Just inside the door, a – well, let’s call it a tapestry – of square artificial turf tiles spans the wall on the right. On the opposite wall, outlined in white on chalkboard-black, is the restaurant’s logo: a running chicken framed by the words “shooting the bird since 1983.” Mexican prayer candles sit next to bottles of hot sauce in little wooden crates on the tabletops and on the bar that’s shoehorned into the narrow space, cheek-by-jowl with a tiny kitchen.
If you were wondering what’s original about Virgil’s Original Taqueria before you walked in, you won’t be by the time you sit down.
It doesn’t take long to discover that the food lives up to that billing, too. The menu takes its cue from the traditional taqueria, then puts a fresh spin on it with a brief but varied selection of tacos, a handful of entrees and sides, and starters – mostly variations on the chip-and-dip theme.
In a bold departure from tradition, those chips and dips are not complimentary. If you find yourself flinching at the thought of shelling out $9 for an à la carte basket of chips and green chile con queso, be advised that the chips are flash-fried to order from local corn tortillas. And the queso is an addictive blend of Mexican cheese and Velveeta (don’t sneer; that’s what makes it so creamy) punctuated with Hatch chiles and house-pickled jalapeños.
You can save a couple of bucks by opting for one of the other dips – pico de gallo, chunky guacamole or roasted tomatillo salsa – instead of the queso. Or splurge on fried-to-order chicharrones (aka pork cracklings). They’re great on their own, and downright wicked when dipped in guacamole (a favorite pairing in Mexico City) or queso.
The heart of the menu is a selection of eight tacos, with fillings ranging from a fairly traditional carne asada to cornmeal-crusted fried avocado. Served on soft corn tortillas (the same locally baked ones used for the chips), the tacos will set you back an un-taqueria-like $4 each. But they’re generously filled (so generously that the tortillas sometimes fall apart; it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use two tortillas for each taco). A couple of tacos should be plenty, three if you’re really hungry.
The carnitas taco (confit pork shoulder, charred green onion, cilantro and an earthy-peppery dried chile salsa) gets my vote for best in show. But a close second goes to a vegetarian dark horse: a medley of roasted butternut squash, kale and cremini mushrooms topped with toasted pepitas, almond slivers, and a pumpkin-seed salsa called sikil pak.
The fish taco crosses the line into gilded-lily territory with an exuberance of toppings – poblano tartar sauce, cabbage, pico de gallo, salsa roja, onion and cilantro – that compete for attention, overwhelming the Negra Modelo beer-battered nuggets of cod buried beneath them. But al pastor (charred pork loin, pineapple, pickled jalapeño and adobo sauce) and chorizo con papas (a spice-reddened hash of house-made chorizo and potatoes with salsa verde and queso fresco) both get it right.
So does mole poblano pollo, featuring juicy shreds of chicken thigh tossed in a rich dark mole sauce that, according to our server, is made in house with 28 different nuts, seeds and spices. The mole sauce (sans chicken) makes another appearance in a shareable starter of Mexican fries, where it joins chopped scallions and cilantro, crumbled queso fresco, and a shower of sesame seeds atop a pile of crisp skin-on fries.
The chicken – any of the taco proteins, for that matter – is also available on a towering stack of three tostadas. Or on a torta, where it’s generously piled into an authentic bolillo roll with a cornucopia of fixings including refried beans, queso Oaxaca, avocado, chipotle and jalapeño.
The tostada and torta account for half of the short list of quasi-entree options under the heading of Specialties, where you’ll also find chilaquiles and posole. Virgil’s posole substitutes chicken for the traditional pork, but the flavor is delightfully on point. My only quibble with the dish the night I ordered it was the skimpiness of the hominy that’s a defining ingredient in traditional renditions of the stew.
I’m inclined to chalk up that miscue, along with an order of burned corn cakes that should never have left the kitchen, to an off night for a new chef still getting familiar with the menu. Both dishes were served the same evening, less than a month after Chris Malito had taken over. Given that Malito has previously worked at Stanbury and Mandolin, I’d be surprised if the ship doesn’t right itself quickly.
Owner Jon Seelbinder’s track record is also reassuring. With properties including Linus & Pepper’s next door and Level Up Kitchen & Barcadium upstairs, as well as The Architect Bar and the recently opened Little City Brewing & Provisions Co., Seelbinder has quickly earned a reputation as one of downtown Raleigh’s most successful restaurateurs. Look closely at that grass-green “tapestry” on the wall at Virgil’s, and you’ll see that the tiles depict a character from the classic arcade game Space Invaders – a subtle nod to Level Up.
And who, you might ask, is Virgil? Turns out he was a kindergarten classmate who taught a five-year-old Jon Seelbinder how to “shoot the bird” – hence the restaurant’s sassy motto. Virgil neglected to explain the meaning of the gesture to his buddy, though, so when little Jon went home he tried it out on his mom – who, let’s just say, did not approve.
As origin stories go, that’s about as offbeat as they come. But, as you’re sitting at the bar, the pope smiling at you from a prayer candle as you sip a house margarita in a mason jar (the drink is called the No. 126 because that’s the address of the “house,” get it?), it all makes perfect sense.
126 S. Salisbury St., Raleigh; 919-833-3866
Atmosphere: offbeat, with a Mexican accent
Noise level: moderate
Service: generally attentive and knowledgeable
Recommended: chicharrones, queso, carnitas taco, butternut squash taco, tostadas, posole
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Other: full bar; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking on street and two nearby parking decks.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.