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The Original El Taco brings Tex-Mex to Virginia-Highland

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"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?

In concept, yes. In execution, not so much. That pork belly taco comes the closest, its rich, fatty meat contrasting with cooling cabbage and mint for a juicy, piggy few bites. Other tacos lack heart, spice and salt. A tasteless poblano chili was slightly under-cooked and way under-salted in the chili rellenos taco. Chorizo fell out of its tortilla in greasy, boring defeat.

In his own kitchen, Doty has never been afraid to ramp up flavors, and perhaps he can consult a little more on that concept here. The salsa cart (a cute idea borrowed from authentic taco bars) sits at the back of the dining room and invites diners to come and load up on salsas of their choice. The spiciest offering I've encountered – the "Diablo" – tastes more of pumpkin seeds than any heat-inducing ingredient. Bottles of store-bought hot sauce on the side of the salsa bar provide the only heat in the building. Other salsas taste fresh but uninteresting.

Shrimp ceviche was by far the most flavorful thing on the menu, full of lime and cilantro and chilis. But the tiny portion and sloppy presentation seemed unbefitting of the $7 pricetag.

But perhaps I was looking too hard for greatness. Perhaps all the Original El Taco hopes to provide is inexpensive, decent Tex-Mex that won't challenge anyone too much. The restaurant certainly provides that in the Mexican pizzas, which most closely resemble tlayudas, the Oaxacan street food. But where tlayudas offer masa bases redolent of corn, El Taco's version piles meat, refried black beans, lettuce, crema, tomatoes, and most pleasing, sunflower sprouts, on a cracker-like base. It's a ton of food and quite tasty.

Other entrees – enchiladas, fajitas, the "short stack" with the fried egg – are less distinctive, more gooey, and not so different from what you'd get at any middle-of-the-road Mexican place. What disappointed was the absence of salt in almost everything – even the "just crushed" guacamole (I doubt that claim, but whatever) lacked salt or seasoning and was ultimately forgettable.

In the end, I question the reasoning behind Doty's decision to get involved with projects he must know he'd be unhappy with if he were the in-house chef. It seems like a cynical enterprise – he gets some money, the restaurant gets some extra attention with the name recognition, and everyone wins, right? I'm not so sure. The hoards of diners packing into the Original El Taco haven't seemed to notice, but they may be the only ones who lose out in this arrangement.

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