You know you're not in a typical taco joint when you see whole chickens twirling on a rotisserie, tacos spilling with fried paneer and Kumato, and patrons depositing trash into recycling bins. And it's 3 a.m.
This is the scene at Velvet Taco, a newly opened gourmet taqueria in Dallas, positioned at the starting line of Henderson Avenue's restaurant row, right off Central Expressway. At a time when tacos are a major food trend and, as a result, creating an atmosphere in which it's getting increasingly difficult to differentiate the new taco spots, Velvet Taco is stubbornly, smartly different.
There are gourmet taco places in the area, from Good 2 Go Taco, which, with its tiny menu, helped pioneer the gourmet taco movement in Dallas, to Fort Worth's recently opened Revolver Taco Lounge, which serves an $18 quartet of duck tacos. But the menu at Velvet Taco is expansive -- there are 20 tacos to choose from -- and you won't pay an arm and a leg for ambition and quality. The most you'll pay for a taco is $4.50, while most other options are $2.50-$3.50.
Also very unusual, and admirable, is Velvet Taco's dedication to eco-friendliness. Napkins are made from recycled materials. Soft drinks and beer are bottled or canned. Drinking cups are biodegradable. Instead of trash cans, there are recycling bins.
Plus, the place keeps late hours -- until 11 p.m. through the week, 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
All of this aspiration comes from Velvet Taco's dream team of collaborators, which includes Front Burner Restaurants (the folks who own Twin Peaks and Whiskey Cake) and Dallas design firm Plan B. Overseeing the kitchen and recipes is John Franke, Front Burner's executive chef. Another co-owner is Mark Brezinski, co-founder of Pei Wei Asian Diner, Tin Star Taco Bar and Bengal Coast Restaurant.
Wonders have been done with what was once a Church's Chicken. Rustic light fixtures and light-colored woods create a warm, sepia-tone atmosphere. A pair of sleek, farm-style tables serve as the restaurant's primary eating space, while bar seating lines the counter and floor-to-ceiling windows.
Tacos are categorized (chicken, pork, vegetable, beef, fish and egg) and numbered 1 to 20; you order by number at the counter, and your name is called when your food is ready, about 10 minutes later.
Nearly everything is made in-house, from scratch. That was obvious from the first bite of the No. 2 ($3.50), stuffed with shreds of tender, smoky chicken; served right off the rotisserie; and topped with cilantro, smoked poblano salsa, roast-corn pico and white queso. What made it soar: It was wrapped in a house-made corn tortilla, soft but sturdy with a light, bright flavor.
Reflecting Brezinski's experience at Pei Wei and, more recently, Bistro Babusan, the menu has multinational flourishes. No. 17 is an impressive variation of Hawaiian ahi poke salad: Silky, sliced chunks of raw tuna were tossed in a ginger-soy vinaigrette and mixed with pea tendrils, watermelon radish and pickled Fresno peppers. Instead of a tortilla, the filling was served in a crisp lettuce wrap.
The No. 5 ($3.50) was wrapped in a flour tortilla brought in from El Rio Grande Supermercado in Oak Cliff, and came filled with fried paneer, a cheese of Indian origin commonly used in South Asian cuisine, plus tomato chutney and Thai basil. It was drizzled with a slightly sweet, thick cream sauce made with raita that nicely accentuated the subtle flavor of the paneer.
We also tried the more traditional No. 10 ($3.75), a burger taco served in a flour tortilla with American cheese, lettuce, onions, diced tomato and chunks of applewood-smoked bacon. Locally sourced from a Stephenville farm, the meat was perfectly cooked medium -- pink inside, charred outside, with a wonderfully beefy flavor. A lot of burger places around here don't cook meat this well.
There is only one side, rotisserie corn ($2.75), served in a cup. Topped with queso fresco and a few shakes of Valentina hot sauce and crowned with a lime slice, it lacked the tacos' fireworks, but simple was probably the way to go here; no need to dress up corn this fresh and crunchy.
If Velvet Taco takes off, it may expand into other cities; with any luck, Fort Worth is on its radar.