TACO OF THE TOWNMoss Rock Tacos & Tequila spices up The Preserve's dining scene
Written by Emily Sparacino
Photos by Dawn Harrison
When people finish their hikes through Hoover’s 350-acre Moss Rock Preserve, Benard and Brianna Tamburello are hoping they’ll find more than just refreshment at the newest eatery in the community.
At Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila, the Tamburellos are aiming to offer a dining experience people can make all their own, from the moment they step past the restaurant’s quirky mascots, Taco Doodle Doo and Moss Hogg, perched outside the front door.
“We’re trying to make it a destination,” Brianna Tamburello, 37, said. “It’s very important that our guests get to create their dining experience.”
Beyond the freshly blended spices and sauces and organic ingredients that flavor the dishes at Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila, the Meadowbrook couple also want people’s overall experiences to complement their enjoyment of the food.
The concept of mealtime as an event bringing people together has been cemented in Benard’s mind since he was a child.
His family’s home served as a common gathering place for many of their friends on a regular basis.
“Our house was a neighborhood house,” Benard, 51, said. “We treat a meal as an event. We’re always happy, we always bring livelihood to the table and we always look to put a smile onto somebody’s face. What better way than good food?”
As a third-generation Italian, Benard grew up in Homewood, in a “classic Italian house,” as Brianna described it, where he learned how to handle different types of food, and cultivated a love of pizza, steak and pork.
“My dad was the private label food buyer for Bruno’s, and with that came samples,” Benard said. “I loved anything on the grill. I loved breakfast, too. Breakfast was awesome.”
He experimented with pastas and various sauces. His mastery of different techniques, ingredients and flavors didn’t come from formal training, but from hours of reading, learning and making adjustments in the kitchen.
He didn’t know he wanted to work in the restaurant industry until he landed a job running the cash register at his cousin’s restaurant, Gus’s Hot Dogs, in Inverness.
In 1992, when he was about 24 years old, Benard bought the restaurant, where he and a couple employees fed large crowds of people.
“We had lines out the door every day for lunch,” he said. “It was huge.”
The space beside the former Lloyd’s Restaurant location in Chelsea became available, and Benard bought it and, in 1996, opened Bernie’s Grill, a meat-and-three-style eatery during the day, with burgers and salads, and a cross between Cajun and Italian cuisine at night.
Bernie’s Grill was open until 2001, and in 2002, Benard opened Bernie’s on Main in the former Western Auto building on Columbiana’s Main Street in 2002.
His other ventures over the years include La Dolce Vita in Riverchase in 2005, Bellini’s Ristorante & Bar in Greystone in 2008 and Vecchia Pizzeria & Mercato in The Preserve in 2013.
He currently owns Bernie’s on Main, Vecchia and Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila.
Benard said his inspiration for Bernie’s on Main came from themes in John Grisham’s book “The Firm,” and was anchored in Columbiana’s position as the county seat and a hub for judges and lawyers at the Shelby County Courthouse.
“Back then, I was probably 35,” he said. “Sky was the limit. Nothing could stop me.”
Vecchia was a departure from Bernie’s on Main’s fare – gourmet sandwiches, soups, salads, pasta, steaks, catfish, liver and crab cakes – and Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila is a departure from both.
And it’s not run-of-the-mill Mexican food reminiscent of something from a box or bottle in a grocery store; it’s real, fresh fare carefully prepared and presented every time it’s ordered.
“I’m the visionary of where everything needs to be,” Benard said. “I wanted to do something different. There are similarities between Italian and Hispanic (cuisine); just different spices.”
Benard said he particularly enjoys making the adobo sauce, a richly spiced red sauce made from dried ancho and guajillo chilies and a medley of ground spices.
The chilies alone require much time and care. Each chili must be de-seeded by hand, soaked for several hours and then blended with other spices.
“There’s a lot of love that goes into these spices,” he said. “There are no shortcuts. It’s definitely a labor of love.”
The flavor profile of the adobo sauce is mildly spicy, smoky and deeply rich and full of layers.
The sauce is used as a marinade and a topping for several of the tacos at Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila.
