The patio is shining with colors and studded with cacti. Tidy artificial turf seems to have a pattern painted on it — it’s actually some pleasant shadows from the wood pergola standing above the clean wood benches. It’s all lovely and strange but hopeful when juxtaposed against the effect of the pandemic across Texas.
Each server is wearing black gloves and a stylish black mask, emblazoned with a retro “V” for Vantina — this is Nick Badovinus’ pop-up restaurant inside Desert Racer serving roughly the same food. Framed photos around the bar and booths are actually memes (stills from the movie Road House with “share dreams not germs” or something else on them). Happy hour placards are QR codes so you can access the menu without touching anything.
To use a phrase that’s already losing meaning: This is the new normal. For the time being, Vantina is a Desert Racer pop-up within Desert Racer. (if you’re thinking Inception-style, you’re kind of right.) Jugs of hand sanitizer and tissues are available in the way condiments used to be before all of this tragedy happened. Badovinus’ new pop-up is attempting to deal with a struggling time with some brightness and some comfort food.
Three crispy beef tacos — corn shells as thin as the vacation postcards we wish were sending right now — are loaded with shreds of cheddar, cubed tomatoes and long claws of lettuce. It’s the kind of booze-soaked food that works great on a patio. The shells make the loud fracturing sound you want with late-night tacos.
The beef doesn’t have that saucy, sloppy Joe feel that you connoisseurs of (clears throat) Taco Bell might imagine — this is a big, bright, fresh, crunchy taco. Hammer on some hot sauce and order ice-cold beer, and you will absolutely order a dozen more behind a veil of nostalgic tears.
The cheeseburger from Desert Racer has been paired down from a Captain America’s shield-size to a third-pounder — imbued with the soul of the now-shuttered Off-Site Kitchen. You can super-size your cheeseburger with crinkle-cut fries and a crispy beef taco.
Ceviche with tons of lime, radish and pickled red Fresno peppers was an excellent choice at Desert Racer; now it’s on the menu with grouper, splashed with orange juice and mirin at Vantina. Another hidden gem on this menu: The vanilla soft serve, a creamy, cloud-white ice cream armored with a fudge sauce so big on chocolate flavor that it rocketed me back to sprinting out to the ice cream truck as a kid.
There’s relief in this Vantina’s edited menu — a focus on the happy, kid stuff, crinkle-cut fries, y’all — because it’s hard to think when our brains are eclipsed with apocalypse anxiety. The patio’s open for dine-in, so you can eat some vanilla soft serve, swirled with chocolate, under your face mask.
Vantina, 1520 Greenville Ave. (Lowest Greenville). Open from 3 to 10 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 3 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday. 214-827-1520