Food Court Wars Recap: Slanging Tacos and Island Flavors

After a charming, but relatively unremarkable premiere episode Food Court wars continues – in a new time slot. The show now airs before Food Network Star rather than after it. Also, just a quick note. The episode guide calls this “Season 1, Episode 3” because of the original pilot airing back in 2012, but that is nonsense. As far as I’m concerned, this is episode two.

Tyler Florence continues on his journey to host every type of alternative cooking show imaginable. At this rate, next year he’ll be hosting “Lemonade Stand Wars” by next summer. But this week, we’re in Spartanburg, SC at the West Gate Mall. We waste no time getting to the teams.

Tirado’s Empanandas, run by the mother daughter team of Jen and Trisch. As they explain, an empanada is “a stuffed savory meat pie.” It is “tasteful, but not spicy.” They already run a food cart, and while Jen was on her way to becoming a manager at a bakery, the family always wanted to have a family business, so she quit her job to pursue the dream. As she notes, because you can’t cook on the cart itself, they’ll never have a profit business.

Taco Spot, with owner JB and manager Michael is a “whole new brand of tacos” given the Southern twist that gets put into each taco. JB started the business over 4 years ago with his then friend Lindsay, who is now his wife – yay taco love. Taco Spot actually has two locations, a small 16 seat restaurant and a smaller delivery/pick-up only locale. JB really wants to win to provide extra financial security for his wife, and provide Michael with the chance to be a “business owner”.

You might be wondering how JB and Michael met. Turns out JB worked at a restaurant that had poker games running in the back (probably not the best thing to admit on national television, but whatever). Michael “was on a losing streak” and they “settled on a deal” for Michael to become the deliveryman. That’s great and all, and it’s awesome that Michael has made it to manager, but dear lord there are cameras and audio recording devices everywhere, don’t admit to illicit gambling rings.

So once again we’ve got two eminently likable teams, with real needs for the food court restaurant. Also like last time, Tyler is crazy overdressed, take off the blazer man, we’re in a food court, this is a fun show. But enough about that, because the challenge has been laid down – win free rent for a year.

This week the concept test involves feeding kiosk employees at the mall, given that mall employees make up 30% of all food court customers and provide loyal and repeat business. Once again, where the heck is Tyler getting this data from? Is he making it up? It sounds reasonable, but until I see some sources I’m going to assume he just invents the facts on the spot.

The teams get to work with Taco Spot making their signature fish tacos with a smashed garlic potato cake side-dish. Tirado’s goes with a beef empananda rice and gandules – a traditional Puerto Rican rice and beans dish. Trish is worried about adapting to a new kitchen and declares that “we aren’t making this” before then declaring that “we lost this competition” after their rice turns out a little hard.  Taco Spot doesn’t seem to have as many issues and the guys remark how easy it is working with a good partner.

The selling strategy seems to be Taco Spot rushing to be first to the kiosks and Tirado’s pointing out that you can “get tacos anywhere”, but that they have something “original and full of flavor.” Tyler walks around on the outskirts, watching, and looking like the awkward kid at the high school social trying to ask a girl to dance.

Tirado’s has a challenge with explaining exactly what empanadas are and while people love the tartar sauce on the tacos, one person described them as “bland”. Tyler looked a bit concerned, but I’d be more concerned if he’s gonna base the concept on a single customer response. In a race that came down to a single vote Taco Spot wins and for the next challenge will get prime advertising in the digital marque. The digital marquee is that black electronic sign you see when entering a mall or shopping center. I’m not really sure that’s so great, but Taco Spot is excited.

Time to meet with Tyler and discuss branding which is the only time that Tyler’s blazer seems appropriate. Also, Tyler talks at 10000 mph, I never noticed it till now, so good at these teams for keeping up with him. Tyler wants Taco Spot to embrace more of the classic taco culture – including guacamole and chips. For Tirado’s, he wants to expand the island cooking beyond just empanadas and tells them to “sell Puerto Rico”, which I don’t think they are authorized to do, but hey shoot for the stars!

For the marketing competition, Taco Spot is taking their blackened chicken taco (less intimidating than fish tacos), a “meat the potatoes” steak taco and going to a charity walk for MS. Michael also suggests giving away free t-shirts to turn people into free advertising. Having been to business school and seeing how stupidly excited people get about free t-shirts, I’d say win win. Tirado’s is headed to the denim festival, which raises money for domestic violence victims. They decide to make magnets to giveaway and decide to expand their menu with shrimp in a plantain cup. Jen is a little concerned that they aren’t doing enough, and decides to add in Papa Riena, a potato fritter filled with beef. 

Tirado’s brings their food cart to the festival adding to their brand recognition, though Trish has trouble putting a sign on the side of the truck (seriously). Taco Spot has their t-shirts and signs, but I notice that none of their stuff has the information about the grand opening on it. They’re relying strictly on word of mouth to get the information out there.

Tyler shows up at both locations to check on things, running up to (he definitely ran up to that woman in teal) people to ask their opinion of the food. Tirado’s food looks to be improved and people are excited, and while Taco Spot had a great marketing effort, some of their food was again described as bland. Tyler asks the taco guys to take their food up one more level, while Tirado’s has to work to scale up from 60 tasting portions to potentially 300 full meals.

Both teams geek out over their restaurant spaces, then get down to cooking their meals. Neither team changes up much, but the Taco Shop adds another chicken taco option and both teams scramble to scale up. Tirado’s gains help from Steven, one of Jen’s brothers and Lindsay shows up to help the Taco Shop. Trish needs to “slow her roll” on pushing people in the kitchen and JB is ecstatic over having his wife next to him.

Jen is freaking out over service and again declares the competition over before it begins. Only half the menu is actually ready when service starts. Meanwhile, Taco Shop runs into trouble with not having descriptions on their menus confusing some customers and frustrating themselves. Not the best beginning for these teams, but both settle in and start cranking out food. 

After tallying the sales Tyler brings the teams together – again to tell Taco Shop that some of the food was bland, and remarking that Tirado’s had serious kitchen issues. In the end, Tirado’s wins the competition, again setting off the bittersweet victory moment of one team winning and other being devastated.

Though, in this case Taco Shop does have two stores to go back to, even if their expansion plans are momentarily halted. Michael and the Taco Spot team are remarkably gracious in defeat.

Tyler presents Tirado’s with the first dollar they ever earned and they sign a lease, officially taking over a year of free rent at the West Gate Mall. A much better ending to the premiere episode, and a stronger episode overall, with a bit less filler and exposition. We’ll be back next week, and maybe Tyler will dress down a bit and stop chasing people around, but not likely.