Take a taco tour around Austin
Residents of Austin and San Antonio recently engaged in a (somewhat) friendly shouting match about who has the better tacos. But why waste time boasting and belittling when there are so many tacos to be enjoyed?
From the simple joys of well-seasoned eggs with crispy bacon to the highfalutin expensive kind with fancy ingredients and chef pedigrees, the taco is one of the world’s great food inventions. And lucky for us, you can’t drive more than a few blocks without running into one worthy of your time and money, whether it’s from an old trailer outside a convenience store in South Austin or a sit-down restaurant in East Austin.
Here are tacos from 11 places (why stop at 10?) around town. There will be more taco reports in the future. So, these aren’t the only tacos I love — just some of them. (Please note that hours, especially at the trailers, are subject to change.)
3900 S. Congress Ave. 512-383-0031
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Order: birria ($3)
When a dish is this good, it’s worth naming the restaurant after it. The lamb on this taco is shredded, but it hits you with the animal’s gamy essence like a lamb chop straight to the head. The meat is braised tender in a mild stew of tomatoes and onions and finished on the griddle. That leaves chunks and wisps that range from lush and fatty to lean and crispy at the edges. The accompanying cilantro, lime and onions brighten the profile, but this is a taco made for mood lighting. The lamb didn’t come with any salsa, and while the red table salsa studded with jalapenos and scattered with black pepper is nice for chips, the juicy lamb can stand alone.
If you need a little more lamb to get your fix, there’s also a restorative consommé.
1901 S. Lamar Blvd. 512-457-9992, facebook.com/capitaltaco
Hours: Lunch: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner: 6 p.m. to midnight Monday-Saturday.
Order: ginger chicken ($3.25), brisket ($4), turkey mole ($3.75), migas ($2.25)
When I see a food trailer menu as big as the one at Capital Taco, I get a little nervous. Can they really pull off ginger chicken, brisket and migas tacos? Yes, they can.
I have little use for white meat chicken, but this bird was wrapped in a flour tortilla bursting with bold flavor, from the fierce little bits of ginger to a tart salve of sour cream, floral cilantro and chunks of ripe mango that could be at home in a first-rate fruteria.
Having good neighbors can mean an extra set of eyes on your place when you’re gone, or a cup of borrowed sugar when you’re in need. The proximity of lot neighbor Brown’s BBQ means one of the best brisket tacos in town for Capital Taco. The taco packs lean and fatty cuts of the excellent meat from the neighboring bright red trailer but isn’t afraid to leave its own mark, also cramming in hunks of avocado, shredded mozzarella and pickled jalapenos. It’s a delicious mess, and almost enough to make a meal in and of itself.
I saw the words “turkey” and “mole” and got a little worried. I envisioned slightly dried and stringy meat in a thick, heavy-handed sauce. What I got was juicy shreds of turkey bathed in nimble mole whispering notes of winter spice and chocolate. The pickled jalapenos and cilantro enlivened the nap-inducing meat and sauce.
And, though the breakfast hour was behind us, given the accomplishments of the other tacos, I had to try the migas. Good call. The twirl of eggs dotted with tomatoes encased crunchy tortilla strips and gooey cheese. A touch more salt and pepper and we’re talking regular-morning-ritual good.
Roving location, 512-619-3008
Hours: twitter.com/lfantabulous; Sunday brunch at Nomad Bar (1213 Corona Drive) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Order: fish tacos (two for $9) and shrimp tacos (two for $9)
“I like food more than people,” La Fantabulous owner Josie Paredes joked from behind the flattop grill of her roving taco truck with the seductive mermaid on the side.
At least I think she was kidding.
But the former chef at J. Black’s, who also helped open the original Eddie V’s downtown, turns out juicy salmon that makes a strong argument for the case that she at least knows food as well as she does people. The thick fish, liberally salted, falls apart in pink slabs at the touch of a fork. And it’s the size of a small entree. The type of fish, buried in a spicy slaw mixture shimmering with a vinaigrette alive with jalapeno, rotates. Sometimes salmon, sometimes mahi mahi. Never tilapia.
