Hicks is currently known as the founder of Pie Tap, the upscale pizza chain with locations in the Design District and on Henderson Avenue, which won Best New Restaurant in CultureMap's 2017 Tastemaker Awards.
But Hicks was also a taco pioneer when he founded Tin Star, one of the first gourmet taco chains, back in 1999.
TacoLingo is his next-generation taqueria concept, and it will open at the Union building in March, where it will join The Henry, the newly-opened neighborhood restaurant from Fox Restaurants, as well as a new location of its sibling North Italia, coming soon.
The taco field may be crowded with chains like Torchy's and Tacodeli, but Hicks says he's confident that he can bring something new to the genre, just as he was able to accomplish with Pie Tap, despite dozens of pizzerias having opened in the past decade.
One key move was to hire chef Stan Rodrigues as culinary director. A native of New York, Rodrigues moved to Dallas eight years ago and was previously with Front Burner, where he worked at Whiskey Cake in Plano and helped develop and conceive Sixty Vines, the pizza-and-wine concept.
Hicks' offer gave Rodrigues the opportunity to work on what could potentially be a larger operation with multiple locations, something he wanted to tackle.
"When Rich opened Tin Star in the 90s, it was so ahead of the curve with high-quality ingredients, good cocktails, in a nice atmosphere," Rodrigues says. "The bar is higher now, but we want to recreate what Tin Star did, to elevate that style of taco dining."
That means using Wagyu beef for their steak; chicken that's brined and marinated; and hand-pressing their tortillas.
"Our vision is, can we make some bad-ass tacos that make people want to try them all, with a pitcher of margaritas in a nice setting," Rodrigues says.
The menu includes familiar items like queso and guacamole, but with the best ingredients, and salsas whose recipes they've carefully refined.
"We are still working on our chips and salsa, so that when it hits the table you recognize that it's something different," he says. "Our barbacoa won't follow the standard model of using brisket, we're doing ours with short rib instead, to give it a little more texture."
They'll have nine taco options including two vegetarian items. "One is an avocado taco where we fry the avocado in tempura and serve it with a slaw," he says. "And a fun thing we'e doing is barbacoa mushroom, where we take crimini mushrooms and toss them in a barbacoa marinade. It gets seared at a high heat with onions, and is served with arugula salad and queso fresco. Even if you are a meat lover, you are still going to love that taco."
In addition to tacos, TacoLingo will have regular entrees including fajitas, New York strip steak, mahi mahi, and a carnitas-style porchetta.
"It's flexible — you can order an appetizer and then tacos, or order tacos to share and then some main entrees," he says. "The tacos are fun, composed dishes on a tortilla. We worked hard on our tortilla recipe. Our goal was to find a corn tortilla with the flavor and flexibility and durability of a flour tortilla, and I think we're there."
They'll have a more casual atmosphere than the other restaurants at the Union, with great music, late-night hours, tacos, margaritas by the pitcher, and service industry nights.
Their cocktail program is equally serious, and they have the guy to run it: Andrew Stofko, a nominee for Best Bartender in CultureMap's 2017 Tastemaker Awards who was most recently at Ida Claire and previously at ground-breaking Victor Tangos, now closed.
"He talks about cocktails the same way I talk about food and Rich talks about restaurants," Rodrigues says.
None is concerned about the idea of opening in what some might call a saturated market.
"People in Texas see tacos as a staple," he says. "I can eat tacos every day. The important thing is to push the limits and ask if you can make it better. That's our model. Can you take the time to worry about the balance of flavor, the quality of ingredients, the consistency of your product? If you can do all three, with good service and a good atmosphere, I feel confident a restaurant can do well."