Four years after branching out into the first pop-ups of her own, chef Monica Dimas is finally doing exactly what she wants — running a full-scale restaurant and bar, in the form of Little Neon Taco.
Jump back to December 2014, and Dimas was working as a roaming chef for the Ethan Stowell Restaurant Group, but she’d started going independent, first with a pop-up called Communion, serving “Mexican hangover food” at Nacho Borracho on Saturdays, and the Rhino Room on Sundays.
In 2016 that little pop-up turned into Neon Taco, a permanent taco window in the back of Nacho Borracho. Then in April 2018, Dimas upsized, opening Little Neon Taco, Eater Seattle’s Restaurant of the Year for 2018.
“I joke that because I’m a double Capricorn I move very slowly on anything even though it doesn’t seem like that,” she says with a laugh.
Indeed, back when Dimas was named as Star Chef’s Rising Star Concept Chef in 2015, she spoke about expanding Neon Taco as a part of her five-year plan. But it’s been a long road.
News broke of the restaurant in May of 2017, and anticipation steadily built — that is until Dimas’ bagel shop Westman’s opened that January.
The popularity of the little bagel spot on E Madison quickly grew out of control; bagels were selling out by mid-morning, people were livid the shop wasn’t open on weekends, and all the while Dimas was trying to prep to open Little Neon Taco. (And that wasn’t even the only business she added along the way: Dimas also opened Tortas Condesa and Sunset Fried Chicken in 2015 and 2016 respectively.)
With such success under her belt at Westman’s, Dimas admits she was nervous to open Little Neon Taco so soon afterwards.
“I had put so much of my heart into the space and so much of myself into the concept, and I kind of felt like a little bit of the love was taken away.”
Things were slow at first. She says lunch was great, but dinner was slow; she began to question herself, thinking that maybe opening the restaurant was the wrong thing.
“But really it was just about figuring out the neighborhood and what they were needing and wanting. Also, sometimes you start to think like, maybe if I change it to be more [fill in the blank] friendly, then you start to lose focus on why it was working in the first place, which was to do what makes sense to you.”
Complicating her life even more, Dimas gave birth to a daughter at the end of May, just a few weeks after Little Neon Taco opened. While on maternity leave, she kept contemplating the status of her businesses.
“I think it was like Westman’s was getting so much press and so much love, and Little Neon wasn’t as much?”
She cut her maternity leave short, coming back to work after just four weeks and decided to just dig in to her concept and stay true to herself.
She added brunch and expanded the menu even farther from just tacos to hearty dishes like lamb birria with buttery corona beans and mushrooms, and pan seared wild rockfish with a garlic and Fresno chili sauce, served with cumin butter rice and a root vegetable (two of the dishes Dimas says are her favorite right now). There’s still some tinkering happening, but the love for Little Neon Taco has been flowing.
“Sometimes you just have to really believe in what you’re doing, and you don’t know if it’s going to work or not. It’s a gamble. It’s still a gamble and we started getting so much more positive feedback from our neighborhood.”
What drew people to Dimas and her food — the handmade corn tortillas made from a special mix of masa, the exquisitely messy tortas, the guacamole with massive chunks of avocado — are what make Little Neon Taco a success. They’re also what helped lead her to an Eater Award win.
Dimas says she has a Google alert set up on her phone for her businesses. She rises early to have time to check emails before her daughter wakes up — the morning she saw news of the award, she says she “kind of gasped.”
“I was a little bit surprised, but then also relieved. I mean you have to have a ton of confidence in yourself, but also with that I’m not a sociopath, and so there are still moments where I’m like, what am I doing? So, I definitely don’t think that everything I do is going to be super amazing.”
Dimas isn’t done developing Little Neon Taco: 2019 will bring a tiny remodel, and further focusing the restaurant. The goal? Making it “[what] I want it to be in my head.”