For two years, Jon Seelbinder has been transforming a two-story space in downtown Raleigh piecemeal, first with The Level Up kitchen and arcade upstairs, followed by Linus & Pepper's sandwich shop down below. The newest undertaking for his hospitality group, Local Icon, is Virgil's, a cozy downstairs taqueria that opened in early April.
At the shoebox kitchen's helm is Andrew Klamar, a thirty-one-year-old chef who arrived in Raleigh in September to run Local Icon's regime. He worked for Southern food poster child Sean Brock at McCrady's in Charleston before running the culinary program at Nashville's Hermitage Hotel. But that didn't prepare him for Mexican cooking.
"I knew I liked tacos, but that was about it," he confesses. "I started going to the library and getting books, studying and learning to put together my own palette."
Klamar devoted much of the last year to learning traditional Mexican cuisine. He practiced through a matrix—first by cooking proteins, then sauces and pickles and toppings. Each sauce is made from scratch the "real-deal Mexican way," he says, and involves the noon-to-night preparation of dried chilies, roasted vegetables, and toasted spices.
Klamar keeps Virgil's menu compact, with no slapdash or steam-table offerings. Once he mastered the basics, he combined techniques and ingredients to create traditional flavors with a twist. His fried avocado taco might be that approach's pinnacle.
Each day, Klamar selects firm fruit that is "not quite guacamole-ready." He cuts each avocado in half, pops out the pit, and divides the flesh into twelve skin-on segments that look like large lime wedges. When the order arrives, the skin comes off and the wedge goes for a buttermilk bath and cornmeal dredge. The avocado is dunked in the fryer for two minutes and placed atop a scoop of velvety refried beans. The result is crunchy and creamy, salty and sour.
The tacos are dressed with thinly sliced cabbage, lime juice, onion, and cilantro and topped with a zippy chili-lime crema, based on the thick and tangy crema oaxaqueña—"sour cream to the next power," Klamar calls it.
After just two weeks of service, Virgil's kitchen is going through about one hundred pounds of tortillas a day, or roughly a full, standard shopping cart. If he keeps frying avocadoes like this, he's going to need a bigger buggy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Fried Greens"