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Hello, Hungry Traveler: Welcome to the Land of the Breakfast Taco!

Fri., March 14, 2003

Tamale House #3
Tamale House #3
Photo By John Anderson

Luckily for you, Austin is a great breakfast town, where an ancient Mexican culinary tradition runs headlong into the American dream of fast-food service and entrepreneurship, creating a delicious culture crash known as the breakfast taco joint. Now, taco joints, or taquerias, are not original to Austin, but our fair city just happens to have the necessary ingredients for them to flourish. Things like a lengthy Mexican breakfast tradition in local restaurants, a large immigrant population from the northern states of Mexico, where flour tortillas, dairy products, and grilled meats are integral components of the culinary lexicon, and a stubborn civic pride in creative local talent, be it musical, theatrical, or culinary.

For the uninitiated, a taco is any savory food item wrapped in either a corn or flour tortilla and eaten out of hand, the very essence of portable sustenance. In the northern states of Mexico and the border states of the U.S., tacos are more likely to be made with flour tortillas, owing to their greater pliability and availability. Tacos are not to be confused with burritos, which we tend to think of as larger flour tortillas stuffed with a variety of savory ingredients that are too big and messy to eat by hand. In the land of their origin, tacos are not so much a specific dish as they are an age-old, peasant culinary tradition, where a quick flat bread is made fresh daily and used to move other savory food items conveniently into a hungry mouth. Somewhere along the line, the ancient tradition familiar to millions of immigrants collided with the American love for fast, portable food items, and the breakfast taco was born.

Going out for Mexican breakfasts is an Austin dining tradition that we know goes back more than 50 years and is still going strong. What returning UT alum or frequent SXSW participant would consider their Austin visit complete without a pilgrimage to Cisco's, Kerbey Lane, Magnolia, or Las Manitas? More and more these days, however, the fast and convenient roadside taco joints are attracting a following. In anticipation of the influx of hungry SXSW festivalgoers, the Chronicle Food staff visited our favorite local purveyors of the taco maker's art where the food is guaranteed to be fast, fresh, portable, and affordable. We've given you enough options that you can eat tacos several times a day in the quest for your personal favorites. -- Virginia B. Wood


DOWNTOWN/CENTRAL/EAST

Mi Madre's

2201 Manor Rd., 480-8441

Monday-Saturday, 6am-2pm
For years, the Torres family has taken great pride in doing a few things very well. They're open for breakfast and lunch only, and their lineup of fresh and hearty breakfast tacos is definitely superior -- as are their fiery homemade salsas. They're only a short distance east of the UT campus, so if you find yourself on the way back to the hotel at 6am after a night of serious music appreciation, stop in for a carne guisada taco, and tell 'em we sent you. -- V.B.W.

Juan in a Million

2300 E. Cesar Chavez, 472-3872

Thursday-Saturday, 7am-8pm; Monday-Wednesday, 7am-3pm
Breakfast tacos at Juan's have been a dietary staple in my household for almost 10 years now. I am addicted to the taco with guacamole, beans, and cheese. Their refried beans are simply some of the best in town. Or on the rare occasion when I feel like branching out, I go for the one with brined nopales, spicy chorizo, and potatoes. My own idiosyncratic preferences aside, the restaurant's real fame lays in its Don Juan Taco, a monstrously sized amalgam of eggs, bacon, potatoes, and cheese, cooked together in one delicious, hearty mess. Order one with an extra tortilla and be sustained until dinner. -- Rachel Feit

Las Manitas

211 Congress, 472-9357

Monday-Friday, 7am-4pm; Saturday-Sunday, 7am-2:30pm
Las Manitas' classic, homemade Mexican fare has been honed to fit Austin appetites over the years. Their roster of breakfast tacos includes not only satisfying versions of the classics, such as bean and cheese, carne guisada, and chorizo and egg, but also spiced-tofu-and-egg tacos, and black-bean-and-guacamole tacos. Carnivores will appreciate, however, that their refried beans are still plenty lardy, and their meats are generally perfectly seasoned and cooked. The potatoes are freshly cut and deep fried; the tortillas are soft and thick. In fact, it's hard not to love Las Manitas -- unless you get stuck in one of their 45-minute waits for a table. Go early! -- R.F.

