click to enlarge bartlettimage-chela-6623.jpg

Photo by Rob Bartlett

Brothers Johnny and Jimmy Tung move on from tapas to Chela Tequila & Tacos 

Tung twisted

Among the Bento Group's numerous ventures around town (and beyond), Kasa was the one Bento owners Johnny and Jimmy Tung hoped would be their differentiator, and the jewel in Bento's crown. Having solicited the menu-developing services of former It Boy and Food Network alum Josh Lyons, the downtown tapas and raw bar clearly had serious aspirations. Alas, Kasa never quite developed the cred it craved in a city whose diners can be capricious and so ... tacos!

Kasa underwent some minor reno (it's still a striking space), a relatively quick rebrand and a menu dumb-down for the sake of the all-powerful folded foodstuff, and thus was born Chela Tequila & Tacos. Really, you can't blame them. In the cutthroat world of the restaurant biz, necessity can be the mother of invention or the mother of pragmatism, but it's a mother nonetheless. Doesn't take away from the fact that a concerted effort needs to be put forth no matter the circumstance, and Chela's kitchen does just that.

Our expectations of the roasted cauliflower ($9) were thrown for a loop with its nontraditional Indo-Mex flavorings – a curry spice blend was the active ingredient amid lemon juice, garlic aioli and toasted almonds, adding some Desi flair. But a trio of corncobs on a stick ($7) marked a return to smoky, cheesy, peppery familiarity ¬ and nary a niblet suffered from wrinkles or bruising. The only way these are tasting better is if you eat them outside on Calle Orange with a cerveza (or chela, as is the lingo). You'll also find no fault in cantina-style chips or a creamy serving of bright (but not too bright) paprika-specked guac ($10), but these shareables, good as they are, merely serve as precursors to ... tacos!

Those of you under a self-imposed taco moratorium may want to dart your eyes to the right of the page and give Tip Jar a perusal. (Trigger warning: Taco references may appear there without warning.) To the rest of you, I'll say this about Chela's tacos: They're served on grilled flour tortillas – so if you prefer your fillings enveloped by the corn variant, well, see the preceding sentence.

When filled with chorizo and potato ($4), the resulting chew was more mealy than magnifico. I'm not one to denigrate the flour tortilla, or claim it beneath me to eat them, so long as they're done right and served fresh off the griddle. And while Chela's flour tortillas are wholly unremarkable – some had grill marks, some didn't – we couldn't knock the fillings, most of which were noteworthy.

A superb Negra Modelo-battered fish ($5), for example, or succulent brisket ($4) with salsa roja; there's a plush skirt steak taco ($5) with a pineapple pico de gallo and salsa verde that we picked clean off the serving tray. We requested a sweet habañero salsa and it laced every beefy bite with a fitting fuego. The "crispy pig" ($4) is as advertised, but the cubes of belly were also surprisingly light, almost airy. We finished by forking morsels of honey-chipotle chicken and avocado ($4) off the tortillas and into our mouths until all that was left were the uneaten (or partially eaten) flats.

Surprise taco twist ending! We later learned that, while not advertised on the menu or otherwise, corn tortillas are available if requested.

Tortilla follies aside, there's a handful of mains on the menu as well. We quite enjoyed the textural qualities of the chicken and jicama slaw ($9) braced with red onion, cabbage, grilled corn and fried tortilla strips tossed in a honey-chipotle vinaigrette.

Gotta have dessert? Churros ($7), served with Mexican hot chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and a delicate choco taco ($5) oozing Mexican chocolate ganache, Nutella, caramel cream and peanuts were capable caps, but we'll have to revisit Bento's flagship location – and request those elusive maize wrappers – to see if they fully earn the feathers.

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