A selection of tacos filled with flavors inspired by Chef Vanessa Burk’s culinary travels? Sounds like uncomplicated dining at its finest!
SOME RESTAURANTS have pages of menus; when you’re handed a three page, double sided menu at the start of your meal… anxiety can take over (what should I get?!) and sometimes all you’re left with is order envy. While having a lot of options to choose from has its perks… a new eatery in Upper Township has embraced simplicity and the ease of ordering that comes with it.
El Capitan’s Taco Shack, a ten-minute drive from the 34th Street Bridge throws all of those large menu complications out with a taco menu so short it can fit in the palm of your hand. Chef Vanessa Burk does this for simplicity’s sake. She thought it best to keep her taco menu small and simple in order to be easily executable for her employees and not overwhelming for her customers.
“When we started in 2018, we were on 55th and Simpson, under the radar, sharing a kitchen with another restaurant,” said Vanessa. “I needed to be able to do a menu that was easy to execute by myself. If I have one of my employees on the grill, it had to be able to be done and it had to be consistent. God forbid something happens to me, my employees can execute this menu properly.”
Carne asada tacos on El Cap’s menu is one of these easily executable items. Starting with the steaks she uses as taco meat, Vanessa picks up her favorite knife – slicing larger cuts into bite sized slivers with authority. Throwing the very fine cuts of steak on the grill, Vanessa lets the meat sizzle for a while until it turns a nice golden brown. The tortilla shells (each El Cap taco comes with two) are given a quick flash heating on the grill before being assembled in a basket, where they later hold the cuts of steak she has prepared.
“They are basically a filet mignon,” said Vanessa her blue eyes smiling as she talks about the quality of the food.
Once the steak is cooked to her liking, she scoops up the pieces and puts them into each double layered taco. She then dresses them up with pickled onions, a healthy dose of cream featuring a little lime tang to it, a dash of micro cilantro and a side of salsa rojo on the side.
“You eat with your eyes first, but you do want it to taste nice,” said Vanessa as she finishes up the tacos. “We make everything here [at El Cap] except for my churros and my tortillas. I get them from El Paisano in Bridgeton – if I did make them I would need to hire someone to do just that.”
El Cap’s Taco Shack serves chips with their tacos, but if you want a heartier snack get an order of the tostones; Small cuts of plantains that are lightly fried and served with a cup of tangy tangu sauce. They come in a basket and are easily sharable.
“It is basically an unripe plantain that is cut, smashed and fried,” said Vanessa as she whacked the plantain slices with a tenderizer hammer. Sprinkled with a pinch of salt and then fried, these come served up in a small tray right alongside the tacos. “The sauce comes from the restaurant I found in El Porto [California]. A good friend of my family re-taught me how to make them.”
From the steak in the carne asada tacos to the tostones, everything at El Cap is served tender. The pickled onions on the tacos and the lightly fried plantains have a crunch to them, but are still tender and delicious. This allows you to taste the flavor in the sauce – with the lime adding a citrus flare to the steak and the tangu sauce adding flavor to the tostones, Chef Burk’s tacos are a tasteful change of pace from traditional tacos and spicy hot sauce.
Vanessa likes to let her tacos speak for themselves. She’s studied many aspects and styles of cooking in her culinary education, from the surfing spots in California to France and other places in between. Her goal with El Cap tacos is to introduce customers to cuisines from her culinary travels… a food people around here know and love. In fact, the name El Capitan came about because when Vanessa decided to open up her own place, she was having lunch with a friend whose husband was climbing El Captain in Yosemite at that very moment.
“You gotta give them what they want, but try to bring them to another world,” said Vanessa.
“When you go into some [restaurants], what makes them different is that people have different things they like. You are going to find things that are different in each [restaurant]. Putting the tacos together the way that I want them is completely different from what others would do. It is never negative competition [with other restaurants] – it is always positive competition.”
Vanessa taps into that positive vibe in her culinary sphere no matter what.
“COVID pushed me out of my [55th Street] space,” said Vanessa. “But I think about my little microcosm of south Jersey… we are never not prepared for something seriously ridiculous to happen to us. When we get hit with something, we scramble and we are used to it. I think we did a good job.”
El Capitan might be a “shack” but since Vanessa opened, she’s expanded the outdoor space, adding sod and landscaping. Eventually, she’s going to have a fire pit and chairs… places for guests to hang out and listen to music while eating tacos. El Cap is a BYOB and offers picnic tables for open air dining. They host special events throughout the year, including a Board Swap N Shop on June 5 from 12-4pm. A board swap is where you can come, bring a board to trade or cash to buy a board. There will be music, fun, food (of course!), and more.
Find El Cap at 1250 Route 50, Woodbine. @elcaptacoshack on Insta.
Photos by Stef Godfrey