When Max Toste and Aaron Sanders opened Lone Star Taco Bar a year ago next to their popular Allston bar and restaurant Deep Ellum, they had overcome a miraculously quick build-out despite flooded basements, other construction difficulties, and a 1200-mile drive to transport the distinctive pewter bar top. They chatted with Eater about the difficulties and rewards of Lone Star's first year and what's to come in the next year. (Spoiler alert: Frozen margaritas! "Because they're funny.")
Does it feel like it's been a year?
Max Toste: Yeah. I mean, it sort of feels like yesterday that we just opened the place, but we've put so much time and effort into it that it also feels like it's been awhile. I guess a year feels about right.
Aaron Sanders: If you were to ask us during the first six months, we would have said that it felt like two years. But now it feels like a year.
What do you remember about opening day?
AS: [Laughs.] Is this all on the record?
MT: Well, everyone was sick. There was that flu or whatever - hantavirus or something like that - and it ripped through the staff, so we were incredibly short-handed. So I was on the line cooking for the first few nights of soft opens; I hadn't planned on doing that. And on the second night, after leaving the kitchen line and feeling confident that the guys who I had been training were comfortable, I came on and tended bar for the rest of the night because we sent home Dave - he had gotten sick halfway through his shift. It just tore the staff to pieces. Everyone was sick. And we were freaking out because we thought, "Oh my God, are we giving everyone food poisoning?" It turned out it was an epidemic all over the city, but we were scared for a second there.
AS: It was impeccable timing.
MT: It was nerve-wracking.
How have you felt about the reviews, both professional and amateur?
AS: I think we were happy with all of the results that we got.
MT: I don't really care what people think about certain things. If you think that our food is expensive, you're wrong - you just are - because you don't know what goes into it. There's so much labor and love in the food that it's really fairly priced. So if anybody talks about price, I don't really give a shit. But everybody talked about how good everything was. Nobody said, "Oh, the food's mediocre." Everybody said the food's great, and the drinks are good. There was a lot of positive feedback. The place is really small, and it's kind of funny when you have a small place and people complain because it's packed. They're like, "Oh, it's so busy." Well, it's awesome. But it's kind of funny because I go out a lot, and Aaron goes out all the time, and we would probably never hang out in our own places because they're too busy - which is kind of arrogant to say, but I like places that are quieter.
Did you make any changes right away based on any feedback you received?
MT: Nope. We added things over time that we had intended on doing but couldn't quite pull off at first, like brunch. And we were totally tequila-focused on the cocktail menu at first, but then we went back to sort of our original plan, which was adding American whiskey and having a little more fleshed-out cocktail program, but we just did the tequila thing initially to separate it from Deep Ellum. But now, after a year, we've got brunch every day, and the cocktail menu is larger, and there's a whiskey list. But it wasn't in response to anything. It was just following through with plans we had already had.
AS: And just for the record, we're going to be doing frozen margaritas this summer. [Laughs.]
MT: Yeah, because they're funny. And they're awesome.
AS: Exactly. Pete's going to get his own blender strapped to the front of him.
MT: We're probably just going to do the house margarita, and we might do stuff with seasonal fruits and stuff. Nothing too corny.
AS: No Island Oasis.
MT: Just corny enough to be funny.
So, how did the idea for Lone Star initially come about?
MT: I grew up in Southern California, Aaron's from Texas, and we love Mexican food. We always have. I was in a band for a long time, and my keyboard player used to call me "The Maxican," because I would find Mexican food everywhere we toured. And I learned how to cook chili con carne at home, chili verde, all kinds of stuff. Actually, Aaron came over my house - was it eight years ago? - to watch the Super Bowl, before we opened Deep Ellum. I made chili verde an awful lot like our chili verde we use for our tacos now, even back then. Aaron used to have taco parties at his house, Dallas beef tacos. So it was something we always liked, and I got on this kick for awhile, cooking tacos for the staff in pre-meal. One of the gals who worked for us at the time was from California, and Dave is from Arkansas and had lived in Texas and grew up in the South and loves Mexican food. And we'd basically sit around here and be like, "Damn, you can't get this shit in Boston. You can't get tacos like this."
This space became available a couple years later, and we wanted it to be separate and not just blow out Deep Ellum and change the feel of it over there, so it was just kind of an organic process. I was really, really into tequila and mezcal - I still am - but at the time I was just salivating about it, so it was kind of a timing thing. Sort of like Deep Ellum, a "what does the neighborhood need?" sort of thing, and our feeling was like, "What does the city need? What would be cool that wouldn't compete with our next door place but stand out as different?" We opened Deep Ellum because we like beer and cocktails and food, not because we wanted to open a gastropub. We didn't know what that was; we hadn't heard that word before. We wanted to do something that was authentic and organic for us, so that's kind of how it happened. We wanted it to be awesome.
How do you split your time between the two places? Do you bounce between them all day?
AS: Yeah, we manage both places under one management team.
