Despite the tangy plot of the recent culinary film "Chef," in which a top toque blanche ditches a successful restaurant to launch a food truck, few restaurateurs put the cart before the horse. Conventional wisdom dictates that a food cart precedes a brick-and-mortar location as a way to start small, vet the menu with the public and build a following.
For a textbook example, look no further than Patrick Harris' empire, which in four years has gone from one of Richmond's first food trucks to multiple carts and trucks and, as of last summer, to opening Boka Kantina in the West End.
Now comes his latest way to get "takos for your mouf," as his slogan says: Boka Tako Bar, a spot on the reliably lively — or annoyingly reveler-filled, according to your tastes — Robinson Street.
Expect few changes in the trim interior of the former Michael's Pies and Racine, including, unfortunately, a giant, flat-screen ambiance killer. Booths still line both walls with a perpendicular bar as the centerpiece, although choosing a bar stool puts your back to Robinson, always a colorful source of street theater. A three-page beer menu takes you through three featured beers ($2) such as Boulevard Pop-Up Session IPA, four bottled beers ($3-$5), such as Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale, and 11 canned beers ($2.50-$3), including Devils Backbone and Terrapin varieties.
Harris has said the taco-centric menu would be developed into something with more complexity and depth than his cart menu, known for melding elements of American, Asian and Mexican. Already the kitchen is putting out gems such as the three pig and fig empanadas ($8), crispy triangles swollen with braised pork, bacon and pork belly swimming in fig compote and chipotle sauce under goat-cheese crema.
Pick up the gauntlet ($10), a sampler that allows you to experience the range of taco possibilities: beef Asian with kimchi, sesame aioli and sesame seeds; American pork ripe with smoky barbecue sauce, caramelized onion, sherry aioli and a six-cheese blend; and chicken Mexican with habanero lime vinaigrette, chipotle crema and cheese. If nothing else, you'll get a sense of where your preference lies.
Crab Rangoon flautas ($8) make for a crispy and creamy start to a meal, although perhaps better shared because they're filling in that satisfying way that anything deep fried is. Crispy shallots adorn an even heartier sweet and spicy chicken quesadilla ($10), splashed with warm notes of sweet chili sauce and chili aioli.
Vegetarians are accommodated with shoyu tofu in tacos, honey truffle tater tots with farm cheese ($7) and a mixed green salad ($4). But for the carnivorous, the standout is kale salad ($5), not large but boasting first string flavors of piquant pickled onion, silky Gorgonzola, pine nuts and warm bacon-maple vinaigrette.
Chasing down a food truck, not to mention standing in line in a parking lot, makes a compelling case for a dedicated location when you're craving well-crafted street food. But there's a caveat. During three visits, Boka Tako Bar has shown two faces. Lunch is low-key and melodic, the music including the Strokes and the Stones. At night, it's a different story with Boka becoming a static-filled boombox where music is buried beneath the din of an overflow crowd, many of whom hover just in front of the bar to wait for a booth.
After I hear a server tell newcomers that it'll be a 15- to 20-minute wait, the couple next to me, beers in hand, set the newbies straight. "They told us 15-20 minutes and we've already been waiting over half an hour," the woman informs them. Even so, no one makes a move to leave. There may be a wait, but at least it isn't in a parking lot. S
Boka Tako Bar
304 N. Robinson St.
Monday-Wednesday 11 a.m.-midnight
Thursday 11 a.m.-2 a.m.
Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-3 a.m.
Sunday 11 a.m.-midnight