5 Questions with Russ Keith of the Grey Eagle Taqueria


5 Questions with Russ Keith of the Grey Eagle Taqueria

  • Stu Helm

    Stu Helm is an artist, graphic designer, and writer living and working in Asheville, WNC. He writes about food as The Food Critic for the popular Ashvegas.com, and publishes a free, monthly, print...

Pictured, from left to right, Russ Keith, Ashley Weber, and Benton Wade
Hello Asheville!
I'm doing a new thing for Grit in which I'll be conducting very short, 5-question interviews, either in person or via e-mail, with chefs, servers, owners, staff, and patrons of local restaurants.  Yay!
I'm gonna start with Russ Keith, manager of the Grey Eagle, mostly because Ayana and I came up this idea while we were eating lunch at the Grey Eagle Taqueria together, and Russ was standing right there, so I asked him, and he agreed to do an email interview with me. Here it is...
STU HELM: Hi Russ!  It was nice to see you yesterday.  Thanks for the tacos, they were excellent!  Here's my first Q for ya:  Why tacos?  Why not bar food, burgers, hot dogs, whatever?  Why did you decide to focus on tacos?  Also, do you serve other stuff besides tacos?
RUSS KEITH: First off thanks for stopping into the GET (Grey Eagle Taqueria). We have been serving food at The Grey Eagle for several years, first as Twin Cousins (New Orleans cuisine) and then Roots Cafe (local hummus, etc) before settling into the taqueria theme. The scope of the restaurant is broader than just tacos, encompassing various Latin dishes and influences. The food part has been a complement to the music hall and our mission is to provide simple comfort food that is easy to eat as you enjoy the music. 
Several of our food items to fall in the "bar food" category, like our Hickory Nut Gap cheeseburger with fries. The central style of the GET is the Latin cuisine that our chefs prepare on a daily basis. We are trying to focus our energy into producing authentic Latin flavors and items that you would find in South American regions. 
Tacos are probably the biggest seller, but we offer several other items including great burritos, and my personal favorite the arepas. This latter dish is a corn biscuit that is deep fried and stuffed with pickled onions, cheese, and your protein choice. So Good!  Another popular favorite is the Fiambre, a delicious kale salad topped with choice of protein.

STU:  Who are your kitchen staff, where are they from, what are their duties, and how much do you pay them?  
RUSS: We have a very small, talented, and efficient kitchen staff.  My head chef has worked in fine dining establishments for about ten years, most recently working with John Fleer of Rhubarb.  We are looking to grow our staff, but we need to make sure we get thru the winter months first.
A typical work shift for the two-man crew would be opening the restaurant, doing dishes, prep work for food, busing tables, taking orders and  much more.  Their efficiency and work ethic is top notch.  When not producing incredible food they can be found donning other hats and the staff wears many hats, and selling tickets for upcoming shows, and checking in beer orders. The GET staff are the true rock stars for the Taqueria. 
The pay is based on salary plus well deserved tips. The tips are evenly split with the cooks as well with the cashiers.  The cooks are an integral part of a total team effort and share the benefits that the front of the house receives. The pay averages vary from $11 to $17 hourly.
STU:   I noticed Smiling Hara Tempeh on your menu and tried your tempeh asada taco.  It was frickin' excellent!  It was juicy and flavorful, and had some blackened bits that were crispy, and super umami-y, which is tricky to get with tempeh.  How do your chefs prepare the tempeh?  Do you sell a lot of tempeh tacos?
RUSS: Prep for the tempeh is actually one of the easier tasks in the kitchen. It is marinated and sliced thin to provide plenty of surface area when searing. As it cooks on the flattop, it is chopped finer to create more of a crumbled texture.  While the tempeh serves as a good vegan option, we actually sell a lot more of the lentil chorizo. It's made in-house and has great flavor and texture. It could make you a vegan for a day.  It's that good.
STU:  How's business?  Setting aside every other aspect of the Grey Eagle (the shows, the bar, etc) how's the taco biz treating you?  How long have you been at it?  
RUSS: Business is still developing for the GET as far as our visions for the brand.  In the past we have closed during the winter for lunch, but our customers will not allow it! (right, Bob?) We are still trying to develop a dinner crowd. We would really like to see more families that can come in and feed a family of four for about $25. We are also initiating catering options as well as deliveries for business lunches.
The GET doesn't have high-ticket priced items on the menu, and the labor far outweighs the sales that show up at the end of the day. In other words, you have to sell alot of $3 tacos before you start to see profits. The staff at the GET takes great pride in offering low pricies for a great value in the food that you're eating. We take a little extra time in giving a little extra love to our plates. 
I've been working at the Grey Eagle for a couple of years now as manager, but started taking on a larger role with the GET after seeing the potential, the Taqueria was underacheiving. I'm happy to have seen quick results from some practices and ideas that the staff and I have created.
STU:  Finally, please let the readers know what your hours are. Do you sell tacos during shows? How early in the day, and how late at night can a taco eater get a Grey Eagle Taco? Have you ever considered being a 24 hour taco joint, with desayuno, almuerzo, y cena?
RUSS KEITH:  The GET is open Monday through Saturday from 12pm -8pm with extended hours on nights when we have shows for ticket patrons.
As far as the 24 hour taco joint goes, that's a stellar idea.  My wife and I were just discussing the other day that there needs to be more 24 hour diners in this area. So let's create a 24-hour Taco Rave dance club. Oh, wait a minute, Taco Bell does this every weekend night with their drive thru. We're still in the vision and execution game. Stay tuned!
STU: Thanks for your time, Russ, I'll be looking forward to eating more of your delicious tacos!

So, there you go, faolks:  Interview #1, with Russ Keith from the Grey Eagle!  Here are my take-away bullet points...
• Arepas - Yeah,Man!  I love arepas!  I didn't know they were on the menu until I read Russ' answers. Gonna go back and get some!
• Hickory Nut Gap cheeseburger with fries - I didn't know that either.  Okay, GET could be one of my most regular jams, man.
• Open for lunch all Winter! - Fuck. Yes. Another place in the River Arts District that is open for dang lunch, 6 days a week, all winter long?  Thank you, GET.
• "Stay Tuned" for news of 24 hour tacos -  I'm trying not to get too excited about that, just in case it doesn't happen, but I would frickin' love to be able to get desayuno at, like, 6:30 - 7:00AM right in the RAD. That would be rad.

Thanks again to Keith and GET, and Ayana and Grit, and to you, the readers!  I'll do another interview soon...
(Check out my blog too! http://stuhelmthefoodcritic.blogspot.com/