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Sweet potato, jalapeño, caramelized onion and farm cheese taco with blue cheese vinaigrette and pumpernickel croutons and braised short rib cassoulet taco with garlic-hoisin jus and crispy potatoes. Photo by Beth Furgurson
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Photo by Beth Furgurson
Mae West popularized the saying "you only live once." Canadian rapper Drake has made YOLO his motto. This pop culture-driven acronym of an old standby, a silly excuse for outrageous behavior, succinctly describes the love-to-hate and hate-to-love relationship I have with chef Patrick Harris' West End restaurant, Boka Kantina.
Haters are going to hate the West Coast meets East Coast mash-up of things stuffed into corn tortillas, like the shrimp-and-grits taco, but bundling these ingredients enhances them with roasted corn richness. I hate the idea of it, but enjoy the kooky taste of it. Boiled down to its essence, Boka Kantina makes haute cuisine humble while extrapolating tacos to upper-deck status in a dated business strip near Regency Square Mall. Don't go wearing your serious food face — YOLO.
Harris' marketing flair sets the backstory for the restaurant space, a brick-and-mortar extension of his food trucks, Boka Tako Truck and Grate Gourmet Fusion Pizza. See bokatruck.com, where the word "mouth" morphs to "mouf," "taco" becomes "tako" and a logo done in an electric lemonade-and-black color scheme reminds me of a CliffsNotes cover. The site is one-stop shopping for food truck locations and daily Kantina specials.
Boka Kantina, with its banquet-style seating and glossy, wipeable surfaces, isn't fancy. Chalkboards list menu and beer features. There is no bar, but lots of reasonably priced craft beer, with wine and mixed beverages pending. An iced tea-stained wait station is visible from the dining room. Take in the framed Kung Fu posters and a healthy display of beer bottles, and you might think that you've walked into a place where you order at the counter and bus your own tables. But you haven't.
Service at Boka strikes me as comfortable. Waiters don't introduce themselves; customers are acknowledged immediately. Food and drink come quickly. When you ask a question, your server knows the answer. My waitress, who seems to work almost every shift, knows when to leave me alone and when to tempt me with a new soup or dessert. I feel at home — except better, because I don't have someone who brings me delicious things every time I ask for them at home.
There is a Garanimal feel to the menu, encouraging diners to choose their protein — beef, pork, tofu or chicken — and then flavor it from a list of Mexican, Asian or American preparations. The Mexican-style tacos, laced with lime vinaigrette, are super creamy, and the American style is sweetened with sherry coleslaw and smoky BBQ sauce. One combination I gravitate back to again and again is an Asian bulgogi beef taco topped with punchy-crunchy, house-made kimchi.
A second look at the dining room reveals, via his cookbook collection, the chef's inspirations for his "premium takos." Jean-George Vongerichten and Mark Bittman's Simple to Spectacular: How to Take One Basic Recipe to Four Levels of Sophistication adds insight to braised beef short ribs topped with crisp potato string: a well endowed, one-and-done kind of taco. Chez Panisse Café Cookbook supports the seasonal sweet potato taco that crackles with pumpernickel croutons.
Soups change daily. An exceptional squash bisque is bested only by a bowl of wintry leek and celeriac purée that smells like a Basque country kitchen. South American- and European-influenced appetizers rotate frequently. I like the flaky-crusted, cheesy mushroom empanadas that pull apart like a croissant, but are fried like a cronut, and the butternut squash risotto.
Boka Kantina also serves salads, soups and pizza. Salads can be hit or miss. A chopped salad of gorgonzola, tomato, corn, bacon, egg and avocado is a fun take on the staid country club Cobb salad one day, and a pile of mushy leftovers the next time I order it. Pizza crust is also inconsistent: puffy like a pillow when spread with truffle oil and cheese, but thin and snappy when topped with duck confit or arugula, differences I chalked up to cooking time and who's throwing the dough, rather than deliberation.
The homemade desserts alone merit a visit. Try the apple dumplings, which puddle hot and ready in the center from a buttery exterior. Coconut cannoli riffs exotic, and Mexican tiramisu is just boozy enough to dampen its cinnamon-sugar crunch. If you're the unconventional conventional sort, order the Mad Elf chocolate chip bread pudding as a starter. You only live once. Boka Kantina 1412 Starling Drive, 928-2652 or http://bokatruck.com/ Hours: Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Prices: $4 to $14