Take a Flying LeapJul 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes
“How spicy do you want it?” It is a sultry summer night with a driving rain puddling the streets in Towanda. Two overhead doors are rolled up, offering reprieve from both the rain and the heat. Customers chat and dine while watching the Susquehanna receive fresh water.
At Flying Taco Mexican Grill, the question of spiciness is taken very seriously. There are seven kinds of salsa, all made fresh on the premises. You get three varieties with your tortilla chips—you can pick, or entrust that matter to your server. There is an impressive list of available margaritas—try enough flavors and the tacos will take wing. Can you get guac and queso? What kind of question is that?
In business less than a year, Flying Taco opened during the pandemic and under the ownership of people who knew nothing about the restaurant business. But the place has thrived in a way that beat all expectations. Even a rainy Wednesday sees nearly every seat taken.
“We were busy right away,” says Ann Smith, beaming at the crowd and the full-to-capacity bar. The place has an immediate feel of a neighborhood hangout. Customers run the gamut from date nights to families to folks catching some of the game on the bar TV.
Ann and partner Shelby Burgess bought the building at an auction, sweating it out until the gavel fell. “My husband said if you don’t get this one, we will find another,” Ann says. “I said, nope, it has to be this building.” Formerly the Flying Cow Bakery, the restaurant sits on a corner one block back from North Main Street, near the historic Bradford County courthouse (Towanda is the county seat). It has that river view, and also boasts upper deck seating with tables and games. Ann and Shelby have added a patio area for the good weather and plan to offer food-truck-type self service for munchies.
“That deck is so nice for lunch,” a diner relates. “We come over from the county building and it’s a wonderful break from work.”
Despite the complete lack of food service experience, the opportunity to open Flying Taco was too good to pass up. “I don’t want to have a lot of wouldas, couldas, shouldas in life,” Ann says. “This was our chance.”
Here, those chips that are ubiquitous to all Mexican eateries are light and crisp and just the right kind of salty. Tacos are made the traditional way with corn or flour tortillas. Ask for a hard shell taco and you’ll get a sideways look. The Salsa Macha has a spice blend that sneaks up on you a minute later. But the touch is more of a kiss than a slap. Marinated chicken, blackened mahi-mahi, arrachera (skirt steak), and spicy pork are the offered proteins. There is even an homage to the building’s former identity. The Flying Cow street taco is smoked brisket, diced onion, cilantro, and queso fresco, topped with pineapple salsa.
Portions are reasonable without going overboard, and there are many sides and extras if you manage to find more room in your belly.
“Custom made Mexican food—all fresh ingredients with a chef who knows true Mexican cuisine,” Ann says. The staff has the pedigree to pull it off. Shelby’s parents were raised in Mexico. The chefs hail from San Salvador and Puerto Rico. The menu is in Spanish on one side, just to make things more accessible for all visitors.
The galley kitchen explodes with brilliant colors of fresh produce and fragrant spice. There is not a jar or bottle to be seen. As much product as possible is gathered from local sources, including the meat. The staff works in organized chaos, with a healthy dose of smiles and laughter. The happiness comes through in the food.
“You build your own meal by selecting the chips, the salsa, the sides,” Shelby says. “We use legitimate Mexican proteins, pork, chorizo, fish like mahi-mahi, and shrimp.”
Reference a popular American-Mexican fast food joint, and Shelby laughs. “My mother saw that they use ground beef. She was like, what is that? I’ve never used ground beef in my life.”
The Flying Taco strives to be more than just another restaurant, and the proprietors have given a lot of thought to the actual experience of dining out. A vintage shuffleboard game and pool table invite folks to make an evening of their meal and not just eat and run. Hand-mixed margaritas and cold beer make an ordinary night a party.
Ann is a constant presence among the tables, working the room like she’s running for office, taking pictures of customers and listening. She seems to know everyone.
“We get some great ideas from our customers,” she says. “The staff will often gather after closing and brainstorm new menu items, new types of services to add.” That includes an open mic night on Wednesdays, which is attracting a talented group of local musicians and singers.
“We want our guests to gather here, have fun, and enjoy the flavor explosion our menu offers,” Shelby says.
The Flying Taco Mexican Grill is located at 7 State Street in Towanda. There is a municipal parking garage next door, which alleviates a lot of the parking issues common to businesses that sit riverfront. Parking is free on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays, and it is less than a minute’s walk to the door. The restaurant is closed Mondays, open 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. all other days. Call (570) 637-0348 and find them on Facebook, where there’s information on tacos, tunes, and tequila.