What is Tortaco?
I mean, what is Tortaco?
Is the new concept from the Firebird Restaurant Group — the family that runs El Fenix and Meso Maya, the latter of which is soon to debut in Fort Worth — a restaurant or a bar? Does it serve tacos or tortas? Why are chips not delivered to your table? And why was our hostess’ midriff showing on a recent afternoon?
If I’m sounding old, then maybe I have finally migrated deep into the demo that struggles with understanding hybrid concepts, inappropriate venues for skin and, importantly, why Tortaco was mostly empty last Friday in the early evening.
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Because this place, situated right in the middle of the frenetic West 7th district, is so good that it needs no justification for anything. No chips? Deal with it. The telera bread will suffice, especially if it’s drowned in the roasted crab dip ($7), a fiery queso studded with jalapeño strips and crab meat. Buttery and crispy, the bread is also good on its own.
But if you must dip, then proceed to the “Bowls” section of the menu, where the diablo shrimp ($8) is gloriously stew-ish, with jasmine rice and pieces of red peppers and garlic sharing space in a spicy broth. If this isn’t just the thing for coming brisk nights, then I’m not sure what is.
Most of the menu is split between sandwiches, or “tortas,” and tacos, the latter of which rival anything you’ll find down the street at Velvet Taco. They beg comparison, since the tacos at both places contain stellar, creative ingredients, and yet they seldom stress your budget. (Your pants may be another thing.)
All of Tortaco’s tacos are $4. I highly recommend the Burnt Ends, which has house-made smoked-brisket bits commingling with sauteed onions, roasted jalapeños, sharp cheddar and a sweet “gold” sauce. If you ask for a side of salsa, the sweet and spicy balance makes for bite after perfect bite … until it’s gone.
But there are so many other outstanding items that you won’t be disappointed for long. The relleno torta ($7) capitalizes on an excellent strip steak, and then goes nuts on you with melted Gruyere, avocado, spinach, mushrooms, sweet corn and arugula. It’s a cheffy take on a sandwich, but the middlebrow eaters at your table will hardly take heed.
They might take your side of cauliflower ($4), however, and that’s an almost unforgivable move. Chunks of the veggie swim in a sea of melted white cheddar and cream that’s topped with panko breadcrumbs. This is not your grandma’s veg.
Another fresh take is the rapini side ($3), a pile of the EVOO’d ropy, bitter green, dusted with what looked to be queso fresco and rendered with enough garlic that you should make sure this is not on the table if you’re on a first date.
And speaking of dates, a more unilateral order is the creamy date dessert ($3), a petite bowl dusted with powdered sugar and dabbed with mascarpone. Unilateral because, well, it’s the only dessert on the menu. For the date-averse, close your eyes and it tastes just like really good bread pudding.
Another aspect to the Tortaco experience is its mezcal menu, which spans about 30 varieties. (Mezcal is similar to tequila but can be made with different agaves other than just blue agave. Plus, mezcal is made in different regions of Mexico than tequila is. Thanks, mezcalphd.com.) I didn’t try any because I am “old” and margaritas ($7) go down better than straight liquor. The one here is, big surprise, fabulous, with just enough citrus to make you savor it.
Tortaco backers are planning another location — in Dallas’ Arts District this fall. Fitting for the season, Fort Worth should be thankful we got this beauty first.