Taco showdown will show Boston’s true colors

Neighbors trying to put kibosh on 2 a.m. license

There’s enough out there today about the Democrats’ ongoing circular firing squad, the Globe’s flip-flop on Elizabeth Warren, and the coronavirus that might be coming for us all. Let’s turn instead to a very tangible, easy to digest question: Will we or won’t we be able to grab a taco in downtown Boston at 1 a.m.?

That’s the issue Shirley Leung tees up in today’s Globe, writing about the effort by El Jefe’s Taqueria restaurant owner John Schall to stay open until  2 a.m. at the new location he’s opening at the corner of Boylston and Tremont streets.

On the surface, it looks like a small-bore story of licensing boards and food sales permits. The outcome, however, will say a lot about the city Oliver Wendell Holmes immodestly dubbed the “Hub of the Universe,” but which more often acts like a cow town that turns out the lights when the sun goes down.

Schall figured his 2 a.m. license application would be seen as a great addition to the neighborhood. The taco shop is set to open on the ground floor of a dormitory building owned by Emerson College with some 1,000 students living on the floors above. It would almost be “a kitchen in their house,” Schall tells Leung.

To the local neighborhood association, however, late-night tacos are evidently something closer to the end of the world.

The Midtown Park Plaza Neighborhood Association is opposing the 2 a.m. license. They want the shop to close by midnight. The association successfully beat back an earlier effort by Tasty Burger to stay open until 2 a.m. at its nearby Winter Street locations.

Both Tasty Burger and El Jefe’s Taqueria have Harvard Square outlets that stay open to 4 a.m. without calamity having descended on that corner of Cambridge. But in Boston, whose leaders always seem to be trying a little too hard when they talk about their rivalry with New York City or the city’s emergence as a global player in the knowledge economy, the modern-day Puritan movement may win out at today’s Boston licensing hearing.

Emerson College allowed for a 2 a.m. closing in its lease with Schall, but the school is now siding with the neighborhood association. “We want to do what the neighborhood wants to do,” an Emerson VP tells Leung. But isn’t the college also part of the neighborhood? The school probably figured it has much bigger fish to fry as it builds out its downtown campus and so it won’t alienate abutters over a taco or two.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

No late-night taco license decision on its own determines a city’s future. But all these decisions added together say a lot about what kind of city Boston wants to be.

Mayor Marty Walsh has talked up the idea of making the city a more vibrant place for young people. “It can’t be this hard to serve burgers and tacos past midnight in downtown Boston,” writes Leung. “If we want a late-night city, we need to invest in it. Saying no so often kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”