Filling Finds

Tasty Tacos Central, South, and East

Juan in a Million

2300 East Cesar Chavez,
472-3872 or 472-4382

Open daily, 7am-3pm

photograph by John Anderson

The catchy name made me want to visit Juan in a Million, but the food and feeling will keep me going back. There's nothing fancy about this modest east Austin eatery, but still the tidy place fills up at both breakfast and lunch with a cross-section of town, from the dressed-down to the suited-up. Juan obviously recognizes his success in drawing a crowd, and he shows his appreciation by circulating among the tables and booths often -- shaking hands, slapping shoulders, and exchanging greetings with his clientele.

Juan in a Million's "famous breakfast tacos" have earned the restaurant a reputation for serving lots of food at a very reasonable cost. The plump tacos, all in the $1.25-2 price range, offer more filling than a single tortilla can handle. Juan regulars advise ordering a single taco and a side of tortillas, and divying up the filling to make several breakfast rolls. At $1.50, the Don Juan taco is a full-meal deal. You get your morning quota of eggs, bacon, and cheese, and the typical slab of dry toast is replaced by a soft tortilla that cradles the mix. Breakfast taco fillings include the standard egg, cheese, chorizo, and beans in addition to the more exotic nopalitos and machaca.

Lunchtime at Juan in a Million can produce a standing-room only crowd willing to wait for the changing daily plate-lunch specials ($4.95) -- enchiladas, flautas, fajitas, etc. with a basket of chips and salsa, and a drink included. The restaurant's enchiladas are nothing stellar, just good solid Tex-Mex. Corn tortillas are filled with seasoned ground beef or cheese and topped with melted cheese and ranchero sauce. Lunch plates come with charro beans, Spanish rice, and a mound of iceberg lettuce and tomatoes. The fajita plate produced a pile of well-marinated beef accompanied by large wedges of lime and a foil-wrapped packet of warm tortillas, corn and flour both. A la carte possibilities include a wide selection of specialty tacos, among them carne guisada and guacomole varieties. On cold days, Juan in a Million's caldo de res ($2.95/small) is the perfect meal opener, a hearty melange of tender beef, zucchini, cabbage, carrots, and celery swimming in a tasty, peppery broth.

-- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry


4230 Duval Street, 452-1040
Mon-Sat, 8:30am-9pm; Sun, 9am-3pm.

photograph by John Anderson

Julio's does so well because it is one of those unassuming Mom 'n' Pop restaurants that becomes habit-forming once you've discovered it. There's not much to the place -- a few wooden picnic tables on a tiny outdoor patio that benefits from fabric softener-scented breezes exiting the neighboring laundromat, and a cheery, sponge-painted dining room with a handful of booths and tables for four. Ordering is handled at the counter, and food, served on putty-colored plastic diner plates, is delivered to your table. Long a favorite Hyde Park haunt, Julio's draws a diverse lunch crowd, from business folk to student types, all lined up for full plates of fresh Tex-Mex fare. Dinner tends toward a crowd of neighborhood regulars.

One thing worth remarking about Julio's food is its low grease quotient. The tiny restaurant turns out Tex-Mex standards -- tacos, fajitas, chalupas, enchiladas -- that look and taste like they were made to order, with no telltale pools of fat. Combination plates, like the fajita and chicken enchilada plate ($6.25), win favor for their size. Julio's beef fajita showcases little bits of moist, well-marinated beef in place of the standard strips, in addition to translucent onions, stewed tomatoes, and soft red bell peppers. The chicken enchilada's green sauce offers just the right tang, and the plate comes with a puddle of refried beans and mound of brown rice. Julio's à la carte choices are ideal for penny-pinchers. The chicken chalupa ($3.30) features a puffy, fried tortilla base festooned with shreds of roasted chicken, refried beans, grated cheese, fresh tomatoes, and lettuce. Hot sauce comes on the side. And though it isn't your typical Tex-Mex, Julio's roasted chicken half, with its moist flesh and crisp exterior, deserves special mention. Dessert at Julio's is limited to a moist, jiggling flan, but drink options are plenty, including Mexican beer and a wide array of exotic fruit nectars.

-- Rebecca Chastenet de Géry

El Borrego de Oro

2414 S. First, 441-4878
Mon-Fri, 7am-9pm; Sat & Sun, 7am-11pm

El Borrego de Oro
photograph by John Anderson

Once, I balanced on the fence between corn and flour. It took 12 mean beef and bean tacos from a street vendor in Nuevo Laredo to catalyze the conversion to the corn tortilla, but there's no going back now. Any taco this side of the border will pale in comparison, but since defecting probably isn't worth it, I find solace at taquerias. The taco selection at El Borrego de Oro might lead you to believe that you really are in Mexico -- they serve beef tongue, tripe, and brains daily -- and if you're wary, you can opt for a safer favorite like fajita steak, chicken, piccadillo, or al pastor. An à la carte menu lets you eat like a king but pay like a pauper: any taco for $1.50, tostada for $1.95, or burrito for $2.75. But while my fresh corn tortilla buckled under the weight of the juicy, delicately spiced ground beef, carrot, and potatoes of the piccadillo taco, Borrega's burritos are small-scale compared with those of their competitors. (This only means that a burrito feeds one good eater instead of two and a half .)

Like most taquerias, El Borrego de Oro has a diverse menu but little space. Out of the seven or so tables, one is home to a TV that blares COPS during lunch hour. In other words, the atmosphere, though clean, lacks the depth and richness of the food. But for a full meal for under $6, you couldn't ask for anything more. The al pastor (a platter for $5.75), parcooked on a spit but finished on the stovetop in a salty orange chili sauce, flaked off of the fork like tender stew beef. A requisite portion of lettuce and tomato helped temper the richness of the meat, and while the accompanying rice was non-descript, the refried beans smacked divinely of bacon -- not lard.

Unfortunately, the house specialty, Birria Estilo Jalisco, left me cold. Described on the menu as a barbecued lamb stew, in truth came off as little other than stringy bits of mutton in an unappealing, musky broth. Cilantro, chopped onions, and a wedge of lime garnished the stew but without the aid of some aromatic oregano, served in a shaker on each table, I was unable to enjoy it. On the other hand, the ranchero sauce drowning a cheese enchilada was so savory that it made me wonder if this ostensibly vegetarian dish might actually have meat in it. Even the salsa has depth. Full of green onion, chili seeds, and cilantro, it imparts subtle heat, and the rich, salty splendor that, in my mind, sets Mexican food apart from (and above) Tex-Mex.

-- Meredith Phillips

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