Restaurant Review: White Duck Taco, Johnson City
A couple of weeks have passed, but my family and I are still getting over the shock of returning to real life after getting a much-needed week of rest on the coast of South Carolina. You’d think we’d have settled back into our routine by now. Something just doesn’t feel right about waking up at 7 AM and not hearing the ocean waves calmly crashing on the shore.
While we were there, we ate at a groovy little place in the Market Commons called Nacho Hippo. I don’t usually go for tacos, but one of Mary’s co-workers recommended it to her, so I decided to be a good sport. I wish I had brought the camera with me on at least one of our visits there because the food was really good and so was the service. When we got back home, Mary told me about this new place here in Johnson City called White Duck Taco Shop. It was supposed to be similar to Nacho Hippo in that it wasn’t your average taco shop and they weren’t serving up your average tacos.
White Duck Taco is fusion-style, which means it’s a blend of cuisines. They don’t just have boring steak and cheese with pico de gallo. They take Korean bulgogi with their house-made kimchi and place it on two soft masa tortillas. Barbecued pork with beans and coleslaw. Lamb with tzatziki and feta cheese. Thai. Japanese. Vegan, if you’re in to that kind of thing. But if you’re one of those “I like boring tacos” people, then the steak and cheese taco is for you; and it’s damn good, too.
In our three visits to White Duck Taco, we sampled almost the entire menu. I definitely recommend the chips to snack on while you wait for the rest of your food, but you’ll most likely end up snacking on them throughout your meal because the food comes out very quickly. You can’t go wrong with either dipping option. The fresh salsas are all good and so is the house-made queso.
As I mentioned, the food comes out quickly, which is great because unless you get there right as the doors open – sometimes not even then – you’ll have a long line ahead of you. There’s just the one register on which they take orders. Initially, I thought this was an oversight. The line of hungry diners can seem a bit overwhelming with servers cutting through the line in order to bring out the food and fellow diners squeezing by to go to the restroom or to leave the restaurant. Fortunately, there are multiple entrances for those who’d rather go straight to the bar next door at Yee-Haw Brewing Company.
I stopped one of the employees, who happened to be the general manager of White Duck Taco, Johnson City, as he passed by the line. I asked him what the deal was with the one register. Dave explained that this is how White Duck Taco has always done things because it reduces the stress on the kitchen, which results in a better product in the end. This strategy seems to be paying off for them, but if you’re in a hurry, this may not be the place for you. Although, you can place your order to-go (you still have to wait in line).
Here’s a quick run down of how things work at White Duck Taco.
First, you’ll need to get in line. There aren’t menus to look through while you wait unless you are inside and can read the large menu above the counter. This isn’t a big deal when you’ve been there a few times or it’s not as busy, but this past weekend we were in line outside and a man who had never been there before asked if they had any menus. I said, “No, but you can try peering through the glass window.” He thanked me and walked away.
Once inside, make sure to close the door behind you as quickly as you possibly can lest you be subjected to the public reprimands of the spunky, dark-haired spitfire, who shall remain nameless and not pictured, patrolling the premises. She means well, and I get why she wants the door closed, but it’s clearly a side effect of the single point-of-sale operation.
You order and pay for everything up front, including dessert (more on that later). You can tip if you so choose, but there isn’t a ton of server-patron interaction beyond this point, so I don’t really see the point, but, if you’re feeling generous, go for it. You get a number and then seat yourselves. You can sit anywhere you want. They will look for you. They will find you. And they will kill you…
The outdoor patio is a great place to relax and hang with friends and it’s pet-friendly. These red cushion chairs are super comfy. Mary and I hung out with a couple here this past weekend and we sat in these chairs for five – yes five – hours.
The food comes out all at once, including any dessert you may have ordered. This is unusual to say the least. I’ve never had my dessert come out at the same time as my main course, unless, of course, my dessert was the main course. But this is how it is done, unless you want to wait in line again just for dessert; trust me, it isn’t worth it. The salted caramel macaroon pie, which I’ve never had nor heard of, had a custardy, bread-pudding-like texture, which I did not care for. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or bad. It just reminded me of bread pudding and I do not care for bread pudding. The Mexican chocolate pot de creme was just OK and would have benefitted from more time in the cooler.
The tacos are really the stars here. For the most part, you can’t go wrong with whatever you order. Overall, it’s really good and mostly consistent food that should leave you feeling full and satisfied. Out of all the tacos I sampled though, the crispy pork belly was my favorite. My runner ups were the BBQ carnitas – juicy pulled pork with barbecue beans and crunchy slaw – and the lamb gyro with tzatziki, cucumber, and feta. If you put pulled pork anything on a menu, I’m going to order it. And with Tyler Humphrey, Executive Chef of White Duck Taco, Johnson City, and founder of Noli Food Truck, in the kitchen, you know it’s going to be top notch.
The chilled lump crab taco is the most expensive taco on the menu, but the fried salty capers really set it off. The steak and cheese taco is a safe choice if you’re not adventurous enough to try the Korean bulgogi with house-made kimchi or the Bangkok shrimp with chili aioli or the bahn mi tofu taco with daikon and ginger. I don’t tofu, but the Korean bulgogi was interesting. The beef wasn’t too spicy and the kimchi wasn’t too pungent.
My favorite taco from my first visit was the crispy pork belly, but ordering it a second time revealed some inconsistencies in its preparation. On the first go, the edges of the pork had that deep reddish-brown caramelization and it was slightly sweet, almost like candied bacon. They supposedly crisp it up in the fryer after braising it in the oven, which is what gives it its sweet, crispy exterior.
I was excited to order it again. Unfortunately, the second time there was little evidence that the pork ever hit hot oil. It lacked any caramelization and was a little soggy. It wasn’t bad, but I hope this was a rare oversight. The green onion sauce and pickled watermelon rind, however, saved the day. Dave, the general manager at Yee-Haw Brewing Company and White Duck Taco, Johnson City, explained that they don’t like to waste anything, so after they remove the flesh of the melon for their cubed watermelon and mint dish, they cut off thin slices of the leftover rind and pickle it. It’s deliciously tangy. I immediately went out and bought a watermelon just to pickle the rind. I may have also made watermelon sorbet with lemon, pink peppercorns, and a balsamic vinegar reduction.
Overall, I’m really impressed with the White Duck Taco Shop in Johnson City. While I haven’t been to the other three White Duck Taco Shops – one in Charleston and two, including the original White Duck Taco, in Asheville, NC – I’d be willing to bet this is the most unique and fun location of them all. If you ever find yourself passing through or if you live in the Tri-Cities, you’ll definitely want to check this place out.
Many thanks to Dave and his staff for letting me come by with my camera during pre-service.