He gets all corn tortillas from a family business in Oneonta, and many of his other ingredients come from International Food in Atlanta and Southern Organics in Shelby County.
“We’re very adamant about supporting local and small businesses whenever we can,” he added. “Everything we’re trying to do is locally sourced as close as possible.”
Before opening Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila, the couple started hosting parties at their house to try new recipes, and read many books.
“We’re still coming up with new options,” he said.
Crafting the ideal menu was one part of opening Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila.
Creating a festive, visually interesting atmosphere was another part of the project.
Inside, repurposed furniture and wood elements blend with retro tile and bright colors on the walls and ceiling, creating a vibrant, yet comfortable, dining space.
The Tamburellos obtained the tables from U.S. Steel’s Flintridge building in Fairfield.
“We rescued them from a pristine 1920s cafeteria,” Benard said.
The wall behind the bar is covered in tiles left over from the construction of Caraway Hospital.
The cypress and heart pine wood bar top was made by Randy Hillman using an old staircase post and railing from a wood salvage yard in Montgomery.
Brianna said they aren’t sure of the exact origin of the staircase, but it was possibly from an antebellum mansion or hotel.
Old metal fire extinguishers and bed springs are among the more interesting pieces of décor. Much of the art and antique items the couple bought for the restaurant came from Chattanooga.
Hoover High School graduate Madeline Dukes painted murals on the inside wall of the restaurant and in the women’s bathroom.
“She did an absolutely amazing job,” Brianna said.
Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila is located in the space formerly occupied by The Boot, a restaurant that closed last summer.
For the couple, including “Moss Rock” in the name of their restaurant in the Preserve Village was as natural as the scenic trails that weave their way through the Preserve itself.
“You’re trying to bring people to the neighborhood,” Benard said.
“We really wanted to brand Moss Rock and put it on the map,” Brianna added. “We’re a taco and tequila shop. It all flowed together perfectly.”
Like the community they serve, the restaurant is not an average Mexican-American or Tex-Mex restaurant, Brianna said.
“It’s much more creative than rice and beans and burrito,” she said. “We wanted to put our creative flair on the tacos, sauces and toppings. They’re all a little bit different.”
Even the ordering process is slightly different than other restaurants.
At Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila, diners fill out sushi-style menus, allowing them to customize their meals from start to finish.
“It’s educating the public on something new,” Brianna said. “It’s a truly unique experience.”
The tacos – chicken, carnitas, barbacoa, carne asada, chorizo and shrimp – are made with fresh cilantro, chopped onion and lime.
They can be washed down with one or more of the restaurant’s signature cocktails, beer and wine.
The Moss Rockarita is a blend of fresh-squeezed limes and agave nectar served frozen or on the rocks.
The Rock Sangria features tequila, red wine and fresh fruit juice.
The Moss Rock Sunrise is the couple’s take on a tequila classic.
Benard said house drinks contain Jose Cuervo Tradicional, and Altos Tequila is the base of the frozen margaritas.
Customers can even try a flight of different tequilas to find their favorites.
The Bloody Maria, Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila’s take on a Bloody Mary drink, pairs nicely with the oysters on the half shell.
Different seasonal drinks will be offered throughout the year.
“A lot of cool things (are) happening behind the bar,” Benard said.
Taco and margarita specials are held each week, along with live music every Monday and Thursday.
Children aren’t left out of the fun, either.
They can choose from a full line of specialty Mexican sodas, Jarritos, and they eat free on Monday nights.
The restaurant is preparing to start serving brunch on Saturdays and Sundays and to launch full-service catering on Saturdays and Sundays.
The fun isn’t limited to humans: Pets are welcome on the outdoor patio.
Benard and Brianna have three children, Raquel (14), Matthew (16) and Nathan (18).
They are fans of their parents’ latest restaurant venture.
“You definitely get my vote,” Raquel told them while devouring a helping of Churro Bread Pudding at the restaurant one afternoon.
Brianna said seeing regular customers at Vecchia also supporting Moss Rock Tacos & Tequila is encouraging; plus, they have seen a high number of new customers, too.
“It’s amazing,” she said. “It’s exposed us to a whole new demographic we never knew existed. People are excited to have us here.”