Volume 76, Number 6 | June 28 - July 4 2006

The Snack Dragon Taco Shack before it closed on Avenue B. Owner Josephine Jansen plans to open around the corner in E. Third St. July 1

With a little love in the shack, taco stand may reopen

By Alexis Swerdloff

Fifteen minutes before the East Village Nightlife Task Force made their first surprise visit to Snack Dragon Taco Shack back in mid-March, a philosophy major from the New School took off all of his clothes, walked into the middle of Avenue B and performed a naked back flip for a free taco.

The tacos were just that good.

Taco Shack owner Josephine Jansen cites the back flip and visit from the authorities as the turning point that marked the beginning of the end for the little taco shack that could, a tiny, shanty-town-esque taqueria, which officially closed on Memorial Day, leaving an amputated stretch of Avenue B in its wake. In just a year, the extension of Ben’s Deli, sandwiched by East Village nightlife staples Croxley’s Ale House and Mama’s Bar had become a neighborhood mainstay where countless late-night hungers were sated. There was always indie rock music — courtesy of Taco Shack employee Lauren’s Winamp playlist — emanating from the shack, accompanied by the whiff of nine different kinds of tacos, courtesy of the pulled pork, skirt steak and quinoa fillings.

“I put a lot of love into that shack,” Jansen, a long-time East Village resident, said. Back in late 2004, the painter and video shooter had been bartending at Superfine in DUMBO until she broke her leg. It was then, while sitting around with nothing to do, that Jansen had the idea for opening a taco shack. A self-described “foodie,” born in Colorado with a “nouveau Betty Crocker” for a mother, Jansen had traveled through Mexico eight times where she had essentially lived off of tacos. The abandoned smoothie stand outside of Ben’s Deli, around the corner from her apartment, caught Jansen’s eye and she believed it would make for an ideal taco stand. Jansen paired up with a partner (who soon backed out), ordered cooking supplies off of eBay and craigslist on the cheap, and in early March of 2005 was ready to start cooking.

From the get-go, Jansen had conceived of the shack as more than just a place to eat. “It was a cultural nexus that fit with the neighborhood; we played cool music, we had an Oxford Encyclopedia and a dictionary in the shack to look things up, I’d have discussions with customers there for over three hours at a time.”

Soon after opening, lines of inebriated night-owls at 3 a.m. were not uncommon and Jansen soon had a steady batch of “regulars.” “There were about 10 people who lived off of the taco shack,” Jansen recalls. “I had people taking cabs from Williamsburg to come to the shack.”

Not that things were always easy. Winter was tough. Not only were there fewer customers, but with only a space heater warming up the shack, things could get really cold – “we had to wear ski-lift operator clothing to stay warm,” Jansen says. But they made it through a brutal winter and as the weather started getting better, Jansen says, “I was excited about a busy summer.”

But Jansen suspected that it was only a matter of time before the task force, in their recently amped-up efforts to curb late-night noise in the neighborhood, would find a way to shut her down. “The bars and restaurants in the East Village, we’re like sacrificed ducks,” Jansen says. “Because we were located between two bars, we were considered part of the nightlife.” Jansen had been able to successfully avoid the task force, hearing from tipsters when they would be on the “attack,” and subsequently shutting down. When three vehicles and a slew of officials showed up on that March evening, claiming that the shack had been built without a working permit, Jansen knew that the shack was not long for this world. “The charm of the shack was in its vulnerability,” Jansen muses. At the same time, Jansen had begun filming “The Taco Chronicles,” a documentary about life in the Taco Shack and its demise.

In the following two months, Jansen spoke with architects and attended community board meetings, looking furiously for ways to save the shack. But with pressure from the community board, the building’s landlord told Ben’s that the shack had to go or she wouldn’t renew his lease. “It was a tough position for Ben,” Jansen says, “What was he gonna do?”

So Jansen went about tearing down the shack. “We were filming us taking it down, piece by piece,” she says.

Not willing to say goodbye to the taco shack business, almost immediately upon closing down, Jansen took up shop in a cul-de-sac in the Latin Circle of Coney Island. After dishing out several thousand dollars up front, Jansen was devastated when she sold only 100 tacos on Memorial Day weekend. “I had to walk away.”

But all was not lost. The night when she signed the Coney Island lease, she celebrated at Mercer Bar, where she started chatting with a “famous cookie heiress.” She stayed in touch with said heiress, and when the Coney Island shack went kaput, the heiress agreed to back a new taco venture – “On the condition that I would continue making ‘The Taco Chronicles,’ ” Jansen says. While it’s not 100 percent finalized, Jansen plans to move around the corner from where the Taco Shack originally stood, a space on E. Third St. between Avenue A and B by July 1.

Not a shack, but an actual building, Jansen explains that the new spot will be more of “an in-post instead of an out-post.” She plans on having a “drive-thru” style window, where she’ll dish out tacos, as well as stools and a counter inside to eat on. There’s also a basement space, which Jansen will either turn into a basement taco lounge or a video facility.

Keeping with the original, honky-tonk charm of Snack Dragon the first, Jansen isn’t planning anything fancy for her next venture. “I’ve been in the East Village for 17 years – I’m sick of all these new, over-produced places.”

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