I first tried Velvet Taco in Austin, Texas.
As an outsider, the way Austin has managed its growth while keeping its soul is a model for Charlotte. Growth isn't automatically bad, and Austin proves it with its vibrant night life, fertile arts and tech scene, and some of the freshest, most flavorful food in the country. But what of us? There's still no consensus on whether Charlotte is growing like a flower or growing like a tumor.
A development like Optimist Hall is still getting a side eye. The out-of-towners who run it have surely heard the raging debate as to whether or not this place fucking sucks. For every complaint about long wait times, limited seating, high prices, and horrible parking, you have glimmers of brilliance like El Thrifty Social [6.8] or The Dumpling Lady.
Optimist Hall has a high ceiling and a deep basement. Right now they're in a sort of stick-and-move stage. They're only as good as their last opening. Unless you live in those horrific looking Optimist Park apartments, you'll leave every visit to Optimist Hall with the same question: is this good enough for me to come here again?
Something has to stick. Something has to stand out. Something has to be the major anchor whose success can spread to deserving smaller businesses like Undercurrent Coffee.
I'd bet Velvet Taco is that place. It's got the kind of quirky, flavor-forward hybrids Charlotte used to do so well, making it feel brand new and intimately familiar all at once. It's the best chain to hit Charlotte in years, and the kind of spot that will create raving fans. I'm saying it with my chest: Velvet Taco's Charlotte debut is a whole ass success.
I'm gonna stop locking ass about Optimist Hall's design aesthetics eventually, but that day is not today.
I don't know how the internal process works, or if the individual restaurants are allowed to work with their own design teams, but I've never been more bored in a food hall in my life. Everyone's design is flaccid. Can someone in construction explain to me why there's so little room for structural uniqueness in this building so I can get over it already?
Optimist Hall is like that bride who forces all her bridesmaids to wear ugly ass dresses. Velvet Taco attempts to accessorize with wood paneling, some 1950's diner tile, and a little neon, like when one of the bridesmaids adds a birthstone necklace or some dangly earrings. But at the end of the day, you're still up here in an ugly ass dress.
No one blames you, Velvet Taco. We all know bridezilla has no fashion taste.
The full 20 taco menu isn't serving in Charlotte, at least not yet. I have no insight on plans to eventually expand to the entire menu, but if you're confused, just know that the 9 tacos currently available are numbered based on their placement on the full menu. Ex. the chicken and waffle is the eighth taco on the Charlotte menu, but it's still named #18.
It's confusing, but whatever.
I chose the chicken and waffles, kobe bacon burger, and the vegetarian fried paneer. My partner in crime also got the kobe bacon burger, plus the fish and chips and buffalo chicken. I grabbed a Jam Session for a total of $21. My food was out in 16 minutes.
This isn't Mexican food.
For your genuine Mexican food needs, keep going to whatever health inspection nightmare in an abandoned east Charlotte strip mall the cult of authenticity is admiring this week.
Velvet Taco focuses on imaginative flavor combos and fresh, well-cooked ingredients. How does a taco spot know how to nail a kobe beef burger better than most burger places? I don't know what kind of black magic this is, but the beef is seasoned with intention and the veggies are crisp.
The fried paneer shook me to my core and had me Googling recipes right away. The tikka sauce is tangy and sweet. I'm positive I tasted ginger in there somewhere.
Let's talk about that chicken and waffles, and yes, it comes wrapped in a waffle. The maple syrup and peppercorn gravy are a sick combo. It reminds me of finishing a big home cooked breakfast and scraping together the last bite of all the dishes together into one tasty forkful. The chicken breast is high quality and the breading contains a generous mix of garlic, pepper, and paprika. This is how you do good chicken.
When I covered Taco Mama [1.6] in October, I mentioned that there's a difference between bad and chain bad. I made that concession because chain food is not supposed to be good; it's supposed to be easy. I'm curious to what code Velvet Taco has cracked, and how they did it. The cooking, the flavors, the speed of service, all of it is top notch. This is better than any chain has the right to be.
Optimist Hall has finally landed a winner.