First Look: Fork & Taco

Fusion tacos up fast-casual game

photo by John Anderson

In a town glutted with enough tortillas to resod the Zilker lawn, it takes a bit of audaciousness to enter the taco game. It takes extra stones to set up shop near Torchy's Tacos and the upcoming Crestview Tacodeli. The owners of Fork & Taco may not be exactly throwing caution to the wind, but they're not exactly erring on its side either.

The first indication is the interior. Designed by Merrilee McGehee, the minimalist space proposes a new taco vernacular – eschewing both Tacodeli's "tacolectic" hodgepodge of warm colors and Torchy's "tacodustrial" sheet metal. Most of the visual interest comes from the mixed seating (tall metal barstools, a banquette cushioned with mattress ticking, white Thonet chairs) and brass starburst light fixtures. There is no color in the dining room save for dichroic glass panels and a geometric mural in the back. The latter is an abstracted homage to the business, but we'll let diners figure it out.

photo by John Anderson

The food mostly keeps it simple, too. The menu is divided into five categories, each with three taco selections. While the toppings are certainly more upscale than the usual street taco onion and cilantro mix, more attention is paid to texture and balance than novelty. There are definite elements of fusion, but with less gimmickry than the word usually connotes.

Chef Casey Fannin's stint at Uchi comes through in the pan-Asian flavors of many of the tacos. Pulled pork is flavored with five-spice and piled with an Asian slaw. Ahi is served with pickled ginger and sesame, and pork shoulder is wrapped up with sriracha mayo.

photo by John Anderson

Other highlights include beer braised brisket punched up with horseradish, a Caribbean-inspired jerk grouper doused with Scotch Bonnet and rum, and beets classically paired with citrus. On the crucifer front, the menu refreshingly avoids those ubiquitous brussels sprouts in favor of crispy cauliflower.

Drinks include a mostly local selection of canned craft beers, seasonal sangria, and self-serve Maine Root sodas. The owners are particularly proud of the ice machine, which makes cultish "Sonic ice." The soft-serve ice cream may remind visitors of the drive-in chain as well, but Fork's grownup version has soy sauce and maple.

It's yet to be seen if Fork & Taco can lure customers away from its lauded competitors. Fork's prices are a smidge higher than Tacodeli and Torchy's, and the flavors perhaps lend themselves more to dinner than a workaday lunch. But there is clear pride in the product and an attention to detail rarely seen in the fast-casual segment. Judging by the steady lines, Austinites may be ready to fork it up.

photo by John Anderson

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Fork & Taco, Casey Fannin, Uchi, Austin restaurant openings, Austin tacos

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