Joe's Bakery

2305 E. Seventh, 472-0017

Tuesday-Sunday, 7am-3pm
Get there early or face a crowded wait at the front door. Joe's Bakery has been serving faithful Eastsiders for goin' on 50 years. Their flour tortillas are fresh, gooey, and homemade. Filled with Joe's chorizo scrambled with eggs, they make a fine breakfast taco. Or order a taco with potatoes and you receive fat, freshly fried slices. Their guacamole is homemade, and their salsa is eye-poppingly spicy. They also make a mean barbacoa taco. You've gotta love a place that flour-dusts and deep fries their bacon! -- R.F.

Tamale House #3

5003 Airport, 453-9842

Monday-Friday, 6:30am-3pm; Saturday, 7am-3pm
I love the Tamale House #3. Where else can you get a big, two-item breakfast taco for 85 cents? And you can add any extra ingredient for a few cents more. Nothing fancy, but a good and inexpensive way to start your day right. Best to call ahead and place your order in advance. -- Claudia Alarcón

Juanita's Tacos (formerly Taco Loco)

1120 W. Fifth, 708-1179

Monday-Friday, 7:30am-2pm; Saturday, 8am-1pm
Housed in a charmingly ancient red caboose, this tiny spot (three tables inside, four outside) demonstrates the beauty of doing one thing and doing it well. The breakfast tacos ($1.25-1.50) are not large, but are exceptionally flavorful. Proprietor Juana Maria Llamas uses fresh ingredients, and, boy, does she know how to season. Try the egg, cheese, and machacado (tender shredded beef, onion, jalapeño, and fresh tomato) for an extremely satisfying eye-opener. -- MM Pack

El Arroyo

1624 W. Fifth, 474-1222 Breakfast tacos available Monday-Friday, 7-10am

www.ditch.com/index.html
Although the venerable Ditch is primarily known for rollicking happy hours and late-night eating and drinking, don't overlook the fast and cheap ($1) breakfast tacos available in the parking lot on weekday mornings. The offerings are egg-and-cheese tacos with potato, sausage, or bacon. Tacos are small, pre-made, and not particularly memorable, but they are quite redeemed by a wonderfully robust but mildish salsa tasting of fresh tomato, onion, and cilantro. -- M.M.P.

Chumikal's

3223 E. Seventh, 385-8898

Monday-Saturday, 6am-5pm

"Chew-Michael's" extensive selection (11 combinations) of hefty, first-rate breakfast tacos is guaranteed to get the day off to a good start. A particular favorite is the generous and satisfying $1.99 Kitchen Sink taco, stuffed with egg, cheese, sausage, and potato. A handheld meal, indeed. -- M.M.P.

Taqueria Vallarta Jalisco

1644 E. Riverside, 444-9484

Sunday-Wednesday, 7am-2am; Thursday, 7am-3am;

Friday-Saturday, 7am-4am
This South Shore mainstay is open from dawn until the wee small hours, offers plenty of parking, a very convenient drive-through, and features the standard taco offerings with eggs and bacon, sausage, chorizo, potatoes, beans, or cheese (three two-ingredient tacos for $2.95), plus such heartier meat varieties as carne guisada, beef, or chicken fajitas, which cost only a little more. Good hot coffee and cool aguas frescas such as tamarindo and horchata to wash it all down. -- V.B.W.


SOUTH

Taqueria Arandas #5

2448 S. First, 707-0887

Daily, 7am-midnight
This place is muy auténtico, reminiscent of eating in Jalisco. Superb tacos stuffed with your choice of ingredients, freshly cooked and priced in the ridiculous range: three for $1.99. If your stomach is feeling up to it, and your Spanish is good enough, ask them to scramble some brains with your eggs for a great morning-after eye-opener. -- Wes Marshall

La Tapatia

#1: 1333 W. Ben White, 707-1585

Every day, 6:30am-midnight

#2: 2506 E. Ben White, 693-8843

Every day, 6:30am-midnight
Less Tex-Mex than Mex-Mex, La Tapatia bustles with Southsiders and homesick Mexican immigrants. Breakfast-taco fillings include the usual suspects -- excellent home-fried potatoes, refried beans, eggs, and cheese. However, meats definitely outshine all other fillings at La Tapatia. Their al pastor taco has tender, tangy bits of pork, fresh cilantro, and onion. Their potato, chorizo, and cheese taco is excellent, with crispy bits of both potatoes and chorizo stuffed into a fresh, homemade-tasting tortilla. And their carne guisada is saucy and savory. -- R.F.

