Family Meal: Southern Grit Takes On Tacos in Norfolk
Article by Chris Fellini
(Lead photo: L2R, Chris Fellini, Thomas Wilkinson, Scott Moran, Sammi Little)
When you’re going to dinner with the host of The Late Night Menu comedy show at Norfolk’s Taphouse, expect a raunchy conversation. In between all the tacos, Thomas Wilkinson was there to make references to female anatomy, discuss a recent news article about a zoo keeper who spent an hour licking a monkey’s anus to dislodge a peanut, and compare different tacos to a certain deity’s…erm…ejaculation. Wilkinson, along with Sammi Little, Scott Moran, and Gina Prendingue, joined Southern Grit recently on the latest episode of family meal.
After meeting at Cafe Stella in Ghent, we headed out to three different taco places in Norfolk. First, Jessy’s in Oceanview, then El Rey (also in Oceanview), and finally UMO in the Riverview neighborhood. We stuck with tacos and horchata, and tried to get the same thing at each place.
(above tacos and horchata from Jessy’s)
Jessy’s is set up most like a typical Mexican restaurant. They have a large dining room, and serve margaritas. However, one look at the menu reveals that Jessy’s isn’t your typical Mexican spot. The taco menu ranges from chorizo to cheek, and covers just about everything in between. The tacos come in two soft corn tortillas. I got the al pastor, lengua (tongue), chorizo, and tripa (tripe) tacos. The al pastor actually had whole bits of pineapple in the mix. Overall, though, I was a little underwhelmed with the tacos. Although they were good, the meats didn’t have strong flavors on their own and needed a healthy drizzle of one of the house made hot sauces. The chorizo was my standout favorite, perhaps because of the traditional spices in the sausage. The horchata was smooth, but way too sweet. Not bad for the first stop, but we definitely should have skipped the chips. Jessy’s pleased the crowd for the most part, but wasn’t mind blowing. Next, we headed around the corner to El Rey.
(above tacos and horchata from El Rey)
El Rey is most reminiscent of a traditional taqueria. It’s a tiny hole in the wall with only two tables and a small bar top. The kitchen is open and very small. The small size of El Rey definitely doesn’t hinder the big flavors, though. I got the pollo, lengua, and al pastor. The biggest noticeable difference was the flavor punch the meats packed. El Rey grills their meats, and that char flavor really brings things together. The lengua was my favorite here, loaded with flavor and not overdone. Overall, the consensus was split. It seemed like while El Rey had some of the better tacos so far, it also had some of the worst. The chicharon taco had soggy meat that made Scott Moran actually gag. And Thomas Wilkinson’s steak and potato taco looked akin to something from Taco Bell. The horchata here tasted like it came from a prepackaged mix and had way too much cinnamon. After two sips, Fitz gave up, claiming he felt like he was doing the cinnamon challenge. Starting to feel the pressure on our waistlines, we headed to UMO to wrap things up.
(above tacos and horchata from UMO)
Within minutes of arriving at UMO, they lost power. While they were still able to do some tacos, I was disappointed that we couldn’t have some of their vegan tacos, as that was one area not touched on in great depth by either Jessy’s or El Rey. UMO is set up like a taco stand in Texas. There’s a small covered patio and a courtyard with picnic tables. The tacos here, for the most part, stray a bit away from tradition. The main flavor profile falls somewhere between Tex-Mex and straight Southern style BBQ. The al pastor is good and has an intense smoky flavor, but is lacking some of the pineapple that usually pulls the whole thing together. Thomas declares here that the brisket taco “is like God just came in my mouth.” The horchata at UMO wins out unanimously as the best. It’s not overly sweet, there’s just enough cinnamon, and the almonds used in the recipe really add some depth. Although UMO isn’t sticking to tradition, they’ve got great fusion tacos that actually avoid the played out Korean taco trend.
As we finished our beers and sat in the semi-darkness, we discussed our favorites. Scott and I stand by El Rey as best overall, which incited a very intense debate with Fitz. The thing with El Rey is they’re really inconsistent. When they do great, it’s phenomenal. When they fall flat, they really bomb. The trick, then, would be to find a good taco and stick with that. For the overall typical experience, Jessy’s wins. You could probably get away with bringing your 90 year old grandmother and your foodie cousin there and both of them would find something worthwhile. The menu’s not crazy, and somethings are a bit bland, but at least they have consistency down. For outright aesthetics, UMO wins hands down. It’s just a cool place to hang out, that will probably be packed in the summer. The food is a really good take on tacos, but don’t expect to find what you’re used to here. If you’re willing to experiment, definitely head here. As we left UMO, we all felt fat and mostly happy. We were looking forward to the next Family Meal, but for the love of god and all things holy, we didn’t want to even think about eating another taco right then and there.