The salmon is cradled in two corn tortillas straight from the bag. The same delivery system is used on toasty shrimp that taste like they must have something more going on than just Kosher salt, but Paredes says that’s all there is to it. That and knowing when to pluck those puckers from their sizzling dance to go on a taco dusted with queso fresco and that crunchy cabbage slaw. The shrimp tacos usually come with sections of mandarin, but with no fresh ones available, they were absent on this day. And Paredes wasn’t about to scoop them from a can.
1209 E. Seventh St. 512-524-1448, thehightoweraustin.com
Hours: Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner: Daily, 5 p.m. to close. Brunch: Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Order: grit-fried chicken taco ($10.50 at lunch, $12.50 at dinner)
Living in Austin means you can look beyond Mexican restaurants and trailers for tacos. Especially if the person calling the shots in the kitchen is from Texas. Dallas-raised chef Chad Dolezal shows proper respect for his creation, making doughy corn tortillas like tamales with elastic pull. They may be served in a New American bar-restaurant hybrid, but many Mexican restaurants around town pulling their corn tortillas from a bag would be wise to take note.
The kitchen mixes the cornmeal, grits and cornstarch to create a gluten-free dredge that gives a granulated crackling to juicy fried chicken thighs. There’s no accompanying salsa, but the layering of flavors proves the chef’s skill. The chicken arrives in a bowl glistening with a sweet orange oil and colored with red squiggles of Fresno chili and the bitter snap of bok choy. Pick the accompaniments from the bowl and slather them across the smooth corn tortilla to create a bitter, sweet, spicy and crunchy base for the chicken.
4901 S. First St. 512-417-4214
Hours: 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Order: picadillo ($2) and carne guisada ($2)
Slap, pop, slap, pop. You know you’re in the right place when you can hear the tortillas being patted by hand from 50 feet away. The trailer colored in various shades of blue sky and operated by Crystian Olarte and his mother has been serving tacos for about a decade outside of a convenience store. And the corn tortillas, spotted with tanned marks from the flattop and thick and fluffy as pupusas, are as good as I’ve had in town.
The well-seasoned crumbles of ground beef carry a faint heat from their rumble with red chili sauce in a picadillo taco brightened with white onions and cilantro, and soft potatoes the color of seared scallops mash with a squeeze to give added creaminess to chunks of guisada swathed in savory stewlike juices.
1503 S. First St. 512-916-4996, mellizoztacos.com
Hours: 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Order: La Pachuca ($3.25)
I don’t know if the owners named the La Pachuca taco after the capital of the Mexican state of Hidalgo or after a rebellious woman from the 1940s sporting zoot suit-inspired style. Either way, it works. The taco with eggs, queso and machaca beef deserves a place of importance on this food truck’s menu and has some brassy swagger to spare.
Mellizoz, which originally opened on South First Street in 2008 under the name Izzoz, added the taco to its menu last year. But the components have been there all along. A little ingenuity brought fluffy scrambled eggs from the all-day breakfast menu, braised beef from the Slowrider finished on the flattop and a little bit of queso to create the Pachuca. A judicious amount of queso and moisture from the eggs help rehydrate heaps of shredded beef full of steak flavor, with a coarse chop of tomatoes and onion bringing sufficient acid and bite to the party. The trailer offers two salsas. For this taco, grab the mild spice of the red, which has the mineral heat of a burning rock and helps give the beef-and-egg taco the flavor of a taco made with leftovers following a cowboy cookout the night before.
910 E. Sixth St. and at the Grackle (1700 E. Sixth St.), 512-373-6557, facebook.com/puebloviejoatx
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at 910 E. Sixth St. Varied hours throughout the day at the Grackle location.
