Part of the reason for Richmond’s trending status — aside from being awash in tattoos, murals and livability — can be attributed to its thriving independent restaurant scene.
Yet regardless of where you stand on the Virginia Commonwealth University’s takeover of the city, surely no one beyond transplanted Northern Virginia teenagers can be thrilled about the chain restaurants sprouting like poisonous mushrooms throughout the black-and-gold’s environs.
A block from the tedium of IHOP Express and diagonally across Laurel Street from the blandness that is Panera Bread sits a building that’s been independently operated long before most VCU grads can remember. Most recently called Empire, its replacement, Asado Wing and Taco Co., arrives on the scene feeling more or less fully formed, no doubt because it’s the second restaurant from Ian Anderson, Kevin McGrath and Stephen Rogge, co-owners of the Flyin’ Pig in Chesterfield County.
The broader menu at the Pig was scaled back to focus on two bestsellers — wings and tacos — to better tailor the fit for a college crowd seduced by the likes of the nearby Chili’s that‘s plopped down right on the Monroe Park campus. Sangria Sundays, Margarita Mondays and Asado’s Tecate Tuesdays further sweeten the deal.
Guacamole ($5.95) to start is a no-brainer, the mixture chunky enough to be appealing, but safe enough for a college crowd raised on Chipotle. For those looking to eat a full day’s worth of fat and calories on one plate, consider the taco salad ($5.95, plus $3 to add chicken, bison, pork or brisket) with fried chicken, crispy seasoned potatoes, fried peppers and onions, sweet corn, cucumber, pico de gallo and cheese — a mountain of eating under a layer of tortilla strips. Allow time for a long siesta afterwards.
Don’t get me started on the myriad ways restaurants can botch nachos, but these fully loaded versions ($10.95), available with pork, brisket or chili, offer a master class — or is it plate? — on how to do it well. Methodically layering chips, cheddar and Monterey Jack, chili laden with white kidney beans, queso blanco, scallions, pico de gallo, jalapeños and Mexican crema, there’s nary a chip not covered in something delectable. The menu clearly states, “Enough to share,” but do I have to? Sure don’t.
Tacos are large, come in two vegetarian options, and at $5 for one or two for $9, are a solid deal. Brisket tacos are tender and redolent of hickory smoke. Depending on your fast-food habits, you may notice that the Baja fish version, a hearty handful of fried pollock, pico de gallo, Baja white sauce and a cheddar-jack cheese mixture, comes across a bit like a McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish — a distinctively American take. Of the taco meats available, I’d make a habit of the assertively seasoned bison and pork carnitas, both of which put your taste buds on full alert.
Wings get billed as “crispy hickory smoked” with six variations on a theme (6/$6.95, 12/$11.95, 18/$16.95), ranging from naked — adorned with nothing more than a light, sweet, smoky dry rub — to spicy “inferno” barbecue sauce boasting blazing ghost chilies — or bhut jolokia, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest chili pepper known. Heat heads, feel free to let me know how those are.
Spicy buffalo wings hew closely to the traditional recipe with sufficient but not intimidating heat and cooling, chunky blue cheese dressing, while ginger sriracha conveys a considered balance of heat and muted Asian flavors.
One advantage of university proximity is an annual incoming class of potential servers, but not every student is cut out for the hospitality industry. During the course of three visits, only one server gets a failing grade and that’s because of lack of effort. If you don’t know the answer to a customer’s questions, the correct response is to go find out, not to shrug and leave us to make an uninformed decision. It’s also good manners.
Asado may not be flashy enough to seduce diners who aren’t already in Ram Land, although it’d make a filling stop before a Siegel Center game or Singleton Center performance. But Richmond ought to be mindful of supporting a local restaurant in an area that’s rapidly becoming a sea of corporate chains. We don’t want to leave that kind of responsibility to teenage transplants. S
Asado Wing and Taco Co.
Sundays-Wednesdays 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Thursdays-Saturdays 11 a.m.-midnight
727 W. Broad St.