Taco Circus' Mikey Carrasco Rebounds From COVID Darkness

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Taco Circus' Mikey Carrasco gets through the darkness by learning to let go. - MONICA MILEUR
  • MONICA MILEUR
  • Taco Circus' Mikey Carrasco gets through the darkness by learning to let go.
 
When Mikey Carrasco details the summer plans he and owner Christian Ethridge had for Taco Circus (4940 Southwest Avenue, 314-899-0061), you can hear the disappointment in his voice.

"We were supposed to have this huge patio season," Carrasco says. "We were going to have all these slushy margarita machines; Christian is really into plants, so he turned the patio into this really cool place. We knew it was going to be a lot of work serving the crowds we were expecting, but we were ready to push through it. Then all this happened, and it was really disheartening. This is not about money or our livelihoods or careers — this is our thing. We aren't one-trick ponies, but this was a really good trick. But it wasn't a trick. We had a really great thing going on."



Since mid-March, Carrasco has been away from his job as Taco Circus' kitchen manager, quarantining at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He admits that, at times, it's been a tough slog. Not only has he had to watch the restaurant — and his industry as a whole — face unprecedented challenges, he's also had to make the decision to temporarily step away from his job because of an underlying health condition. Diagnosed six years ago with multiple sclerosis, Carrasco stopped working several weeks before the restaurant closed down completely because he was concerned that his situation left him particularly vulnerable. Staying at home, away from the business he loves, hasn't been easy.

"For a little while, when all of this started, I had so much anxiety," Carrasco says. "I didn't want to do anything and was lost in my own head. I had a lot of mental pain and was just really worried about the state of the world, so when I realized that somebody delivered booze, I started drinking."



Carrasco is upfront about the toll the drinking started to take on him. Though it served as a temporary salve for his angst, he found that the booze was making things worse, increasing his physical and mental discomfort.

"Drinking was a bad idea, because it compounded everything physically and emotionally," Carrasco explains. "It numbed me and felt like an off switch, but obviously it was a temporary one."

Fortunately, Carrasco realized that he was going down a dark path and was able to make the change he needed. He stopped drinking and began working out, taking care of himself, doing yoga and meditating. He is now in a good place. When he feels the anxiety creeping up, he combats it by doing something good for himself that will help him in the long term, and that has helped make his stay-at-home situation more tolerable.

He also feels that focusing on his health will help him when he gets back to work, which he is confident will happen sooner or later. Though it has been hard to be out of Taco Circus' kitchen, he finds peace in knowing that he's helped build a good crew and put systems in place that will keep the restaurant humming along in his absence. Still, he looks forward to the day when he can jump back on the line with his coworkers and feed a packed house — the thing he lives for.

"I'm not worried about being left out or not being able to get back to it if things normalize," Carrasco says. "I will always have the knowledge and expertise that will be valuable. I don't worry about that. I'm just living day to day, seeing what happens and trying to make it. This whole thing has been a lesson in patience, adaptation and letting go."

Carrasco took some time to share his thoughts on what it's like to be a hospitality professional during the pandemic, the routines he misses the most and how the kindness he sees is giving him hope.

As a hospitality professional, what do people need to know about what you are going through?
I live to serve and share my art in cooking, heritage and culture with the world. It really hurts to be benched and not be able to share my love, plate by plate. It's really stressful to not know what the future holds for the profession I am in as a whole — watching as other restaurants and bars are seemingly shuttered for good over this. Seeing people in my profession struggle really hurts and causes me uncertainty. Much love goes out to Ryder's Tavern. I love Ryder, and that place will be missed.

What do you miss most about your job?
It's not just what I miss; it's who I miss. First of all, I miss my mornings opening up the lines, checking over prep, inventory and planning out our day with Kevin White. He is an OG at Taco Circus like myself — a great friend and co-chef with me. We don't always come to quick agreements on things, but that's the way it goes when people have a passion for their jobs. I really miss my time in the mornings with Kevin.

What do you miss least?
I would say I miss the least any orders for the infamous Karen.

What is one thing you make sure you do every day to maintain a sense of normalcy?
I wasn't aware I had maintained any sense of normalcy through this. Just kidding. I try to give myself a schedule, even at home, because it keeps me busy and on track towards something greater and keeps my mind from racing. I think about my family in Texas, especially my daughter Kiara who is graduating high school this year and receiving a full ride to her favorite school, Texas A&M Galveston, to learn marine biology. Meditation and taking moments to feel empathy for others keeps my head on swivel. When it's warm outside, I ride my bicycle. Also, I've learned how to make face masks, and I'm doing that as a hobby.

What have you been stress-eating/drinking lately?
I have stopped drinking alcohol to keep my immune system strong, because I have multiple sclerosis. Also, it exacerbates a lot of the natural feelings and other symptoms I get. I love socially drinking but needed to put it on pause at this moment. So, coffee. Lots of coffee. As far as eating goes, I stress eat Doritos. I eat Doritos when I'm happy. I eat Doritos when I'm sad. I eat Doritos when I'm indifferent.

What are the three things you’ve made sure you don’t want to run out of, other than toilet paper?
Rice, beans and masa to make tortillas.

You have to be quarantined with three people. Who would you pick? Martha Stewart, Bear Grylls and Chuck Norris.

Once COVID-19 is no longer a threat and you are comfortable going back out and about, what’s the first thing you’ll do?
First of all, I will be grateful for this to end. I want to travel back home and visit Austin, Texas, give my mother and the rest of my family a hug and eat tacos at 3 a.m. in my mom's neighborhood, outside a food truck called Chilangos with her as my dining partner. As M.F.K. Fisher has taught me, picking the right dining partner is very important, and my favorite has, and probably always will be, my beautiful mother Elaine.

What do you think the biggest change to the hospitality industry will be once people feel comfortable returning to normal activity levels?
If things return to "normal," I do not think it will change too much, although I hope this gives people a fresh new appreciation for food and the people that create, prepare and serve food and beverages, as well as industry people having a greater appreciation for the fact that we can serve people again and treating it as a sacred ritual. A lot of things are easy to take for granted, and this situation hopefully will change that for all. Back to the essence really. I hope.

What is one thing that gives you hope during this crisis?
I try to find hope in this every day. Seeing the community band together and help each other through this — there are still a lot of great people in this world with a deep sense of care for others, and that really gives me faith in humanity. I would like to give a shout out to STL Adopt-A-Server  for all that they have done. People helping people without any outsiders involved — this is something we must learn to do in an efficient way so we do not have to rely so heavily on factors outside of our community. This is a much more sustainable lifestyle than everyone relying on the government.

We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at cheryl.baehr@riverfronttimes.com.

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