It takes a village to make a taco.
Or, rather, it takes a tribe – the preferred term to describe those who work at Velvet Taco, the Dallas-based chain that recently opened its first Tulsa location at the corner of 15th Street and Peoria Avenue.
The kitchen space behind the counter at the Tulsa location is a veritable hive of activity, as more than a dozen workers go about the tasks necessary to produce the restaurant’s signature takes on the humble Mexican staple, the taco.
“We are a little over-staffed right now, because we’re wanting to get every member of the team dialed in our procedures, and be comfortable with what we do,” said Chuck Smith, general manager of the Tulsa Velvet Taco. “Our food takes a great deal of prep work – everything we do is made from scratch in-house. Our brisket is a three-day process. We brine and hand-cut our chicken. All the sauces, the quesos, we make daily right here.
“So, yeah, it does take a tribe to put our tacos in your hands,” Smith said. “And it gives our tribe member a real sense of ownership in what we serve. They see someone take a bite out of one of our tacos, see how much they enjoy, and they take some pride in knowing they helped to make it. “
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Velvet Taco started in 2011, and currently has 35 locations, most of them in Texas. A Norman location opened last year.
The Tulsa shop began life as a Long John Silver’s, and while the basic shape of building has been retained, the interior has been drastically overhauled, with a lot of neon and metal. Elevated communal tables fill the center of the main dining area, with more conventional seating around the edges. The north side of the building has been converted into an open-air dining area.
The kitchen area, as previously mentioned, has been opened up so one can observe the crew as they mill about busily putting tacos together.
Said tacos are not the typical Tex-Mex offerings, but draw instead from all kinds of culinary traditions.
“We are using all kinds of globally inspired ingredients,” Smith said. “We call it a taco because it comes to you in a tortilla, but what’s inside that tortilla is something you’re not going to find anywhere else.”
Take, for example, the Shrimp & Grits ($ 5.95), which is a surprisingly effective re-imagining of this Southern breakfast staple. Spicy sautéed shrimp and fried nuggets of pepper-jack cheese grits are topped with a charred tomato salsa, cilantro and a Creole mayonnaise in a corn tortilla. The crunch of the fried grits, the tender and flavorful shrimp, and the mix of sweetness and tartness of the salsa worked well together.
The Spicy Chicken Tikka ($ 4.95) was another winner, with fried chicken tenders doused in a vivid orange sauce that brought to mind tandoori chicken, basmati rice flavored with cilantro and peppery Thai basil leaves.
On the other hand, the roast pork in the Korean Fried Rice ($ 4.95) was passable in flavor and texture, but the rice, grilled pineapple, pickled red onions and red chili aioli provided decent enough compensation.
Velvet Taco also offers several vegetarian options, one of which is the Beer-Battered Cauliflower ($ 4.55), spiked with Texas Pete’s hot sauce and an avocado-corn salsa that added a creamy sweetness. The cauliflower was not overly battered, and had a texture that was just yielding to the tooth. (A number of menu items are also gluten-free.)
Velvet Taco also offers a “Weekly Taco Feature,” which beginning March 16 will be a Reuben taco, which will have grilled corned beef, Swiss cheese, velvet sauce, house-made sauerkraut, and house-brined pickles, for $ 5.50.
Side dishes include two types of queso, a blanco and a red curry coconut queso ($ 5.65 each), served with blue corn tortilla chips. We sampled the curry version, although the most unusual – and enjoyable – tastes came from the sweet pickled onions and the bite of the single Thai basil leaf that topped the serving.
We also tried the elote ($ 4.85), a mix of roasted corn kernels mixed with crema and a dash of the restaurant’s Valentina hot sauce. It was basically a crunchier-than-normal creamed corn, but we still finished the serving.
For those in need of dessert, Velvet Taco offers squares of red velvet cake ($ 3.50).
Soft drinks are available from a self-service station; also available are adult beverages such as margaritas, frozen and on the rocks, as well as palomas, a mix of tequila and grapefruit soda ($ 7.50 and $ 10.50).
While this location has a drive-up window, it is not a conventional drive-through.
“It’s strictly a pick-up window,” Smith said. “People can call in an order, or order online from our website or our new Velvet Room app, and drive up to the window to get their order.”
However, one item can be ordered at the drive-up window – a deal known as “Back Door Chicken.”
“Every day of the week, you can come into the store, or pull up to the drive-up window, and ask for the Back Door Chicken,” Smith said. “And we’ll hand them a box with a whole roasted chicken, with corn tortillas, a side of elote, our corn pico de gallo and servings of Heat and Valentina sauces, for $ 20.”