Order: Don Chago ($2.50) and Guaca Taco ($3.90)
When your trailer sits in the shadow of the popular El Milagro Tortillas on East Sixth Street, you can be forgiven for not making your own tortillas. What’s easier than just running across the street? And when you make salsas as diverse and compelling as Pueblo Viejo, nobody’s going to spend too much time bemoaning tortilla quality, even if the corn version crumbled liked baked clay.
The five salsas, which you can purchase in 5-ounce cups, run from the smoky dusk of an exceptional black habanero to the morning glow of creamy jalapeno, with a fresh tomato sauce with onions and cilantro streaming through the middle ground.
Breakfast tacos run $2.50 at the massive trailer hitched to a pickup at the location closest to Interstate 35, and the bacon on the Don Chago is deserving of breakfast platter real estate. It crackles at ends just shy of burned on a taco creamy with avocado and beans almost liquefied by lard.
Choose between chicken and steak to supplement your Guaca Taco ($3.90). The beef didn’t have much blush to its interior but remained tender, with caramelized onions wrapping their sweet embrace amid the mash of ripe avocado and expressive spinach. Drape one end of the taco with the orange habanero salsa and the other with the smokier black version.
4403 Manchaca Road
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Order: huevos a la Mexicana ($1.50)
One of my favorite migas tacos in town comes from just across Ben White Boulevard at the Veracruz All Natural trailer at Radio Coffee & Beer. But at less than half the price, the huevos a la Mexicana at this trailer in the Exxon parking lot has me rethinking my morning choices. A simple twirl of scrambled eggs with bits of jalapeno, tomato and green pepper, the taco tastes like breakfast made by your lovely house guest who just ran out to the market for a few things. But your house guest doesn’t know how to make slick, bubbled corn tortillas (the flour here are the bagged variety) and four different excellent salsas, from a ruddy chile de arbol and guajillo blend to the burnt orange sting of habanero.
730 W. Stassney Lane, Suite 105. 512-707-1200
Hours: 6 a.m. to p.m. daily
Order: chorizo and potato ($1.99) and al pastor ($1.99)
Steam trays line the service counter at the taqueria in the front of this South Austin meat market. While you’ll have to come on the weekend for more exotic offerings like goat and pig’s blood sausage, you can always find the orange flame of funky chorizo and paprika-dusted wedges of fork-tender potatoes. The equally bright pastor, crispy at the edges from its time on the stovetop and supple through the middle like a perfectly grilled tenderloin, helped keep the market aglow even when the power went out on a recent visit. A salsa bar with a runny but piquant salsa verde also offered charred jalapenos that put some snap into the duo of corn tortillas machine-pressed in house.
96 Pleasant Valley Road
Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily
Order: Bacon and eggs ($2)
Yolanda Guerrero calls everyone “mijo” or “mija,” and there’s not a false note in her familiarity. That sense of care extends to the smoky heat of the salsa the proprietress grinds by hand and serves direct from the molcajete. Spread the roasted tomatoes and peppers across a creamy pile of eggs and substantial strips of crunchy bacon glistening with fat.
Jagged handmade corn tortillas look brittle but surprise with their softness, and though the flour tortillas aren’t made by Ms. Guerrero, she finishes the dusty rounds on the flattop, making them some of the best modified bagged versions imaginable.
6616 S. Congress Ave. 512-462-6010
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday-Friday; 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Order: campechana ($4) and barbacoa ($2.99)
Campechana seems to mean various things in Spanish. I always associated it with seafood, but at this colorful cafe that serves several fruit smoothies in addition to aguas frescas, the name indicates an overflowing taco of juicy, seared al pastor and strands of pliable beef fajita meat served with a fat feather of bright avocado in airy homemade corn tortillas. A red salsa layered with chile de arbol gives a smoky finish to the meaty combo. With glowing fat still clinging to the roasted beef, the barbacoa taco is as lush as you’ll find, and puffed and bronzed tortilla chips fried in house leave a lingering sweetness like dessert.