The sad truth of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it either downscaled commercial establishments, if not outright put them out of business.

It’s easy to see places that were once thriving suddenly shrink to smaller spaces, and it’s even more heartbreaking to find them shuttered or totally replaced with something else. The lack of foot traffic at the height of the community quarantines and lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 simply destroyed the inflow of many restaurants, essentially forcing them to focus more on food delivery. It works but it’s just not the same.

This is why it’s amazing to see a small, homegrown establishment not only survive the pandemic but also upgrade themselves the way Poblacion taco restaurant Taco-Mata did.

“We wanted to see if we had a market for it first, and I thought that Poblacion was the perfect canvas for us to really experience that,” Arthur Dancel says. “We did well with the locals. We did well with the backpackers. We did well with foreign tourists. Every weekend we would sell out, so then we knew we had something.”

Ran by husband-and-wife team Arthur and Arra Dancel, Taco-Mata (pronounced “takaw-mata” as a clever play on the Filipino idiom meaning “greedy eyes,” a pun Arthur is proud of) started off as a stall in a nearby Poblacion food park just before the pandemic hit.

“[Our deal with the food park] was a month-to-month lease, so we’re like, you know what? Let’s just do it [and leave],” says Arthur, a Filipino-American who grew up in San Francisco, a melting pot of a city in which both Mexican and Filipino cultures were well-represented. He came off a job in Wall Street, while his wife Arra worked with the United Nations. They returned home to start something new and came up with Taco-Mata because they really wanted to serve tacos, a food they were big fans of.

A sample of the non-traditional Mexican cuisine at Taco-Mata
From left: The Village, a vegan taco featuring roasted then charred broccoli florets; The Soho, French-inspired tenderloin steak au poivre cooked sous vide served with caramelized onions and potato strings; and chili con carne with nachos
The L.E.S.: A Taiwanese-inspired, red-braised and charred thick-cut pork belly served with pickled vegetables, muscovado, crushed peanuts, and green sauce
The L.E.S.: A Taiwanese-inspired, red-braised and charred thick-cut pork belly served with pickled vegetables, muscovado, crushed peanuts, and green sauce

Arthur radiates a genuine and earnest energy for what he’s doing, and pride for the non-traditional Mexican tacos he’s serving, which are inspired by the different flavors and regional cuisines represented in their beloved New York City.

There are favorites like the Soho, a French-inspired tenderloin steak au poivre taco; the Harlem, a taco stuffed with southern US-style fried chicken brined in buttermilk; and even a vegan option in The Village, with roasted and charred broccoli florets with apple-cranberry slaw and coconut yogurt. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to their unorthodox taco selection—there are even more new flavors and combinations in Taco-Mata’s pipeline.

Taco-Mata and their winning products

Taco-Mata: The Harlem, a Southern-inspired taco with fried chicken brined in buttermilk, and the Cajun-inspired beer-battered fish taco called The Fulton
The Harlem, a Southern-inspired taco with fried chicken brined in buttermilk, and the Cajun-inspired beer-battered fish taco called The Fulton

“We wanted to see if we had a market for it first, and I thought that Poblacion was the perfect canvas for us to really experience that,” Arthur says. “We did well with the locals. We did well with the backpackers. We did well with foreign tourists. Every weekend we would sell out, so then we knew we had something.”

When the cities were locked down in March 2020, they took the time to figure out what their next move was—would they stay or would they go back to New York? “We had such amazing feedback from social media,” he said. “[People would ask] when are you guys going to open? So we said, let’s keep it going.”

They weathered the pandemic by putting up a cloud kitchen in Mandaluyong where they could keep serving their customers via delivery. “We did better in sales during the pandemic than we did before it,” says Arthur. “So we’re like ‘Wow, we have something,’ and not only that but we had a lot of [orders]; maybe 30 percent of our orders were all repeat customers. So we thought, ‘We have something pretty good that’s happening right now.’”

“[Renting a bar kitchen and porch area] was a good and minimal financial risk for us because we’re not spending so much, as far as renting out a whole space,” says Arthur. “If [things go south], we could just pack up, sell the furniture, and find another place.”

When COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates started going down in 2021, the Dancels figured it would be the right time to finally take the next step. They networked further and eventually met famed restaurateur Elbert Cuenca, who introduced them to the owner of a bar in Makati. They worked out a deal where Taco-Mata could use the bar’s kitchen for their operations, and the porch area to serve customers. That’s how they found themselves back in Poblacion earlier this year.

Now, people could just make a turn into a street off Kalayaan Avenue and find Taco-Mata in front of that bar. People can come in, sit down, and enjoy the Dancels’ tacos, all while watching the various characters walk around on the streets of lively and vibrant Poblacion.

“It was a good and minimal financial risk for us because we’re not spending so much, as far as renting out a whole space,” says Arthur. “If [things go south], we could just pack up, sell the furniture, and find another place. But so far, so good. The relationship we have with this bar is really good.”

The Taco-Mata kitchen team operating inside the rented bar kitchen
The Taco-Mata kitchen team operating inside the rented bar kitchen
What's on the Taco-Mata menu? Torched non-traditional tacos
What’s on the menu? Torched non-traditional tacos

Not giving in to circumstance

Arthur Dancel
Arthur Dancel

Ironically, even with their stellar performance and the very real danger of inflation already forcing many restaurants and establishments to raise prices, the Dancels are staying put and holding off on doing the same for as long as they can. For them, the top priority will always be customer experience, not profit—just because they can. This is another reason why they continue to enjoy their customers’ love in more challenging times.

“We don’t have any outside investors, so it’s easier for us to say we’re just going to take a cut,” says Arthur. “We’re going to take a cut just to maintain that customer experience because I’m going to play the long game; if you look at the history of inflation, it fluctuates three to five percent every two years. It’s probably going to get better, and I don’t want to be reactionary. I take some of that Wall Street experience with me on that.”

“I want to grow, for sure. What business owner doesn’t want to grow, right? But I want to grow the right way,” says Arthur Dancel.

Taco-Mata’s combo of delicious food (praised by an actual Mexican customer, it should be noted) and heavy focus on customer experience is no doubt the key to its pandemic evolution and success. It would be a disservice to the Dancels’ skills and training, albeit from outside the culinary industry, to imply that they were simply lucky. The winning formula never really changes, no matter what type of food you serve, and Taco-Mata is a testament to the basics always working; everything else is just a fancy extra.

For Arthur, success is measured beyond the bottom line. “I want to grow, for sure. What business owner doesn’t want to grow, right? But I want to grow the right way. I don’t want to make a common mistake where you have some sort of success and then all of a sudden you have a branch in every mall, and quality and standard of excellence go down.”

“So I don’t want to make that mistake—I want to maintain the status quo and then build the brand I want to build. I want to build more lasting, memorable customer experiences, and build on top of that.”