Cult Taco is something different. It’s more modern than the average taco shop, and more affordable than fine dining. And while the downtown Monterey location is accessible, that accessibility has been called into question owing to their cashless model. Although many jump to defend it as a forward-thinking innovation, some argue cashless is discriminatory.
It’s complicated and controversial.
The brainchild of Carmel’s Cultura team – partners Sarah Kabat-Marcy and John Cox, and Chef Michelle Estigoy – draws from their combined experience in upmarket restaurants, and it shows. Trendy and beautiful in every immaculate nook and cranny, with an unmistakable air of elegance, there’s something intentionally very casual about ordering at a counter, even though one orders from an iPad and not a person.
It’s all part of a vision, a direction that some restaurants are heading when considering rising costs of everything from ingredients to employees. Owners say with this futuristic approach, more can be spent on quality sourcing, rather than paying someone to stand at a counter taking orders – or doing necessary but minor tasks when things are slow. Instead, each team member is busy with other roles, from server to cook.
It’s interesting in theory, and seems to be working well enough. Yet, when there is an off day, one wonders if maybe attentions were just too scattered. On a rainy Thursday night with not many customers, staff seemed to grow complacent as they served bone-dry carnitas and stale tortillas. With only a sparse amount of salsa (no salsa bar here), no taco could be remedied.
But then try again on a busy Saturday night and dinner could be totally different. Suddenly carnitas bursted with juicy flavor and tortillas tasted fresh. A bit more salsa would still be welcome, but overall, almost every plate was vastly improved. Almost.
On my first visit, the most enjoyable dish was the wagyu barbacoa torta. Tender, lightly-sauced beef melted in the mouth, while a healthy portion of avocado lent the sandwich some luxury and tomatoes added coolness. Yet on the more successful Saturday visit, there was simply not enough kick in a mundane mushroom torta. As for smaller bites, queso fundido boasts deep cheesy flavor with a grainy bite. Ceviche also brings great flavor, but is served swimming in a liquid-filled jar.
Then again, if you stopped by for a chicken tinga or rock cod salad, you might think Cult Taco is nothing short of wonderful. Tangy lime and cilantro cream dressed arugula, kale and spinach. Nutty pepitas added crunch. Avocado tempered the bitter greens. For meat options, the chicken was soft, shredded and went with everything from the tacos to the lettuce. Slightly blackened, grilled rock cod is another delicate option.
You could finish with a house-made paleta (espresso, pineapple or coconut-lime), sip on a nicely tart jamaica or a milky, cinnamony horchata – a nice wrap-up even if there are some misses.
CULT TACO 481 Alvarado St, Monterey. 11am-9pm daily. culttaco.com