Nestled between Black Plastic Records and Styles of Essence, 4029 Hamilton Ave. is a modest building with a sign reading, “Northside International Airport” adorning the storefront. The name itself coupled with the chalkboard outside advertising tacos is enough to pique the interest of passersby.
Aileen McGrath, owner of Northside International Airport (NIA), is well aware that the name is unconventional for a business that houses several endeavors — a taco joint named Tacocracy, (False) Minotaur’s used instruments, Nate Dudlee and Aaron Cross’ Wrong Bros. bicycle shop, Blink Makeup Design & Studio, Bessi Bruns and Coran Stetter’s On The Prowl Vintage, an interior design and home décor studio called Wax Aesthetic and a bathroom art gallery.
“I don’t mind having a sign out of the front of here that is going to say, ‘The Northside International Airport’ and people are like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ ” says McGrath. “And then they have to go in to find out … I’m entirely cool with the mystery of it.”
When first stepping inside NIA, guests are greeted with airplane seats and old-fashioned suitcases, a tongue-in-cheek tribute to its name. Straight ahead there is a counter where customers can order distinctive tacos with names like “I Hate Tofu” or “Schmashed Tater.” Kevin “Pogo” Curtis, who co-owns Tacocracy along with McGrath and another silent partner, describes the taco joint as the anchor of NIA. People stop by for a taco, but then also stumble across unique small shops that offer a wide selection of vintage and handmade items. Like these shops, Tacocracy has a vintage feel, decorated with offbeat artwork, some of which Pogo painted. Assorted tables and chairs line either side of the small indoor area of Tacocracy, but there is also an outdoor patio for extra seating decorated with old records.
Tacocracy was planned over drinks at a bar one evening.
“I’ve always wanted to have tacos in Northside,” McGrath says.
“Basically I just saddled up next to (Pogo) in a bar one day, we were talking and I was like, ‘Can you make tacos? Do you want to have a taco bar in my new place?’ … So it’s kind of a wild idea that’s somehow come to fruition and people like it, so that’s awesome.”
Tacocracy always features a “Taco of the Moment,” which is often something that Pogo creates on a whim while shopping at a local farmers market. Pogo pays particular attention to reviews; he will feature a taco again if it receives rave reviews or adjust the recipe for a taco if it is deemed lackluster. The Duck Taco has quickly become the staple of Tacocracy. It is truly one-of-a-kind with shredded duck that oozes with flavor, overflowing a homemade crunchy shell.
Although right now NIA is BYOB, McGrath is working on acquiring a liquor license. That hasn’t been the only ordeal in opening NIA.
“Around here we laugh a lot ’cause nothing has gone to plan,” she says. “It’s been like two steps forward, 12 steps back. But we’re like the little airport that could. It’s been a lot of struggles … it’s an old building; there’s been a lot of big surprises. We’ve been powering through and we have a sense of humor about it. Sometimes there’s a lot of cussing and stress. But in general, that’s why I picked the people I work with — because we all can get through it.”
McGrath tried to stay true to the interior of the building, for both monetary and nostalgic reasons, as it once was home to Jacob’s bar, which holds many memories for older Northside residents.
One area that presented a particular dilemma was the excessive amount of bathroom space — when it was a bar (and then also Club Bronz), there was a much greater bathroom need. NIA has a unisex bathroom. The other bathroom space was turned into an art gallery once McGrath and her boyfriend, Ted Clark — who describes himself as a noise-apparatus broker for (False) Minotaur — noticed how much wall area there was.
“I liked the idea of juxtaposition of artwork over the urinals and toilets and sinks,” McGrath says. “It’s humorous in general, but then if you have serious stuff over it, I like the idea of that.”
It also fits with the contrast of different shops in NIA. The idea of having all of these different concepts under one roof — similar to how an airport has all sorts of random shops — is a way for creative people to start a business without taking on a huge financial burden or time commitment. Each vendor sublets the store area and agrees to work one day per week, so there is always at least one person working at NIA who also represents one of the boutiques. McGrath owns another Northside boutique, Fabricate — part handmade boutique, part art gallery — and she is the owner of Wax Aesthetic, so she knows the difficulties facing young, creative entrepreneurs firsthand.
Northside International Airport is already open, but the official grand opening will coincide with the CoSign launch party event on Black Friday (Nov. 23), which will create newly designed signs for selected Northside businesses.
“It’s still a work in progress and it will always be evolving,” McGrath says. “But I don’t ever want it to be too fancy and refined either. It’s Northside, you know. I don’t want it to be all homogenized or like big box or anything.”
Northside International Airport fits in perfectly with the eclectic neighborhood and is already becoming a local favorite.
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