If you hadn't seen them hoist the sign into place, or otherwise been familiar with Victor Tangos' facade, you would likely miss it. The new sign bearing the restaurant's name was bolted into place recently, marking some changes that have been more than a year in the making. The new sign is a lot like the old one. It's as if someone highlighted the words with a giant cursor, changed the font and clicked bold: "Victor Tangos," now in glowing neon.
Inside, the changes are just as subtle. A new logo quietly calls out from behind the bar, and cocktail shakers and clutter have been removed from the walls. A new management team has been installed, and there are new uniforms too, but at its core Victor Tangos appears to be the same restaurant as always: a dining room of brick, marble, leather and wood, filled with young, well-dressed customers who are there as much for the chance to mingle and drink with members of their tribe as they are for the food.
It's the same effect fresh flowers, updated drapes and a new conversation piece can have on a living room. The goal for Consilient Hospitality — owners of Hibiscus, Fireside Pies, Front Room, CBD Provisions AF+B and more — is to make the space look fresh and interesting without casting off any cultivated familiarity. The same charge with regards to the kitchen was given to chef Kirstyn Brewer.
3001 N. Henderson Ave., 214-252-8595, victortangos.com. 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Saturday. $$$
Lamb sausage flatbread $13
Hanger steak $19
Octopus salad $14
Brewer joined Victor Tangos two years ago under chef Greg Bussey after a short stint at Hibiscus, and she replaced Bussey a year later. She's excited, she says, to make her mark on the menu but doesn't want to jostle the customers by changing things too quickly, which is hard to believe when her grilled celery root with frisée lands on the table.
Brewer cuts thick slices from the gnarly bulbs and grills them until they're just tender enough and almost meaty. They're plated with a simple salad and a classic Italian sauce made from capers, canned tuna, anchovies and the brute force of a food processor. Tonnato, as it's called, is most often paired with poached veal, sprinkled with fried capers and garnished with some lemon wedges, but it is equally delicious (and no less odd) with the sweetness and apple flavors of celery root. (The dish has since been removed from the menu, but was a great representation of her skills.)
The roast chicken isn't as abstract, but it's also not what you'd expect from a Henderson Avenue restaurant filled with Hugo Boss pants and bare-shoulder dresses ready for the club. You'll find the bird on the bottom section of the menu dubbed "family style," which contains dishes that will feed two. Brewer uses farro, an ancient grain that's recently become popular in the United States, cooked until it's chewy, kale for bitterness, dates for sweetness and a thick dollop of yogurt on the side for tang. The flavors work perfectly together, but they would work better if the chicken that held it all together weren't so overcooked it squeaked when you chewed it. Crispy skin, though.
Or maybe you'd like to play it safe and order from a list of mainstays that have been on the menu for nearly as long as the restaurant's been open. The grilled octopus salad would pair perfectly with a glass of albarino from the tight but well-rounded wine list. A hanger steak is cooked perfectly and paired with politely creamed spinach. For flatbreads, the cooks roll out pizza dough with a pasta roller until it's very thin, then cook the results on a panini press. Picture a SunChip, only the size of your placemat and topped with crumbled lamb sausage, thin shavings of Manchego and arugula.
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Yet as Brewer's creations slowly gain a foothold on a menu that's been evolving for more than five years, some of the older dishes are starting to look a little out of place. The tuna nachos have a quirky appeal, with coarsely diced ahi, crispy wontons and jalapeño, but the ingredients hide rather than celebrate the flavor of that ruby-red fish. The chicken and waffles has a solid fan base, as evidenced by so many customer requests, but it was removed from the menu because it no longer resonated with the kitchen. Brewer should relieve her staff of their mini-waffle-making duties.
Or the sticky toffee pudding, which is a lot more interesting to say than it is to eat. The short-statured, homogenous cake is shaped like a football, inundated with a sweet sauce and topped with mascarpone cream. The dessert is popular, but it's wholly uninteresting and each bite down to the last (and there are lots of them) is exactly the same.
Instead, try the apple bacon upside down cake with caramel popcorn and bourbon ice cream, which is much harder to say but worth the trouble. The sweet cake is loaded with thin slices of apple and shards of bacon so small you might not see them. You'll taste them, though, echoed in bits of more bacon sprinkled around the plate with the caramel popcorn. And the bourbon ice cream? Two pints to go, please.
Desserts that feature so many ingredients often eat like a train wreck, but that one comes across as whimsical and satiating. The same goes for that weird celery root dish, or the boiled peanuts that have been spiced up with Chinese five spice. Victor Tangos is often best — and it's always most interesting — when Brewer's creativity shines through, which at times makes you wish the clouds would part more quickly.