A taqueria with a sense of humor
Let me start by saying: I love tacos. If I need a quick, delicious meal at home, I’ll most likely make tacos. If I’m choosing a restaurant, it’ll probably have tacos. And when I have the chance to write about a unique Knoxville taqueria like Chivo? You can bet I’ll take it.
Chivo, located at 314 S. Gay St., is a relatively new addition to the Knoxville dining scene. Opened in July of 2016, Chivo is run by Niko and Bill Angelos (owners of Stock & Barrel on Market Square), their brother Dino and friend Ben Austin, who also worked at Stock & Barrel.
Before becoming the modern, quirky, farm-fresh restaurant it is now, the ground floor of the building had been a law office previously. When they first started considering the space, it was unoccupied, according to Austin.
“We came in here and it was basically four walls and plywood flooring,” Austin says. “We picked out the space before we even had a concept.”
The concept on which they settled was tacos and tequila, which is, according to Austin “the natural extension of burgers and bourbon,” the focus at Stock & Barrel. If you don’t see the connection at first, think about it. They’re both iconic dishes, paired with the perfect complimentary beverage. Kind of like a superhero and his or her sidekick.
The name Chivo, which means goat, was chosen in part because it lends itself well to branding and also because of an interesting piece of Angelos’ family history: Goat herding is a main occupation in the Greek mountain village from where the Angelos brothers’ parents hail.
What sets Chivo apart
Chivo isn’t the only taco place downtown; it’s just down the street from Babalu, which serves small plates and tacos, and a short walk from Soccer Taco on Market Square. In that kind of atmosphere, differentiation is key, which for Chivo means an intense focus on handmade dish components, local ingredients and extensive tequila options.
“Anything we can do to distinguish ourselves is kind of our strategy,” Austin says. “One is definitely the nixtamal process where we’re making the tortillas in house, but we’re actually starting from dried corn and taking it through the entire process.”
In addition to that, they buy meats directly from local farmers when possible and offer a large selection of tequila, Austin says.
“We’re definitely the biggest around here,” Austin says regarding the tequila selection. “And I think we’re heading toward being the biggest in the state as far as variety and how many we have.”
What to expect: delicious food and a quirky atmosphere
If the combination of authentic cooking methods paired with unique flavors sounds appealing to you, Chivo should be the next place you eat. According to Austin, here’s how a great taco comes to life.
“We start with the tortilla. That’s kind of the most important part because it’s so much more than just a vessel to transport your food; it’s really got to stand alone by itself. Especially if you’re a taco place claiming to be authentic, I feel like that’s the first thing that people are going to judge. But second to that, it’s definitely the protein, the meat. Then you just try to come up with some cool flavor combinations.”
The brisket, Austin’s personal favorite, is one of the most popular tacos. Here are a few more top choices, complete with Austin’s comments about each. (Feel free to use this as a checklist for your trip to Chivo.)
Gangnam Style (a pork belly taco that doesn’t skimp on pork belly): “People seem to love that Korean barbecue sauce and just the pork belly itself. It’s just a big chunk of bacon, and all that fat holds so much flavor.”
Frying Nemo (which features Mahi Mahi and familiar fish taco toppings): “A lot of people doing fish tacos are using much cheaper white fish, but people seem to love that we’re using: a more premium fish.”
No Meat? Guacward! (a veggie taco with fried avocado as the centerpiece): “It’s a vegetarian option, so that’s great, but it’s also got this cool clash between the crunch, because it’s deep-fried, and this soft, creamy center, so the texture’s great on it.”
But that’s just a few of the amazing taco lineup at Chivo. I can vouch for several of the tacos mentioned above, in addition to a duck taco featuring goat cheese and an unforgettable mashup of housemade chorizo and potato (listed on the menu as Taters Gonna Tate). They also serve fantastic tortilla chips – you can taste that they’re made in house – and sides like Brussels sprouts and street corn. I’d recommend ordering the latter off the cob for an experience that, as my dining companion noted, is “like creamed corn, but for adults.”
For me, the food is by far the most important thing about a restaurant, but the atmosphere plays a key role, too. Chivo has an urban ambiance, featuring distressed surfaces, bohemian-style lighting and brightly colored, Day-of-the-Dead-inspired art on the walls from artist Dolan Geiman.
What’s Next for Chivo
Roughly a year in, Austin says that business is doing great, and he’s optimistic for what the rest of 2017 will bring for Chivo in their prime downtown location. Austin says he’s appreciative of all the venues downtown, the growing foodie culture and the overall renaissance going on in Knoxville.
“Just in the two-and-a-half to three years I’ve been here, I’ve noticed a great change. You can just tell that people are starting to pay attention and notice that this is becoming a good scene and a nice vibe in the downtown,” Austin says.
As far as Chivo’s future in Knoxville, Austin says that the plan is to grow, but sustainably.
“That’s kind of a core philosophy of our operation, [it] is to start really small with what we can handle and build as we go.”
Visit Chivo’s website at www.chivotaqueria.com for more information or call them at (865) 444-3161.
What’s With the Names?
You may have noticed the taco names at Chivo aren’t your average descriptive phrases. Instead, they’re puns and quirky, tongue-in-cheek pop culture references. The brisket is called Limp Brisket, the pork is titled Gangnam Style and the duck is irreverently listed as Clusterduck. And yes, there’s a story there.
“That was kind of a late-night adjustment,” co-owner Ben Austin says. “We were about to open, still doing tequila tastings, wine tastings, and had gotten the first edition of the menus back, and it was just like ‘brisket, duck, pork belly,’ and we really thought it was lame and kind of missing something. So we just sat there over a bottle of tequila and kind of just came up with the funny names, just to jazz it up a little bit.”
Since the inception of the idea, it’s become a running joke among staff members, who often throw out new taco name suggestions. Other names are inspired by current events.
“We’re going to add a steak taco and Steak News became the natural extension, considering the political climate,” says Austin.