Executive Chef John Franke has worked at concepts such as Whiskey Cake, Red Dog Right and The Ranch where he developed relationships with local and international vendors and honed his culinary skills. A little more than a year ago Franke helped open Velvet Taco, a taco joint that aims to be comfortable in its own skin.
“The only relationship that we have to taco restaurants is that the things that we serve come in a tortilla. Other
than that, it’s basically Victor Tango’s, it’s The Porch, it’s Abacus, it’s Jasper’s, Whiskey Cake, The Ranch — what I would consider sort of ‘cool, eclectic, upscale’ restaurants — take their entrees and put them into a six-inch tortilla … We try not to limit ourselves to a taco joint. Let’s say Fuel City [Tacos] or something, which is your traditional tacos — it’s Mexican. It’s al pastor, barbacoa, carnitas. We go out over our way to not do any of those things. It’s not that we don’t want association with Mexican tacos, we just don’t want people to misconstrue us for a Mexican taco joint because that’s not what we are. We’re a really cool restaurant that serves its entrees in a shell.”
A shell made of five ingredients: corn flour, oil, salt, water and coarse ground cornmeal. You won’t find any food coloring in Velvet Taco’s blue corn tortillas. They’re made from the coarse ground cornmeal from Homestead Gritsmill in Waco. However, what comes inside of the shell is what keeps people coming back.
The fried paneer taco, with tomato chutney, Thai basil, tikka sauce and raita crema, is an Indian spice ship flying a Mexican flag. What would normally be chapatti, naan or roti is a flour tortilla. The bun-less Texas burger features peppered bacon, American cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickles and “Velvet sauce.”
In sharp contrast, the Ahi Poke is, at first-glance, a lettuce wrap for the carb conscious. However, this yellow-fin tuna wrap blows everything out of the water. Ginger-soy vinaigrette, avocado, golden beets, pickled Fresno chiles, sesame seeds and pea tendrils come together with crisp lettuce to create a bowl of garden bounty.
There are two rotisserie chicken tacos as well as elote-style rotisserie corn on the menu. The flaming rotisserie sits behind the cash register and takes a considerable amount of kitchen space. It is undeniably the kitchen’s conversation piece, drawing patrons’ eyes to the fowl sight, slowly rotating in the gleam of firelight.
“What’s more impressive to see? The backside of an oven—or even the front side of the oven? Or an open-flame rotating rotisserie with chicken on it? I think what it does is it really speaks to who we are (that the kitchen is completely open). If you want to stand right [at the counter] and watch everything that happens down that line, there’s no secrets.”
With so much on his plate, it’s a wonder that Franke ever gets to put his apron on. Managing people can have its drawbacks and working as a team is of utmost importance when working in an environment where the customer can see every interaction between staff. Franke has patience for making mistakes, but there is one thing that will set him off.
“The biggest thing that irks me is when people around me don’t care … We draw the line and we say, ‘Here’s the expectation we need you to meet and you need to meet this expectation.’ Just let me know that you care. And that’s my biggest thing: I need to be around people who are positive, who are energetic and who care about what they’re doing. And that’s from a dishwasher to a busboy to general manager to a director of operations — you’ve got to care all the way around the board.”
Velvet Taco has only been around for a little over a year, but Franke has ambitions that surpass Dallas’ borders. The momentum of the past year’s successes fuel Franke’s gumption and grit, making it certain that another Velvet Taco is on its way.
“We were voted one of the ten best restaurants in Dallas by D Magazine, and to me that’s not good enough. I want to be the best restaurant in the country. That’s not a goal that seems unattainable to me. It’s great that we were in D Magazine, but I want to be on the cover. Not only do I want to be on the cover of D Magazine, I want to be the cover of Bon Appetit and I want to be in The New York Times. I want this restaurant to be known. That menu will continually evolve and continually press forward. And people will get upset: ‘You took my favorite taco off!’ It’s like, ‘It’s okay, because I’m putting an even better one on.’”
“There’s a big country out there that hasn’t seen anything like this,” he adds with the vision of a young Tony Montana. He has his sights set on locales like Austin, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Scottsdale, Chicago and Denver—cities with “little pockets of places like Knox-Henderson.”
To Franke, this country’s like a great big taco just waiting to get noshed on.
by Finny Philip