At 2 a.m. on a recent Saturday, the intersection of Knox Street, Henderson Avenue and Central Expressway was a tangled mess of cars and tipsy foot traffic. That's often the case late on the weekends. Sissy's, Victor Tangos and Hibiscus all stop serving plates before midnight, but The Dram, The Old Monk and Vickery Park keep loosening their customers' inhibitions with shots of Jameson and pints of beer for hours more.
Those who don't whisk away in a Cowboy cab with new and questionable company often set their sights on other, caloric indiscretions, but while big-box fast-food options stay open till dawn, there isn't much hand-crafted food available at this hour.
The dearth of alternatives could account for the line snaking out the front door of Velvet Taco. Dalat serves steaming bowls of pho four blocks away on Fitzhugh Avenue but they close at 2 a.m. just as most of the bars are letting out. Compared with the bustle on Henderson, that strand feels like a ghost town with empty sidewalks and streets lit only by the occasional passing car.
Meanwhile, the parking lot shared by Velvet Taco and Dickey's Barbecue is full. Cars snake their way off Henderson through a forest of naked legs flashing in the headlight beams that illuminate the crowded lot. A row of outdoor tables is filled, mostly with rose-cheeked customers wrestling with unruly tortillas while others enjoy post-taco cigarettes while basking in a spicy salsa glow. All this is before a jet-black party bus with tinted windows, a neon interior, throbbing music and a stripper pole thrusts open its folding door and adds to the crowd.
Of course the line at the Taco Bell drive-thru at this hour is almost as impressive, as is the mass of drooling souls jockeying for position at Taco Cabana's salsa bar. Zombies waiting for elotes and oily pastor tacos at Fuel City at the same hour further solidify the argument that young, drunken Dallasites will eat anything at this hour, especially if it smells remotely like Mexican food.
Yet the enthusiasm at Velvet Taco is much more palpable, and it's stirred by quality ingredients that are hard to come by at this hour. Chickens spin like dancers on point in a fiery glass-front oven before their flesh is shredded and stuffed into freshly made corn tortillas. Portobellos and criminis are marinated in oil and herbs and grilled or roasted to coax big and beefy flavors from the mushrooms. Oysters from the Gulf get breaded in cornmeal and fried while beef from just north of Dallas hits a red-hot grill. This isn't farm-to-table in the Alice Waters sense, but it's a significant departure from ingredients processed in a warehouse and stuffed into bags before being shipped all over the country.
Of course not everyone sings the praises of this upscale taco joint. While Velvet Taco stuffs tortillas with seemingly gourmet ingredients, scores of authentic taquerías around Dallas are making the simple, street-style tacos that have earned a loyal following among the taco purists and Mexican immigrants who value authenticity and familiarity over creativity and innovation.
Restaurants like La Banqueta on North Carroll Avenue and Bachman Tacos and Grill out past Love Field have long been serving up simple tacos based on commodity ingredients topped with onions and cilantro with a lime wedge on the side. These taquerías use time-tested, simple techniques to urge maximum flavor from a very short list of ingredients. Brisket is browned in bubbling oil then braised and cut into chunks before time on a flat grill adds an addictive crunchiness. Sheets of thinly sliced pork shoulder are marinated in a guajillo puree before they're stacked and roasted on a vertical spit that bastes the meat in its own juices. Those tacos are full of flavor, simple and most cost little more than a dollar.
John Franke, who opened Velvet Taco with a slew of partners and investors last year, isn't the least bit apologetic for his unfettered creativity. "We wanted to be interesting and different," Franke said of the menu that borrows flavors from Mexico, Asia, India and contemporary American cuisine. Franke doesn't even look at his offerings as tacos; he works with trendy world flavors and local, fresh ingredients. Tortillas just happen to be good holders for his creations.
While the flour tortillas are purchased from the nearby El Rancho Supermercado, the corn tortillas are made fresh daily on-site. Both have some difficulties standing up to the consistently aggressive stuffing. Each boasts a meat or vegetarian component, a sauce, a salsa or relish (or both) and at least one garnish, meaning the toppings are just as likely to end up on your table as in your stomach. They read like a mouthful, too.
The No. 1 boasts rotisserie chicken, herbed goat cheese, lettuce, tomato, smoked bacon, avocado and basil crema in a flour tortilla. The No. 14 comes with fried calamari, grilled pineapple-habanero salsa, smoked sea salt, cilantro, red chili barbecue sauce and lemon pepper aioli in a corn tortilla. The No. 17 sports raw ahi, a ginger-soy vinaigrette, avocado, golden beets, pickled peppers, sesame seeds and pea shoots in a lettuce cup.
While the combinations are so noisy it's sometimes hard to figure out what you're eating, you can't fault the quality of the components or the preparation. Still, it's hard not to wonder what would happen if Franke practiced a little more restraint.
Velvet Taco used to have one of the best versions of elotes you could buy in Dallas, dressing grilled corn flecked with charred kernels with crema and queso and hot sauce. The ingredients work beautifully together, but lately the cooks are dousing the dish so heavily it eats like a cheesy bowl of soupy corn chowder.
If this reads like drunk food, though, you should note that lunch and dinner customers are almost as enthusiastic as the light-night crowds. Workers from nearby offices and neighborhood locals all wait in line to grab a taco and a beer or take a roast chicken, tortillas and two sides of corn home for a quick family meal.
Sales have consistently exceeded the projections Franke and his team used when considering the old Church's Chicken space for their new idea, and the group is looking at property for other locations. Love it or hate it, Velvet Taco isn't going anywhere.