Review: The Original El Taco

Tex-Mex in Virginia Highland

“Consulting chef” is a slightly confusing term. Generally, it means that the chef in question has designed the menu and perhaps spent some time training the kitchen staff on how to execute his dishes. It rarely means that the consulting chef is actually spending any time in the kitchen during service. But the question is, if a good chef consults, can we expect the food to be on par with what that chef would deliver in his own restaurant?

Shaun Doty, arguably one of the city's best chefs, is making a cottage industry out of consulting at other people’s restaurants. Last year he put his name on the menu at Midtown's now defunct Spotted Dog. I stopped in there one afternoon and had a somewhat sad version of Doty’s East Village-style chicken livers, which resembled the original in concept but not execution. He is currently acting as consulting chef at the Original El Taco, Fifth Group’s new Tex-Mex restaurant in Virginia Highland (although the restaurant's website lists him as Executive Chef), and there's talk of other consulting gigs in the works.

The Original El Taco (roughly translated to “The Original The Taco”) has been an instant hit — there’s a wait for tables almost any time of the night on any night of the week. The crowds bring a party atmosphere, ramped up with large, well-made margaritas. There's also a colorful mural painted by SCAD students that depicts, among other things, somebody who looks an awful lot like Hitler carrying a giant taco on his back.

You can see Doty’s touch on the menu of tacos, Mexican pizzas and Tex-Mex entrees: a pork belly taco here, a fried egg atop a stack of tortillas and chili there. But can you taste his influence?