take two. I take two.” So we decided to get in the cyclo without realizing that they’re designed for one person not two. So my daughter sits down and then I sit on the armrest. All the locals are just roaring with laughter.” To add to the chaos, they had just looked at some t-shirts that said “Good Morning Vietnam” but the girl selling them couldn’t find their size. So, off they go in the cyclo, when suddenly the girl finds their size and starts chasing them (in jeans and high heels) yelling that she found it. Then, “There’s this one place in Hanoi where all the streets come together. It’s like a spider web. These cyclos don’t stop. They just keep on going. The girl’s running after us, the cyclo driver has plunged into all of this traffic, motorcycles, cars and trucks, they’re all coming at us. The two of us are sitting in the cyclo and we’re saying “Stop! Stop!” It was one of those things that if you saw it in a movie, you’d say, they made this up.”
Another time when Gretchen was in Hanoi, she had decided with her two traveling companions to see Ha Long Bay.” She told me that the movie Indochine has wonderful scenes from Ha Long Bay. “We had a Volkswagen bus with a guide. Once we got there they put us on a junk and we sailed around. There are these weird limestone outcroppings that come out of the water. It’s just so beautiful. Then they served us lunch with white tablecloths, wine glasses.” For lunch they were served spring rolls. “My friend and I were eating these spring rolls and they were really good so they brought us more. [The other person who was with them] kept saying “No thanks, no thanks” After lunch we asked her “Why didn’t you eat the spring rolls?” She said “Oh, because they were made from dog” She didn’t tell us until after we ate them.”
After Hanoi, Gretchen is off to Bangkok, then Singapore. This will be her first trip there. When she goes to a new place, she asks people she knows who have been there for tips, she reads design books and looks for products unique to the area (she wouldn’t buy Chinese furniture in Singapore, she’d buy it in China), and she reads loads of guidebooks and magazines. This is something that I know everyone could adapt to their own travel experience. A trip may not be to find an unusual item for a Palm Beach store, but it may be to find the best beach or a wonderful pizzeria in Rome. Asking questions of the locals, not taking things at face value, and not letting language be a barrier, are all lessons that we can learn from Gretchen.
From Singapore, Gretchen is going on to Helsinki, Stockholm, Budapest, Paris, and then London.
One year, based on a tiny piece in Tattler, she learned that the Countess of Leicester was taking her collection of Roman and Greek statuary from Holkham Hall and having molds made out of her favorite pieces and selling them. Gretchen has just one of these left in her shop. When she called her, the Countess gave her a private tour of Holkham Hall. She was able to see many private rooms (not to mention getting to meet the Countess). Another time when she was in England watching her son play polo, she got to meet Prince Charles. When I went to England I bought an umbrella. Very similar stories.
After London, Gretchen will travel to Milan and Venice and then return to Palm Beach via Paris. Looking back over past trips, Gretchen said “I’ve just had these magical trips.” Every place she’s gone to sounds like it’s been a unique adventure, filled with treasures that were there for just her to find. Hearing about some of her more harrowing exploits (I can’t look at dogs for a while) it made me wonder if there was anything Gretchen wouldn’t do, any lengths she wouldn’t go to find just that right piece for her shop. She set me straight really quick, “My rule for travel is, if they don’t have sit down toilets, I won’t go. So, you’ll never see me in the Gobi desert or out in Mongolia looking for dinosaur bones. I don’t do any of that kind of stuff. I can hook you up with the best guide in Mongolia if you want to shoot big horn sheep. But I don’t do any of that myself.”
Written in March, 2008. I remember talking with Jessica at Howley’s and then going to a nearby park to snap a couple of pictures. How differently I would do things now. Namely that I would have spent the majority of the time taking pictures in Howley’s.
Elbowing my way through a crowded gallery doesn’t exactly help me focus on inspiring works of art. Usually I end up thinking about whether or not I just got shoved with someone’s purse on purpose. Fortunately at the recent show at Studio 1608, I took my mind off of ridiculous things enough to notice the work of a new artist by the name of Jessica Libes. She had a small but high impact wall of silkscreen, graphite and linocut prints that were all based on vintage cameras, televisions and typewriters. Placed together it communicated one story that made me stop and examine cameras that I’ve owned or known family members to own. The objects were presented in such a way to make the viewer focus on their details and look at them as new works of art. I was eager to learn about the artist and fortunately she was there. After finding out that Jessica collected the objects that she portrayed in her work, I was eager to talk to her more about her unique view of vintage objects and what other ways she expresses this interest.
Jessica, just back from the University of Central Florida for a year, has been collecting vintage clothes and cameras since early on in high school. Jessica told me “The first time I went into a Goodwill, I can’t really explain it, but I just liked it.” That interest in vintage didn’t really develop until college when she started working on projects for various art classes. The first set of photos she took was of a late ‘70s home she was living in at the time. The look was decidedly retro and it made sense to Jessica with her previous thrift store shopping to go in that direction. The two mediums Jessica is working on now are photography and silkscreening.
After I saw Jessica’s work at the show, I went on her website and saw her extensive collection of pictures depicting clothing store tags. I was curious to learn from Jessica what drew her to this subject as it was a new idea to me. Jessica told me that when she would buy vintage clothes, she would look at the tags first as it gave her an indication as to the age of the item. From that interest in clothes, she started photographing the tag along with a portion of the clothing it was attached to. “It got to the point where I shot all of the clothes I owned and I was spending money on things that didn’t necessarily fit me just for the tags.” Fortunately for Jessica’s wallet, she found a vintage clothing store owner who helped her with her project. “As soon as I told her [what I was doing] she took out a giant ziploc bag of her own collection.”
For Jessica, the meaning behind the tags and the clothing she photographs is one of nostalgia. “The more work I make, the better understanding I’ll have of where this is coming from. This feeling of nostalgia. When I buy certain things second hand, when these clothes fit me, or I use a camera for pictures of my own, it’s someone else that fit into them before me and now fits me. These inanimate objects have a life of their own that I don’t know about.”
That comes out in Jessica’s work whether it’s her photography or her silkscreens of cameras. “Think about photography, everything is digital. But there are these cameras that photographers used to make their work...In a way it’s forgotten. By making work or art out of it, I’m objectifying it. Because there’s nothing else but the object. By doing that it’s preserving what once was, but in the present.”
The silkscreen process, to be honest, it a bit beyond me. I asked Jessica to dumb it down for me but I think the most I got out of her very patient explanation was that there are two layers to her prints. There’s the background layer, where she makes those fabulous colors, and the layer that has her drawing. Any errors about that simple explanation are entirely my own. These prints do turn obsolete objects into art. Filling in the negative space makes the viewer stop and really focus on the drawing and remember what it was like to use the item.
Whether it’s her photography or prints, Jessica’s message of nostalgia is entirely her own. It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t lived through the eras that are capturing her imagination. Somehow it all works and she connects with it. It’s her own vision and perspective on things that most of us have used and have memories of our own about. “The work that I make, it comforts myself and it comforts my viewers. I think it’s why they like it. The nostalgia.”