“Between Jen and Jessica sending me places for lease to live down here, I eventually did it,” Jimmy explained, as we chatted at Taco y Vino.
Whether by virtue of his role in restaurant ownership, or his role in simply being a radiant presence, Jimmy Contreras is the life of the party; a real gem. I found this out early on with Go Oak Cliff; the guy lit up the first Go Oak Cliff meeting I ever attended, which was coincidentally also my first impression of Jimmy.
Jimmy was in distribution before moving to Oak Cliff, selling wine. Contreras carried high-end brands and sold to restaurants, then went to work for an Italian wine importer, which “wasn’t for me,” he said. That led him to restaurant consulting.
“I’ve always had a knack for how to increase business and streamline it,” Jimmy told me. “When something is naturally broken or there is opportunity in a restaurant, you want to make the most of what it could be.”
Jimmy cut his teeth consolidating kitchens and rewriting menus, and it taught him a lot along the way. The thrill of the food business, in that capacity, is what led him to his own endeavor, Taco y Vino. He came in with a vision, and in its first year that vision already paid off with its first award, Dallas CultureMap’s best new restaurant.
“We took a third place approach,” said Jimmy. “We want this to be the third place you go the most, after home and work. This place is meant to be constantly going and humming at high speeds. We’re meant to be full; we’re meant to have a buzz; the music is supposed to be loud. I try to make it a place where my friends and my family would want to come and be part of it.”
Un-ironically, during our conversation, Jimmy noticed the lonely scratch of his music-less record player, and he motioned to the bartender to put on a new record. The little things matter.
In the neighborhood sense, Jimmy also doesn’t want the music to stop. As a huge believer in community, Jimmy sees immense value in restaurant and shop owners who also choose to make a home in the area in which they work. He also notes how valuable it is that Oak Cliff doesn’t take something like that for granted. Still, when we discussed all the new development, there’s a small fear of what Jimmy described as the “Uptownization of Oak Cliff.”
“You’re seeing it in Deep Ellum, and I think a lot of what happened to Greenville. People went and moved to [Greenville], and they immediately hated what was happening,” Jimmy said. “I think they choked Greenville and they risked a lot of talent, and a lot of mom and pop joints got choked out, and they’re not coming back.”
There’s hope, Jimmy explained, in community, and in a neighborhood that attracts newcomers who want the same things, and teaches them to care about other core, less-inherent elements that make Oak Cliff a unique place. The neighborhood must also pass this wisdom down to the younger crowd; a practice that Jimmy bestows on his own family.
“I taught my children we have to see where our money goes.” This is when Jimmy shows his serious side, with the same passion as his token laugh and smile. “If I go and I spend my money at Nova, it’s going to J.D. and the gang; if I go and I spend it at Eno’s it’s going to Shane. I love that. That’s something that’s naturally ingrained in Oak Cliff.”
“The whole practice what you preach mantra—you have to live that life. You have to choose Home Run Pizza when you’re at home.”
Contreras sees that support, and believes it is unwavering, despite the recent boom of development, in which he also sees opportunity. He has a lot of ideas for what he’d like to do in the neighborhood (although Taco y Vino as the main time commitment is just fine for now). Taco y Vino recently hosted a bygone Oak Cliff favorite, Zoli’s, for a cross-promotion event, appropriately called, “Pizza y Vino”.
“Bringing Zoli’s in here was good for the soul, because I missed it tremendously,” Jimmy lamented. “I think it was ahead of its time, especially with regards to its location.” (Disclosure: Jimmy’s wife, Hollie, is the director of catering for Zoli’s, Cow Tipping Creamery, and Cane Rosso.)
We talk about how some neighbors have a “how-it-used-to-be” mentality about Oak Cliff, when in many ways it’s the same. I’m watching this sameness play out as Contreras stops to casually chat with Joel Denton of Oak Cliff Brewing Co., who has stopped in to fill an order. Denton is an Oak Cliff native, but his business is a relative newcomer like Taco y Vino, and a prime of example of how the Oak Cliff we know and love remains the ground we walk on and the people we live among, not some distant memory.
Contreras would like to see Eighth Street mirror the early days of Rainey St., in Austin, with a mix of homes, storefronts, and walkability. That’s a comparison that is used often; not just by him.
The preservation and vision is shared by another gem—the silent partner, if you will—Joe McElroy. It was McElroy who pleaded with Jimmy to check out the space that would eventually house Taco y Vino.
“I kept blowing him off,” Contreras said. Finally, he went; it was midday, it was hot, and Jimmy fell in love with a house with a fake brick façade and two horrible front windows.
“But it had beautiful bones,” he continued. “If it wasn’t for Joe McElroy’s vision, I wouldn’t be here.”
Even if Jimmy expands to the next thing, he has confidence in Taco y Vino’s foundation: the people. “There’s not one person who works here who I wouldn’t give the key to the building. They all bring something to the building that I personally cannot.”
At this time of year—his second year running Bastille on Bishop while running Taco y Vino—Jimmy puts that statement to the test. Contreras relies upon his employees while he’s making sure the festival is coming together. Last year, many of the employees did double-duty during the festival. But, like his vision for Taco y Vino being a community-driven restaurant, Jimmy also shares his desire for Go Oak Cliff to be something that belongs to the neighborhood (and so does this author and the rest of us volunteer miscreants). This is where Jimmy Contreras’ small Oak Cliff beginnings come full circle.
Contreras reminisced with me about his early Bastille on Bishop experience, as a reveler. “When it first started, we’d walk there, have a little too much to drink, and walk back home.”
Now, Bastille on Bishop is the main driver of all three Go Oak Cliff events (additionally, Mardi Gras Oak Cliff in the winter, and Blues Bandits & BBQ in late fall). Bastille on Bishop helps fund and fuel the other events.
“I’m excited to see the expanded footprint, the things we’re doing by involving more local restaurants, and embracing the culture and what the merchants of Bishop Arts have built, while tightening the bond between businesses and neighbors.”
No better person than the life of the party to host one of the areas biggest events of the year.
In our next story, we’ll talk more about Joe McElroy, a person who has had a hand in most of the iconic buildings within a square mile radius around Bishop Arts, including Taco y Vino, as mentioned above.