It’s lunchtime on a Thursday when I walk into the newest Velvet Taco in Big D. It’s on the busy corner where Elm Street meets the Good Latimer Expressway in the shadow of a massive highway exchange at one end of Deep Ellum. Inside is Clay Dover, the CEO, president, and taco maker in charge, along with 11 tacos, a plate of cheese- and egg-covered tater tots, elote, and chips.
Velvet Taco in Deep Ellum moved out of its original location on Henderson Ave. at the beginning of 2023, prompting fans who’ve been eating there since 2011 to wonder what the move signaled a possible economic downturn. Apparently not — Velvet Taco is now in a new space in Deep Ellum, as well as Grapevine, and one coming in Rockwall on Monday, February 20. It will also open locations in Allen, North Frisco, and a second location in Fort Worth on the north side. 10 new restaurants are coming nationwide this year.
Fast-casual restaurants, including Sweetgreen and Tiki Loco, have fled Deep Ellum this year, continuing a trend from 2022. Meanwhile, Olivella’s flipped its evening pizza and wine menu to focus on daytime pizza and Italian sandwiches at the end of last year, with the owner pointing to a lack of neighborhood dinner traffic.
Despite that, Velvet Taco ended up here, in part because the Deep Ellum Foundation came to Velvet Taco to say it is working on redeveloping the ever-changing neighborhood. Dover says the Foundation paid to have the mural facing Elm Street put on the side of the building.
“We didn’t feel like we were getting people from Deep Ellum coming over to some of our other restaurants [on Greenville Ave. and in Uptown],” Dover says. “This came available, and we started looking at it. We love the visibility ... I’ve talked to the guys at Postino’s, I’ve talked to the Hawker’s guys, and there are some fast casuals coming into Deep Ellum that are hippier and edgier.”
Dover admits that Sweetgreen leaving was “a little rough,” but says Velvet Taco is hyper-focused on serving the late-night and weekend crowds, when Deep Ellum is packed with people who’ve been out drinking and seeing live music. And Dover says they are here for the long haul, with a 15-year lease. The company brought over all the employees from its first location to work in Deep Ellum, and then hired more because the space is over twice the size.
He’s got his eyes on all the development happening around Good Latimer, with numerous mixed-use developments in the works in the current dead zone between Deep Ellum and Downtown. Along with that comes what Dover calls “established brands” moving in, including Brooklyn Dumpling Shop, La Neta Cocina Y Lounge from Vegas, and a Pittman Hotel.
The expansion of Velvet Taco tells a story about 2023. Sure, that involves favorable real estate deals, redevelopment plans, and a growing demand for variety in the suburbs. Technology has played a role in its expansion strategy. The idea to open in Rockwall came when it began collecting zip codes. In Richardson, many customers were coming from Rockwall and even Greenville. That begged the question: Why make them come to you?
Velvet Taco loyalists may have noticed a new weekly taco special on the menu in 2023. Venecia Willis, director of culinary innovation, went to work creating a new taco every week — with help from employees all over, who are welcome to submit ideas. The WTF taco has included a meatball sub, Katsu spam, and a Gator Gras taco with alligator and chipotle sauce. I try the surf and turf WTF taco of the week as we chat, made with grilled flank steak, seared shrimp, potatoes, sun-dried tomato aioli, arugula, and chimichurri, and it’s one of the best bites on the array of tacos in front of me. Dover says that publicity for these one-week-only tacos is solely on social media and in an email blast to loyalty members. But they watch to see what sells and what they should rotate into the regular menu in various locations.
The chain’s mission of serving not-your-average-tacos is born from its best sellers. In Dallas, the number one item by a wide margin is the spicy tikka chicken, a take on tikki masala — at its Richardson location; it is 18 percent of the total taco sales at the location. And behind it is the slow-roasted Angus brisket taco — a Texas barbecue staple served barbacoa-style. “We believe that we’re in this nice niche where you can have a culinary adventure: a little bit of Indian, a little bit of Asian with the Korean fried rice taco, some Southern with the chicken and waffle taco — for $4 or $5 each.”
But in Norman, Oklahoma, Lubbock, and College Station, college students wanted comfort foods. So, those towns have a menu featuring a mac and cheese and chicken tender taco, a burger taco with fries, and the brisket taco.
This focus on super-serving the communities they’re in impacts everything, down to the music. Dover relays a story about visiting an Atlanta location a few months ago and being told by the staff they hate the music. And so, thanks to technology, Atlanta has a more R&B and hip-hop-oriented playlist than Dallas, which veers towards alternative rock. So does Nashville, which now leans heavier on country. “I think the opportunity for us, in all fast casual restaurants, is to meet the guests where they want to be met,” Dover says.
Update: February 17, 2023, 10:30 a.m.: This article has been updated to reflect that Velvet Taco will open 10 stores nationwide, not only in the Metroplex.