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REVIEW: Chef Harrison goes all in at Estella Tacos Y Mezcal (subscriber content)

By Kyle Young
Published: Last Updated on

Estella Tacos Y Mezcal carefully pays homage to Mexico City while celebrating farm fresh ingredients and culinary artistry. The taqueria sits across the courtyard of The Jesse Hotel & Bar. The hotel space was formerly occupied by Lincoln Lounge and the restaurant space was formerly occupied by a Hub Coffee roastery. Food and libations at Estella focus on elevated street tacos, chips, guacamole, salsa, seasonal salads and a multitude of agave-derived alcohols.

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The People Behind Estella Tacos Y Mezcal

Diners at Estella place their order at a small ordering counter and can then grab a seat at the limited dining counter or in the courtyard or hotel lobby. The courtyard is lined with comfortable seating and blankets.

Piper Stremmel owns The Jesse Hotel & Bar. According to the establishment’s website, the boutique hotel seeks to deliver, “Comfort, design, and the authentic Nevada Experience.” If you’re curious about how Stremmel is paying homage to Reno’s roots, look no further than her website where she explains the origin of the hotel’s name and who has owned the space over the years.

Chefs at work. Image: Kaitlin Young.

In June, the RGJ wrote that tacos are Stremmel’s favorite food, so a taqueria was the natural choice for her hotel’s dining option. Fortunately for the community, the taqueria is open to hotel guests and the public at large.

Leading the kitchen at Estella Tacos Y Mezcal is Head Chef Harrison Cooper. Cooper moved to Reno only a year ago, but he is no stranger to cooking or leading a kitchen.

Chips, guac and house salsas.
Chips, guac and house salsas. Image: Kaitlin Young.

Prior to Estella, Cooper worked at Bay Area restaurants: Locanda and State Bird Provisions. Because Cooper had serious culinary chops, but little experience cooking Mexican food, Stremmel contracted Cooper to visit Mexico City. Cooper spent a month there where he worked in two different restaurants: Lardo and Expendio De Maíz. At Lardo, Cooper learned about traditional Mexican techniques and ingredients, insects, chapulines (grasshoppers) and moles. At Expendio De Maíz, Cooper learned about rural and traditional Mexican dishes and the importance of good corn and well-prepared masa.

Carne asada taco at Estella Tacos Y Mezcal. Image: Kaitlin Young.

“I want to press and cook tortillas to order, because that’s the backbone of a taco. Their country’s built on corn … I had some of the best food of my life down there. The culture is so old, and food runs so deep in that culture. [Given the] respect that they show their food, I wouldn’t have felt right trying to open a [Mexican] restaurant without [first] immersing myself in the culture and learning traditional techniques. I wanted to apply the same respect to the food that they do,” finished Cooper.

Chips, Tortillas, Guac & Salsa

My wife and I arrived at Estella at about 8 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. The dining counter was nearly full, but we were able to grab two seats at the end. We ordered our food in two batches. It was my goal to try every dish on the limited menu, but they were out of their carnitas taco.

Fish and smoked mushroom tacos. Image: Kaitlin Young.

Our first order included chips and guacamole for $6, a smoked mushroom taco for $5.50 and a fish taco for $7.

Chef Harrison sources extra thin, freshly pressed tortillas from El Rosal in Sparks. He and his staff cut these tortillas and fry them to create the chips. They purchase fresh masa from El Rosal and press their tortillas in house for the tacos.

Battered fish taco at Estella. Image: Kaitlin Young.

Some diners will salute Chef Harrison for his choice to prepare his guacamole with only avocado, lime and salt. Other diners might long for additional ingredients, but it was important for the chef to honor the simplicity and high-quality ingredients that he observed in Mexico.

The two house salsas available for self-serve were enjoyable, but seemed to cater to the common denominator. The red was mild, smoky and chunky. The green was mild, bright and fresh. Those who shy away from heat will enjoy these two varieties.

