By Brianna Chu
Greg Lukasiewicz is no restaurant industry rookie. Lukasiewicz’s career has taken him from the highly Zagat-rated French-Japanese restaurant, Shiro, to opening two high-end restaurants named after his daughters – first Devon, and then Halie – to starting a “recession gourmet” taco chain, Bull Taco, on the beach when he was supposed to be taking some time off. He knows the often punishing hours of the business, and he’s worked at and opened a wide variety of restaurants, from high-end to food truck. He’s owned over a dozen restaurants over his career, and that experience has taught him what he truly values in a restaurant. Extreme volume didn’t work well with Bull Taco; when they started getting popular, Yelp was just starting to gain traction, and it wasn’t a good experience for anyone when there started to be two-hour lines for Bull Taco, when he didn’t have enough space to cook properly and they were just trying to keep up with demand. Enter Maquina (MAH-kin-a), a tiny, experimental food concept on North Lake in Pasadena that is both creative and harkens back to his roots spending time with his abuela – he’s half-Nicaraguan – and eating at places like Grand Central Market and on Olvera Street. He’s been a taco man even before they got trendy, so a menu of tacos made a lot of sense to him.
Now, Lukasiewicz is working on this small, creative little restaurant that is a true passion project for him. His years of experience have told him not to sink too much money into the restaurant at the beginning – and indeed, he built Maquina’s current furnishings out of plywood himself, creating simple tables and benches and grabbing some chairs from Ikea. Here, there’s no pressure, no huge business – people just come and get their tacos. He’s not trying to make much noise; Maquina is just getting up on its feet, and he’s going to start expanding the restaurant, too. Lukasiewicz has room to grow, get creative, and he has more than a few ideas up his sleeves for Maquina in the next year. They’re looking at getting their wine and liquor license, creating an an arts-driven space, then extending the menu…as a start.
But why Maquina? Lukasiewicz likes hot rods and mountain bikes and machines in general, and he also works like a machine. And to be fair, at one point in his career he was working seven days a week, 12-16 hours a day. However, perhaps the most crucial deciding factor was when he was throwing out possible names, his younger daughter Halie liked Maquina the best, and so it stuck. “I always ask my kids,” he says, “because they’re cool.”
Lukasiewicz has always been a huge foodie, and quality ingredients are of paramount importance. He was fishing and even lobster-diving for fresh fish and seafood even just for Bull Taco, and his attention/commitment to high-quality and unique or unusual ingredients has carried over to Maquina. He buys his incredible blue corn tortillas from organic tortilla-maker, Kernel of Truth Organics, who have won awards for their tortillas. He doesn’t grease the tortillas the way some other taco places might; instead, he just touches them to water and steams them. You won’t find any lard in any of the cooking here. Maquina’s tacos are quite healthy, made with fresh ingredients that Lukasiewicz tries to buy organic when he can. He thinks carefully about sourcing his ingredients, but when starting a small company, it can get tight financially. Several of his unusual fillings are actually quite traditional, like sweet breads and tripas, but then there are the game meats like elk and venison that he throws in the mix when they’re available, and the carefully prepared octopus. But not to worry, Maquina even has vegan-friendly tacos, something that Lukasiewicz has been doing since his Bull Taco days. There are the potato, veggie blend, mushroom, and cauliflower tacos for the vegans, and by extension, vegetarians. Maquina serves incredible, quality tacos, for affordable prices. That’s the name of the game – they barely break even on their asada tacos because Lukasiewicz buys flap meat for them, but he refuses to price them higher than $3.
Now when I called Maquina tiny, I meant it. The space maybe has an occupancy of 20 if you pushed it; at the moment, it’s a bright blue hallway of delicious food and plywood furniture. And that’s all it needs to be at the moment – a receptacle in which people can enjoy their tacos before they get cold. As Lukasiewicz notes, there’s maybe a five-minute window for tacos…and nobody likes cold tacos.
He wants to keep to the tradition and simplicity of tacos, so each taco is mostly focused on the protein, with only three to four items on it. He thinks tacos have started getting a little too over-the-top, sometimes, so they keep their tacos fairly simple and let the main ingredients shine. He kept the tacos coming, and I just about managed to sample eight of the many tacos Maquina currently offers. What I noticed about all eight tacos was that they do not skimp on the filling – most of the tacos (except maybe the mole pork belly, which was a single large piece of pork belly, so there wasn’t much risk of falling out) nearly overflowed out the sides with their delicious fillings.
The chicken bacon jalapeño was, as he warned, warming – but not palate suffocating. I could still taste the fresh corn flavor from tortillas, the start of the bite heavy with the savory flavor of the bacon, then the perfectly cooked, not tough or dry chicken, and then the heat of the jalapenos started creeping up on me. For those who want things even spicier, however, Maquina has their own special salsa, made with whatever is currently the hottest pepper on the market, just for those heat junkies.
The asada mushroom isn’t their normal asada (obviously there is the addition of mushrooms), but Lukasiewicz likes to mix things up a bit now and again. Like the other taco, the asada mushroom was almost overflowing out the sides with incredibly savory, delightfully tender, beef. The mushroom added umami deliciousness, cooked long until they were almost as dark as the meat. Honestly, I felt like I could probably eat 20 of them.
The mole pork belly is his dad’s personal favorite, comprised of a sizeable chunk of pork belly sitting atop some rice and cheese. Tender, saucy, pork goodness – it’s an elevated comfort food bite. The duck with hoisin and red cabbage confused me. I’m half Chinese, and I could have sworn this duck was exactly what I’ve remembered eating all my life, but in a taco. The duck was that ideal combination of tender and crispy, with just the right amount of hoisin sauce – never enough sauce to cover up the duck, but enough so that it was saturated.
The next two tacos were more on the traditional side. If you are not the most adventurous of people, I would say that tacos aren’t that big. If you want to try something new, order one of the more traditional tacos like lengua or tripas or cabeza, alongside a chicken, beef, or pork taco. The tripas taco was really rich, a little chewy, nested in a tortilla with cheese burnt onto its interior for texture and flavor. Lukasiewicz chose to add in some chicharron, like a more traditional sprinkle of bacon. I love chicharron, so this was great – and I appreciated the cilantro lime vinaigrette to cut some of the richness of the tripas. Tripas has a rich liver or marrow-esque flavor. The cabeza, too, was rich, but this richness was tempered by crispy potato (which I would argue mellows the flavor, but is still a starch so is still kind of heavy, but to be fair I was six tacos in and starting to feel it), making the taco a cabeza hash. It definitely wasn’t as rich as the tripas, though.
To bring it all home, I tried the lamb and the lobster ribeye tacos. I’m going to go right ahead and admit that lamb and mint aren’t my favorite combination in the world, despite the four years living in the UK. (Also, I know that there’s a bite out of it in the photo. This was taco number seven. I forgot to take the photo before eating; I’m only human.) However, if you do enjoy that, I think this taco is a great choice, because it was fresh and bright with the Anaheim mint and the homemade cucumber relish. On the flipside, do you really need me to tell you that the lobster ribeye taco was amazing? You probably already want to eat it. Succulent ribeye, fresh and tender lobster falling out of the sides of a blue corn tortilla topped with a bit of onion and cilantro? What’s not to like about that surf and turf party?
If you want some great tacos at great prices, give Maquina a try. It’s an unorthodox little slice of Pasadena, and I’m interested to see how it evolves over the next year or so. I’ll certainly be heading back to try more of their extensive menu of tacos and other specials.
1274 N. Lake Ave.
Pasadena, CA, 91104
Tuesday – Saturday: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m.-6 p.m.