This Forest Hill newcomer is more than just tacos.
by Elliott Shaffner
Around these parts, Patrick Harris is known as the guy who brought the first real food truck, Boka Tako, to Richmond in 2010. He’s since opened three brick-and-mortar versions and closed one that offered all things Boka, while operating five trucks that roam the streets of the city and beyond. The latest incarnation without wheels is Boka Grill & Growlers in the South Side.
Tucked in an unassuming corner of a strip mall with modest signs, Boka Grill’s interior has the feel, with its Formica and fluorescent lighting, of a more subdued Chicken Fiesta. But this place offers full table service and is welcoming, comfortable and family-friendly. The most notable distinction between Boka and any fast-food spot is the beer — and we’re talking beer aplenty. With a 14-tap system of mostly craft beers, many from Virginia, the beer menu is a bona fide tome.
First glance at the food menu and Harris’ inspiration is clear. He’s drawn from the Korean-Mexican fusion trailblazer and food-truck innovator, Roy Choi and his Kogi empire in Los Angeles. But it’s also evident that Harris is spreading his menu wings. There’s a host of options: appetizers, salads, sandwiches, entrees, desserts and even specials. This is a proper restaurant menu with merely a taco section.
And if it’s tacos you want, perhaps one from the classic troika of carne asada, carnitas or pastor, then you’re at the wrong strip mall. Harris’ menu and his tacos are 100-percent fusion — almost an oxymoron. It’s a veritable United Nations of tacos. With these choose-your-own-adventure tacos, you can mix and match the style — Asian, Mexican or American — and the protein, say, Korean marinated beef ($4) or pork braised in the Mexican guajillo chili sauce ($4), among others. There are also premium tacos, such as shrimp and grits ($6) or grilled fish ($5), and each comes heavily accessorized with flair — seasonal fruit, sweet soy, chili aioli, mint aioli and tobacco onion.
Those very trimmings that weigh down and distract in the taco offerings become more conscious and wholly playful in some of the other dishes on the menu. In the Viet Nom Nom Nom burger ($9.95), the Mekong mayo, pickled daikon, mint, Thai basil and cilantro create the perfect bridge joining Vietnam and classic Americana. And sherry — which only confuses a taco on one visit — enriches and enhances the chewy, gooey Boka mac ’n’ cheese ($8) when combined with mushrooms, onions and a garlic cream.
The ubiquitous kale salad, like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” is one of those things I could go a decade, if not a lifetime, without. Here, though, lightly dressed with a subtle maple-bacon vinaigrette ($5), it’s welcome — a cool, fresh, crunchy and bright respite to a meal that needs a little brightening. The fish and chips ($10.95) resemble nothing in texture or flavor of what you expect when ordering this classic combo. Instead, it’s a heavy, oily, fried fish sandwich with little seasoning in the batter, served with a choice of side — but no chips option save for sweet potato fries. Incorporating malt vinegar somewhere in the flavor profile of either the sandwich or the fries would work wonders.
At brunch, I find the chef himself greeting people at the door and wiping down tables while bouncing back and forth from the open kitchen. The shrimp-and-grits Benedict ($12) turns out to be a much more suitable application for those knockout Anson Mills grits than in a taco. The grits are mixed with sharp cheddar cheese and served in little patties holding up a small mound of shrimp, flawlessly poached eggs and silky, buttery hollandaise with just the right kick of citrus. But sadly, the perfectly cooked and very fresh-tasting shrimp from a previous visit are replaced with what appear to be frozen guys on a second.
The brisket and eggs ($11) consist of a pile of deeply satisfying and nicely seasoned — if a bit sweet — tender brisket with lots of the fun crispy tips on top of another gooey pile of cheesy Tater Tot hash, and two of those lovely poached eggs slathered with hollandaise.
Restraint is a chef’s biggest big brother. And if kept as simple as the well-cooked, well-seasoned meat, Harris’ food would be stronger. But with each dish so fully loaded, not only are the possible nuances of the nicely cooked shrimp or the beautifully marinated bulgogi lost, but also there’s a general sameness within all of the variations. By the second or third dish, it’s déjà vu.
As the saying in the fashion world goes, before leaving the house, pause and remove one accessory. I think that would be a good rule of thumb for Harris’ dishes. There are interesting flavors on most of the plates, but a little prudence would go a long way to letting the key ingredients distinguish themselves. As they say, simplicity is the hallmark of genius. S
Boka Grill & Growlers
2557 Sheila Lane
Mondays-Thursdays 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sundays 10 a.m.-8 p.m.