Despite getting his start on My Kitchen Rules eight years ago, Dan Freeman never expected to end up making his mark slinging ‘unauthentic’ tacos out the back of a food truck. But Ragtag tacos (alongside Freeman’s delicious tenure at Alma) have given him the most notoriety in his career, Ragtag’s regular pop-ups garnering something of a cult following for slinging exceptionally good tacos (or sometimes burgers), always with a variety of flavoursome twists. Now, Freeman is finally opening the doors to his first, permanent Ragtag eatery in Westmere, and it’s exciting news for fans of the chef’s work across the city.
Freeman is known as the king of pop-ups in Auckland’s dining scene. A trajectory that started with a six-week residency at Russell’s The Gables last summer, Freeman has taken on a number of innovative kitchen takeovers that have held the City’s gourmands captive ever since. He’s fostered a community around his food, and is a new pioneer of the hospitality movement that champions the idea of collaboration in the name of an epic meal.
Of course, pop-ups weren’t the forever plan. The last year or so has allowed Freeman to mosey his way around the City, cooking in some of our most beloved kitchens while he kept one eye out for his true purpose — a place he could call home. Fortunately for anyone in the inner-west, he has now found it in the heart of Westmere, where tomorrow, he officially opens Ragtag’s first bricks-and-mortar location; a wine bar-cum-taqueria (almost) that feel immediately like the kind of neighbourhood haunt the area has been missing.
Ragtag — the physical space — is a representation of Freeman’s time in London. He looked to mimic the community feel he found in many of his favourite eateries. The building itself (with a room upstairs destined for private dining akin to Florets, Beau and Orphan’s Kitchen) is reminiscent of the vibe at a number of the places he has worked. An ode to nostalgia, he tells me. As such, the fit-out has been a labour of love, made possible by the Midas touch of Pacific Projects (also behind destinations like Ooh-Fa, Swings and Gloria’s). The result is a space that feels effortlessly chic, open and homely, with a touch of imbued elegance — the kind of destination we could quite easily settle into for an easy, delicious dinner.
At its heart, the vision for Ragtag is to retain a local feel, regardless of how far one might have driven to get there. “There’s a lot of cool stuff in the City, but it’s almost scary starting something in the wake of that,” Freeman confesses. On choosing Westmere as the place to put down roots, he says: “We always wanted to be a restaurant for locals to come and sit down and have some nice food. The community vibe has taken off, and we wanted to speak to the neighbourhood feel.”
Taking cues from other neighbourhood eateries, the intention is that the Westmere shops will become the new hub for dining and imbibing. Freeman tells me that nearby Seabreeze will start to open for nights soon too, and that the two destinations will be looking to feed off one other. Add Auckland’s favourite butcher to the mix, alongside community parks and all the essential shops, and you’ve got the makings of something great. “In the early stages, you have to make a call of what you’re going to do,” Freeman explains. “Are you going to go somewhere established or make your own mark? We wanted to make something that’s ours.”
And beyond being the latest up-and-coming spot, we predict it will be Ragtag’s cuisine that draws in diners. Freeman’s take on tacos is unique — despite having mastered a truly traditional method of tortilla making, he claims his food is as far from Mexican as possible. “There are no sombreros, mariachi bands or cultural appropriation,” he explains. Instead, his cuisine is almost an exploration of the humble tortilla, to simply unearth its full culinary potential. Sure, you can expect insanely epic chilli chicken tacos and an indulgently cheesy quesadilla, but don’t be surprised if the evolving, seasonal menu features the more innovative beef cheek nuggets and Scotch egg. (We have been told that the raw fish tostada, topped with pear salsa, is one dish you shouldn’t look past.) In this menu, Freeman tells me that he hopes to retain some of Ragtag’s pop-up roots while offering an elevated take on easy and beautiful sharing plates to enjoy from lunchtime until dinner.
Liquor licence pending, Ragtag will be as much a bar as it is a dining destination. Primarily offering natural wines on tap (think Still Life and other Wine Diamonds specialties), the drinks menu is where Freeman intends to pay homage to his Hawke’s Bay heritage. Alongside the wines, Brave Brewing Co features heavily — including the cult-favourite Tigermilk IPA earning a permanent place on tap. In the drinks arena, the space for collaboration comes alive. Already preceding their opening has been a takeover with Three Fates Wine, and many more of similar nature are in the works.
Given Ragtag’s start in the pop-up community, Freeman sees his permanent address as a chance to continue to offer culinary excellence — an idea that includes hosting pop-ups of his own. Think Baby G Burger, Passa Passa and Broke Boy Taco, all of which have come to be a part of the same rotating circuit that sees Auckland foodies schlepping to far-flung restaurants in the name of deliciousness. “So many people have let us use their restaurants and spaces, which has been hugely helpful in getting started,” Freeman tells me. “Now we have the opportunity to give that back.”
As for Ragtag’s future in pop-ups? For now, Freeman tells me, they’re focussing all of their energy on the Garnet Road destination, so you’d best get your summer bookings in ASAP. But it’s not to say you won’t still get a chance to sample their goods around the City from time to time (including those coveted chicken burgers that sold out in two hours). The perfect outcome, we think.
Thursday — Monday, 11am until 10pm.
Closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays.
162 Garnet Road, Westmere