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Queso Heaven

A Richmond taco junkie checks out the new Torchy’s Tacos in Short Pump and Carytown.

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Confession: I love Taco Bell. As a food writer and culinary school grad, that is not an easy thing to admit, knowing that it bears about as much resemblance to authentic Mexican food as the McRib does to a rack from ZZQ. The fact is, whether it’s prepared by a well-known chef or ordered at a drive-thru window, I’m a sucker for any combo of beans, seasoned meat, and melted cheese on a corn platform, preferably with guacamole and salsa, and a spicy marg next to it. Alas, while we have some decent Tex Mex fare in Richmond, historically the options have not been plentiful.

Lucky for all of us, Torchy’s Tacos has come to town. The first location opened in Short Pump on Jan. 11, and on Feb. 1, a long-awaited Carytown storefront opened its doors. Torchy’s originated in Austin 16 years ago as a food truck and has since expanded to over 100 locations across the country, finally landing in Richmond. With the mantra “damn good tacos,” they’ve set expectations high, and if patronage is any indication, the people agree.

Torchy's Tacos at 11220 W. Broad St. in Short Pump.
  • Torchy's Tacos at 11220 W. Broad St. in Short Pump.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I pulled into a small strip mall of mostly empty storefronts on West Broad and wondered why almost every parking spot was full. It was that lazy part of the day that feels like naptime - lunch is forgotten and happy hour is a distant mirage. Yet inside Torchy’s, the line to order stretched to the door, every table in the spacious dining room was full, the bar was hopping and the whole place was buzzing like a Saturday night. I stepped in line and grabbed a menu. What deliciousness is drawing this crowd?

Big letters above the registers instruct diners to start with queso, and I’m happy to oblige. The rest of the menu is divided into “Damn Good Tacos” and “Not a Taco,” and the former is clearly where the action is. Intriguing fillings like Jamaican jerk chicken, Barbacoa, coconut shrimp, and fried avocado are tempting, but for the first visit I decide to stick with basics - chicken fajita and green chile pork. The chatty clerk almost sells me on a margarita, but being 3 in the afternoon with carpools ahead, that will have to wait for another day.

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I take my buzzer to a window seat and within a few minutes, my order arrives. The chicken fajita taco is an ideal version of the classic: tender, well-seasoned chicken with just enough heat, plenty of griddled peppers and onions, and a sprinkling of cheddar jack cheese on a soft flour tortilla. Perfection. Don’t skip the tomatillo sauce served on the side. The green chile pork taco is also a winner, a piquant blend of slow-cooked carnitas, green chiles, cotija cheese and a healthy hit of cilantro on a corn tortilla. Armed with a generous pile of tortilla chips, I dig into the queso. Eureka. This explains the packed parking lot. Unlike the congealed orange goo we usually associate with the word, this queso is silky and tangy, dippable and drippy, packed with green chiles and perfected with a dollop of guac. Should there be leftovers, take note it is marvelously reheatable the next day. I’m fully blissed out on Tex-Mex but feeling no need to pop open a Tums bottle. This may be a game-changer.

Inside the Torchy's Tacos, Short Pump location. Both locations, the other is in Carytown, have had recent openings.
  • Inside the Torchy's Tacos, Short Pump location. Both locations, the other is in Carytown, have had recent openings.

The following week, a few days after it opened, I headed into the Carytown location needing another liquid cheese fix. I had high hopes of attending the grand opening but with lines stretching around the building and down Cary Street, it seemed I’d be fighting half of Richmond for free tacos. This time around, it was a respectable hour for margarita consumption. I’m a little disappointed to see the trademark frozen beverage machine spinning away at the bar, presumably churning out the syrupy slush that often passes for a margarita. I choose the House Rocks, hoping for the best. This version also comes out of a giant dispenser, and while it doesn’t have the brightness of a freshly-squeezed version, I am pleasantly surprised by the balance of tart and sweet: a definite step up from most pre-mixed margs.

Every seat at the bar is full so I grab a high-top table. It’s early on a Tuesday evening but the place is loud and busy. As I munch on a Tipsy Chick and a Mr. Orange (both solid, but no match for the chicken fajita), I take in the scene - families, students, the after-work crowd. I can just make out “Domino” by The Cramps coming from the speakers, and “Welcome Carytown Taco Junkies” is scrawled graffiti-style along the back wall. Above the bar a sign reads: ”You can’t make everyone happy, you’re not a taco.” Walls and signage are the same bright red as the devil mascot, and lighting is equally unsubtle. There’s nothing restrained or sophisticated here, but that’s part of the charm: this place is all about big flavors and a good time, and it may be just what us Richmond taco junkies have been waiting for.