Sometimes Familiar, Sometimes Unexpected Tacos

The smoked mushroom taco included pine nuts, local micro radish and salsa morita. I failed to ask which variety of fungus the chef prefers to use. The chef begins by heating the mushrooms to open their pores, then he places them in a small vessel and then he applies cold smoke using a smoke gun. He seals the vessel for 30-45 minutes to saturate the mushrooms. He uses hickory, applewood and sometimes mesquite chips. The salsa morita includes peanuts and it was my favorite salsa of the evening. The tortilla in this taco, along with every other taco, was exceptional. I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Smoked mushroom taco. Image: Kaitlin Young.

The beer battered fish taco included a chipotle crema and a seasonal slaw. The batter was nice and crispy and well-adhered to the delicate, white fish. I was surprised to taste that the crema had the highest heat of anything I tried during the meal. The red cabbage slaw had a nice acidity. I’d gladly order it again.

Our second order included the al pastor taco for $5.50, carne asada taco for $5.50 and the seasonal vegetarian taco for $5.50.

Al pastor taco. Image: Kaitlin Young.

The al pastor taco was my favorite of the evening, but it did leave me with a couple questions. The taco ingredients as described on the menu include adobo, pineapple and guajillo pepper. The spiced, crispy pork looked spot on to me, but I didn’t taste or see any pineapple or guajillo pepper. I did see what looked like a tomatillo salsa, fresh red onion and grill-crisped queso Oaxaca. I asked another cook to confirm the identity of this taco, but I did so after it was half-eaten. My guess is that this taco included some al pastor ingredients (adobo + spiced pork) and some carnitas ingredients (Queso Oaxaca + roasted tomatillo salsa). In any case, the spiced pork, cilantro, red onion, green salsa and grilled cheese caused me to exclaim, “F***, that’s good.”

The carne asada taco included queso fresco, local micro greens and salsa de arbol. I enjoyed this steak taco, but it seemed the most one-note of the bunch. Don’t get me wrong, the note that it played was delicious, but it didn’t have as much going on as the others.

Roasted carrot taco. Image: Kaitlin Young.

The final taco, the seasonal vegetarian, was the most unexpected. It was a roasted carrot taco that included carrot puree, chili crunch, micro greens and queso fresco. The chili crunch is a house-made condiment featuring almonds, chilis and oil. Benjamin, one of Chef Harrison’s crew, gave me a spoonful of the chili crunch to try by itself. On the taco and off the taco, the chili crunch is outstanding. You might not find any carrot tacos in Mexico City, but damn, I’m happy to call it a fantastic Reno taco.

Parting Words at Estella Tacos Y Mezcal

We closed the meal out with a complimentary salad, courtesy of Chef Harrison. The salad included acorn squash, kale chips, pomegranate seeds, pomegranate molasses, microplaned hazelnut, chili vinaigrette and microgreens. The chef carefully makes the pomegranate molasses in-house, and much like everything we ate, it was delicious and a testament to the chef’s skill.

I ended my conversation with Chef Harrison by asking him what it’s like to be Head Chef in a brand-new restaurant. Because he wore the title of Sous Chef elsewhere, leading a kitchen was familiar to him. Menu development, vendor relations, inventory and the like were also second nature when Chef Harrison took the helm.

Seasonal salad. Image: Kaitlin Young.

“I’ve learned a ton about opening a restaurant, and being a Head Chef, but it’s never been all on me. At the end of the day, this place falls on myself, the owner – Piper and Diana – [the Director of Hospitality].” He went on, “I’ve definitely worked longer hours here and more days in a row here than I ever have. Dealing with that physical stress, plus the mental and emotional, took some adjusting, but for the most part, I’ve done all this before,” said Chef Harrison.

The chef often works 15-hour days to keep the kitchen running efficiently. “It’s what it takes. You know, you can’t half-ass this. You can’t be half in or it’s not going to work. You’re either all in or you’re all out,” concluded Chef Harrison.

Estella Tacos Y Mezcal’s Details

Visit Estella at 350 Evans Ave., Reno, NV 89501. Call them at 775-737-9461. They are open from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, open 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays and open from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Visit Estella online at estellareno.com.