MT: It creates a lot of unique circumstances. In a way it's easier because you're right here, but in other ways, it impacts each place, the other one, pretty severely. Lone Star being under construction really was a pain in the dick for Deep Ellum because there was dust everywhere.
Any funny or bizarre stories from the year?
AS: Bizarre? This is the restaurant business - it's like the circus.
MT: Aaron found a guy between Macon and Savannah, down in southern Georgia, who makes pewter bar tops. We got this beautiful bar top made, but we found that to ship it up here was going to cost almost as much as having it made. It just so happened that Dave, our GM, was down in the area visiting family - it was around Thanksgiving - so I took a flight down, and we rented a big truck. The bar top is one piece, 24 feet long. We put the whole thing in the back of this big truck and drove it back. Like I said, I used to tour and drive in vans and stuff - it was kind of fun for me; I hadn't been on a road trip in a long time. But it was pretty harrowing because you've got this giant truck that's meant to move tons and tons of stuff, and it's got one 500-pound long bar in the back, which weighs nothing. Every time you hit a speed bump, it was bouncing off the ground. We had 1200 miles to drive.
AS: I'm surprised that thing didn't crack.
MT: There were some scary moments. I went over this bridge in Virginia, and I swear to God my head hit the roof, we went over a bump so hard. We pulled over nearly weeping because we thought for sure we had broken the bar. But we went and opened the back, and it was fine.
Is there a story behind those lions' heads at the base of the bar?
AS: Those lions belonged to Grill 23. Those were on their bar, and they redid their bartop after a couple decades, and those were for sale. We got them and made them into footrests.
MT: One of the kind of themes that we have - which you can't really tell if we don't tell you - is that we repurposed a lot of things here. These booths were in a church; they were church pews. Those big old light fixtures - those were antiques; they were also in a church.
AS: The whole bar was designed to look like a barn door.
MT: The floor is the original sub floor and the ceiling is just the rafters, so we just kind of used what we had but put it together in a way that felt sort of lived in but different-looking.
What was the most difficult moment of the year?
AS: I would probably say the very beginning. During construction.
MT: We had some construction setbacks, infrastructure stuff. Flooding in the basement, water lines, bullshit like that.
AS: The whole build-out was from the street to here - water lines, sprinkler system - it was a total gut job, so it was quite the project. And we got it done in two and a half, three months - real fast - so it was quite challenging.
MT: It was intense. We were formulating recipes while building the bar while running another bar next to that bar, and then all of a sudden the basement floods because the new water line for our soon-to-be-open bar is flooding the basement of our existing bar. Going back to the challenges of having places next to each other, that was kind of...interesting. But since then, it seems a lot easier than getting it open. We thought opening a second place would be easier; somehow it was harder. The stuff we learned the first time - we kind of had that down - but then because we had learned so much over the course of the years, we put so much pressure on the opening. We opened Deep Ellum just turnkey in nine days, but no one knew who we were or cared. Our friends showed up, and we built the business over several years. We opened here and felt like we had a reputation to uphold, and we felt like we would be scrutinized really severely if it wasn't awesome, so it was a lot of pressure on testing and tasting.
Can you pinpoint the happiest moment in the year - or the moment you most felt like this would be successful?
AS: I think we were pretty excited the first couple months about the success, the feedback, the response we got from the clientele.
MT: For me, I think it was just seeing the same people back over and over again. We had a lot of people who read Chowhound or read blogs or whatever, and they're there to check out the new spot. And they came, and some of them came back, and some of them didn't. But to see the regular customers who are absolutely addicted to the food and just can't get enough of it, that's pretty satisfying. And people also hanging out in here late night, not eating, just enjoying it as a bar - that was exciting too.
If you could go back a year and give yourself one piece of advice before opening, what would it be?
AS: Hire a different water line construction company. [Laughs.]
MT: Don't skimp on the guy doing the water line. Don't try to get the best deal. [Laughs.]
AS: Pay an extra 50 grand to put in water lines.
Any changes in store for year two aside from the frozen margaritas?
MT: Well, we just got a 2 AM license, which is huge. We extended our hours.
AS: And we're serving food until 1:30 in the morning. Next door at Deep Ellum, same hours, and the deck is open until 2 AM as well, so we're serving food until 1:30 at both places and on the Deep Ellum patio, which is very exciting. We're opening the patio up March 1st, so on any warm days it'll be open for everyone to enjoy. I'm going to deck it out like a jungle this year.
Any other thoughts on the year?
MT: We have a lot of the same staff, so one thing that we like is to sort of train the hell out of our staff and encourage them to grow with the company. We're really professional and we're very demanding, but we like sort of a familiar vibe around here, and when you have an opening crew that essentially you have almost everybody still around in both the kitchen and the front of house, it's pretty cool. Some people didn't work out because it wasn't a right fit, but it wasn't any mass exoduses or anything. It makes us feel like we're running the place nice.
AS: We're a pretty tight family here.
MT: It makes it feel like it's a fun place to work, and it's good that it's been busy enough that people can make a living and enjoy what they're doing.