Catch the Wave in Hampton

Las Olas Taqueria Opens on Lafayette Road

By Rachel Forrest

Hampton Union, Tuesday, February 9, 2010

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
A steady flow of customers wait to place their order for mexican food at Las Olas Taqueria on Lafayette Road in Hampton. This is Julie and Matt Burke's 2nd Las Olas as one is in Exeter.
[Deb Cram photo]

HAMPTON -- The "Clean Wave of Eating" that began two years ago in Exeter has undulated a few miles and has now swept onto a new shore in Hampton.

Las Olas Taqueria — "las olas" means "the waves" — opened on Wednesday, Feb. 3, at 356 Lafayette Road, close to the small downtown area. Owners Matt and Julie Burke hope that all those taco fans who didn't want to drive to Exeter for their fresh tacos, burritos, salads and bowls will stop off in the new spot.

"We have friends in Hampton, which is still close to Exeter, who were never coming over. A friend of ours at Foster's Clam Bake said there's a Mason-Dixon line between the two towns," said Matt Burke. "They'll go from Hampton from Portsmouth, though."

Julie Burke says that the choice of Hampton for their second spot was an easy one.

"We had a solid following from outside Exeter, and our friend mentioned Hampton and we liked the idea," she said. "We were fearful of opening in the winter, but even though it's not on the beach, it's a vibrant town."

While not at the beach, the location still has easy access to the seaside area.

"We saw this spot and saw it had access to the beach. It's only one-and-a-half miles," said Matt. "You don't have to go through all the commercial traffic, and there's lots of parking."

The couple opened their first Las Olas Taqueria in January 2008, and they say it's been a learning curve, but that getting over that curve and adapting to what they've learned is one of the things that has made them successful enough to open a second restaurant even in a recession.

At first, Matt said, people didn't know what to expect.

"People expected it to be like a Margarita's restaurant, but we're not like that," he said. "People hadn't seen this set up before and you can tell who hasn't been here before. They get to know how it works quickly, though."

Both restaurants are filled with festive colors — orange, sea green, teal — vibrant, but not over the top. Furniture, including a big communal seating "table" in the middle of the restaurant, has curves that soften the look of the dining area.

And the set up is easy — just go up to the right side of the ordering counter and talk to the staff. They'll start to add your ingredients to tacos, wrap them in burritos, press them sizzling into quesadillas or pile them into a taco bowl.

All of the ingredients, including ancho beef, chicken, beans, rice, cilantro, hot peppers, locally made chorizo and their pico de gallo are fresh and healthy.

"The experience with so many people is that they say, 'It's tasty, it's flavorful and I'm full, but I don't feel over-filled. It's a huge burrito, but I still feel good,'" said Matt. "They're good, especially for the workers at lunchtime. It's substantial, but not too filling."

The style of the food here goes beyond Mexico and into other countries the couple has visited, like Costa Rica and Guatamala, so Matt said there are many influences in the cuisine from many places, including Colorado where he lived for many years.

"I lived in the West and we travelled to these places and we said, 'Why can't we have that food here?'" he said. "The simplicity of the food is something we bring, and our influences are more than Mexican. Our plantain is a Cuban plantain dish."

Other than the flour tortillas — try corn instead — and chipotle pepper salsa, everything on the menu is gluten-free and dishes can be made vegan or vegetarian.

Matt said that when they come up with new ideas, invention is key.

"We have no rules, per se. If it tastes good, we'll run with it," he said. "We'll throw in portobellos. We developed our fish taco recipe that way. It's grilled, not fried.

"And we started frying our own chips because we couldn't find the quality we wanted," said Matt. "We make our own pico de gallo."

Another part of the Burkes' learning curve after opening their first restaurant was finding the right source for spices and getting schooled in the right cuts of meat to use, but most important was a dramatic paradigm shift in how they approached training the staff and working with them. Matt says that their shift in their original approach contributed greatly to their success.

"I used to be more in control, had to be in control, to have it my way, but that's not the way it is now," he said. "I overheard a staff member pull someone aside and say to them, 'Hey, that's not the way to do it, do it this way.'"

Matt said the way he said it was very harsh and that's not the way he wanted the restaurant or the work environment to be.

"We emphasize a positive attitude and give our staff the freedom to do what they want, to figure out the best way to do something and give ideas," he said. "I'm from a family of self-employed people and you work, you get everything done and you're done for the day.

"There's a good percentage of people who can't work that way, but we want the team to be like a family," said Matt. "We've had staff who've had to leave here for various reasons — they had to move maybe — and they've cried."

"When someone gets upset or we need to change something we take them into the back and say, 'Let's talk about this,'" said Julie. "There's no yelling, no throwing things and, of course, part of that is our open kitchen. It doesn't fit. You have to be able to handle the pressure and we try to help them find the positive in their lives."

The staff at the new restaurant trained in Exeter for about a month-and-a-half.

"We train them in the fundamentals, and we immerse them into our culture," said Matt.

And now that culture is here in Hampton, and the Burkes welcome taco lovers or newbies from Hampton and beyond to watch the staff at work and to taste the fruits of what can be some very hectic labor.

"It's fun to watch. Come in on a Friday night to see our 'A-Game,'" Matt said. "Sometimes they're working so fast, they're not even talking."

Julie and Matt Burke, front, have opened their second Las Olas Taqueria in Hampton on Lafayette Road. The other restaurant is in Exeter.
[Deb Cram photo]
Las Olas Taqueria Owners: Matt and Julie Burke
Address: 356 Lafayette Road, Hampton
30 Portsmouth Ave., Exeter
Telephone: (Hampton) 967-4880; (Exeter) 418-8901
Web site:
Open seven days a week for lunch and dinner.