I ORDERED AT THE COUNTER and took a seat on a metal stool at a big varnished wood table near wall-to-wall windows. My dinner arrived in a paper wrapper, and I ate it with my hands and a spork. Distraction consisted of watching a motley crew of fellow diners and the nose-to-tail traffic outside. For three courses, the tab came to $10.50, and I enjoyed the food (not to mention the place) more than many a dinner that has cost far more. It felt like I was in Austin, but in fact I was in a revamped Church’s Chicken at the corner of North Henderson and Central Expressway, gateway to one of the more frantic restaurant and club strips in Dallas.
Velvet Taco burst on the scene in August and reached cruising speed almost immediately. It offers twenty different takes on the ubiquitous taco, but you’ll look in vain for pastor, norteño, or barbacoa. Instead, chef John Franke uses the taco as an excuse to go globe-hopping. On the menu you will discover Hawaiian-style raw ahi tuna with avocado, radish, and ginger-soy vinaigrette (above, top); cornmeal-fried oysters with napa cabbage and fennel slaw drizzled with smoked-chile butter; and—pure genius—the “Texas burger,” with ground meat, yellow and white cheeses, dill pickles, and bacon. Even now, I can hear purists shouting, “No way!” But trust me. With few exceptions, everything I sampled was resoundingly good.
Of the score of variations, roughly a quarter have a strong Mexican identity, but even those can surprise you. Consider Number 1, rotisserie chicken (a.k.a. pollo rostizado). Yes, the flavorful meat is what you’d expect; so is the crumbly queso fresco and the corn tortilla. But the great sweet-tart onion chutney and pickled fresno chiles are anything but standard, and the pea tendrils and sunflower sprouts are outright heresy. Going further afield is Number 4 (above, bottom). It starts with roasted cremini and grilled portobellos, then adds herbed goat cheese, onion chutney, and a topping of teeny fried purple-potato chips. The kicker, though, is that the wrapper is not a tortilla but a crisp lettuce leaf.
Of the ten tacos I tried, my favorites have to include Number 5, with paneer and tomato chutney. The condiment was fruity and aromatic, the soft white logs of fresh Indian cheese lightly crusted from the pan. There’s a zap of chile pepper too, balanced by a cool mint-yogurt raita standing in for Mexican crema. If the flour tortilla were naan, this taco would seem utterly Indian, except that these ingredients are not usually thrown together in one delicious mash-up.
As my friend and I kept ordering “just one more,” we debated whether it was right to call these curious wraps “tacos.” He thought not, alleging that the tortilla was basically a handy vehicle for making exotic ingredients approachable. I