Taqueria la Flor

Northeast corner of Stassney at South Congress, 417-4214

Monday-Friday, 6:30am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, 6:30am-2pm
This "taco truck" in far South Austin has some excellent breakfast tacos. They are made fresh to order, so it takes a couple of minutes, but it's definitely worth the wait. Ingredients include egg, potato, bacon, chorizo, and pretty darned good barbacoa. To drink, try a cup of hot atole or a fresh fruit licuado. -- C.A.

Nueva Onda

2218 College, 447-5063

Monday-Friday, 7:30am-3pm; Saturday-Sunday, 8am-3pm
This diminutive, cheery spot tucked just off South Congress offers superlative tacos and fuller breakfast and lunch items for those in need of more sustenance. The spicy sautéed onions (perked up with jalapeño) are a savory, luscious addition to any egg and/or bean filling, and the migas are topped with a stew of onions and peppers. And be assured, your safety is guarded by sentries in full metal armor. -- Barbara Chisholm

Taco X-Press

2529 S. Lamar, 444-0261

Sunday, 9am-2pm; Monday, 7am-3pm;

Tuesday-Friday, 7am-9pm; Saturday, 8am-9pm
The destination for South Austin funk and fine tacos. The interior looks like a trailer run amok (and it sits adjacent to a longstanding trailer park, so that's fitting), and the exterior is a rustic oasis of dirt floors and live oak trees. Not to mention the giant sculpture of Loca Maria, the Taco Queen that blesses all of South Austin. The generously stuffed tacos are so full that you'll barely be able to get your mouth around them, but you'll manage. They're just too good to resist. -- B.C.

Polvos

2004 S. First, 441-5446

Sunday-Thursday, 7am-10pm; Friday-Saturday, 7am-11pm
Although the breakfast items are all tasty and skillfully done -- and the variety of salsas sensational -- we sometimes have to eschew breakfast traditions and go for the nirvana-inducing fish taco. Sure, garlicky fish and roasted poblano peppers aren't typical morning fare, but one bite and you'll know why we sometimes throw tradition out the door. -- B.C.

El Tripaso

408 N. Pleasant Valley, 476-2852

Monday-Friday, 7am-2pm and 6-10:30pm
Although you can eat inside this friendly Govalle establishment, it also offers a convenient drive-through for tacos on the run. Order fresh, hot, made-to-order breakfast tacos for 99 cents (egg and chorizo scrambled together is particularly tasty), accompanied by vinegary, black-peppery salsa. For something different, try your tacos wrapped in two small, tender corn tortillas instead of the usual flour -- yum! -- M.M.P.


NORTH/WEST

Taco Shack

3901 Spicewood Springs, 418-8900

12439 Metric, 873-7977

4412 Medical Pkwy., 467-8533

2825 Guadalupe, 320-8889

6:30am-2:30pm
With four locations around town and a fifth one on the way, Taco Shack provides breakfast tacos to folks all over the city. Their specialty is the Shack Taco, a big, satisfying breakfast taco with the works. Breakfast is served only till 11am, but the location on the Drag serves breakfast until 2:30pm. -- C.A.

Rosie's Tamale House

13303 Hwy. 71 W., 263-5164

6am-9pm, closed Tuesday
There's a reason this place has customers standing in line all morning: great tacos. Rosie's tacos are cooked while you wait. They cook the scrambled eggs on the same griddle as the thick cut bacon, giving the eggs a smoky flavor. The potatoes are crispy and hand-cut. Rosie's also offers two delicious salsas. Their prices are just fine: $1.25 for two ingredients, $1.50 for three ingredients, and $1.80 for four. -- W.M.

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