Good to Go

Taco Bell is for suckers. This town's taquerias are for SXSWers.

SXSW attracts tens of thousands of folks from all parts of the country and all over the globe, and it's our suspicion that more than a few of you might be taco-knowledge-challenged. Contrary to what many might believe, the ubiquitous Taco Bell fast-food chain, now found in every corner of the world, doesn't serve what anyone familiar with the cuisine of Mexico would consider to be authentic tacos. Fortunately, Austin is blessed with a wealth of taquerías and taco-centric restaurants, and we've put together a taco primer, as well as a listing of our favorite first-rate spots.

The taco is the ideal consumable for SXSW. It's fast, inexpensive, highly representative of place, and packed with flavor. Tacos are available in breakfast, dinner, and late-night varieties, and there are even types considered to be hangover cures. Fillings are available to accommodate carnivores, fish-eaters, the chicken or egg crowd, and even the vegan set. Fancy dress isn't required, and they're available citywide at all hours.


Corn and Flour Power

The tortilla is the foundation of the taco, and ever since Mesoamerican women made the first batch of masa dough from ground maiz cacahuazintle (field corn), lime, and water and toasted it on their comals (griddle), Mexicans have been filling tortillas with a huge variety of foods to make tacos. In Northern Mexico, where wheat is grown, the flour tortilla is king. In the South and Central, where corn prospers, you'll find tortillas de maiz. The quality of the tortilla can make or break the taco: The value of the taco isn't based solely on what's in the middle.

Masa dough can make more than tortillas. Take the dough and mold it thickly in the shape of a shoe, place the topping, and you have a huarache. Make it into a 3-inch round with slightly raised edges, put ingredients on top, and you have a sope. Make a thick 4-inch round, fry it and slice it open to make a pocket in the middle, slide some filling inside, and you have a gordita. Take that corn tortilla, fry it flat, and top it with beans and whatever else, and you've made yourself a tostada.

Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner

Many Austinites start their days with breakfast tacos, and the fillings are fairly basic, but you pick and choose to customize. Besides the pedestrian ham and bacon, there's chorizo, for instance. For the adventurous, machacado stands tall: shredded air-dried beef scrambled with eggs, chiles, and onions. Eggs are always scrambled, and the beans may be pintos or black. Spuds make an appearance, usually in the form of small fried and seasoned cubes.

Melting on top is the cheese: If it's authentic, you'll find panela (like a newborn mozzarella), queso blanco (similar to Monterey Jack), queso fresco (think fresh feta), asadero (Muenster-like), Chihuahua (resembles a mild white cheddar), Oaxaca (an aged mozzarella), cotijo (not too far from Parmesan), or Manchego (gooey). They might even offer crema fresca, which is similar to crème fraîche. Colby yellow cheese and Monterey Jack are common, and any or all of the above breakfast taco ingredients normally appear next to your coffee inside a steaming flour tortilla, although corn tortillas also make a showing.

At lunch and dinner, the taco-filling world gets really diverse. Vegetarian options include any combination of rice and beans, mushrooms, spinach, avocado, cheese, or maybe a squash-centered stew. Rice and beans don't show up again from here on out, unless you ask for them. A guisado is a stewed item, predominantly meat, sometimes with veggies added; carne guisada is the classic mild-yet-rich stew of tender beef chunks. Picadillo is the standard beef taco filling of seasoned ground beef; it can be ethereal when done right. Pollo is chicken, typically stewed, but it can be grilled; stick it in the middle of a rolled-up corn tortilla and fry it, and you have a flauta.


The Meat of the Issue

Pescado can be fish (usually mahi or catfish), or you might encounter mariscos (seafood, such as shrimp or squid). These are almost always topped with shredded cabbage. Carnitas and fritangas are fried meats, mostly pork; think of carnitas (chunks of lard-fried seasoned pork) as Mexico's version of confit, just cooked faster. Carnitas can also be braised and then browned, but a huge bubbling vat of fragrant frying pork chunks is the classic scene in a Mexican meat shop. Chicharrones, lard-fried pork-skin crisps, are a subset of fritanga (great with refried beans, by the way!).

Carne asada refers to beef, usually marinated, that is grilled and cut into strips. Fajita, griddled skirt steak with onion and pepper strips, is a smoky subset of carne asada. To make it even better, cook it al carbon (grilled over coals). Barbacoa is typically done Sonoran-style with beef wrapped in parchment and "steamed" in the oven, served with borracha (drunk) salsa. Al pastor, "shepherd-style," is a gyro-like vertical roaster filled with stacked, skewered pork cuts with a pineapple on top dripping juices on the meats below. Shepherds and pigs, you ask? It's based on the Arab version using lamb.

Birria is the shredded stewed lamb meat with chiles, onions, and garlic – it can also be a chile-laden soup – known as a popular hangover cure. Cabeza is roasted and seasoned succulent beef cheeks. Mesquite-grilled or roasted marinated young goat, lean but intensely flavorful, is known as cabrito. And you can get esoteric if you want: Lengua (beef tongue), sesos (brains, usually calf or lamb), and tripas (tripe, usually beef, but it can be pork) aren't that hard to find.


All Salsa, All the Time

Every taco, whether it's for breakfast or dinner, needs a top dressing of salsa, and this is a topic that aficionados argue over with emotion. Cooks take great pride in their salsas, as evidenced by the entries in the Chronicle's annual Hot Sauce Festival, one of the nation's largest. Salsa can range from a simple casera or fresca (a chunky tomato blend with chiles and onion) or a pico de gallo ("beak of the rooster," a fresh relish of chopped tomato, onion, garlic, and chiles), to a verde (a cooked blend of tomatillos, garlic, green chiles, cilantro, and lime), to a more complex ahumada (smoked) or asada (fire-grilled or roasted) version made with chiles, onions, garlic, and tomatoes.

The chiles chosen for the sauce greatly affect the complexity of flavor and heat. The mildest, and the Tex-Mex choice, is the jalapeño, the chunky torpedo with frontal heat. Medium-heat choices include the pasilla ("chile chilaca" when fresh), a smoky, fruity flavor used in salsa brava (with grilled tomatoes and serranos) and salsa borracha (made with pulque, a crude relative of tequila). The guajillo has a rich flavor with hints of chocolate, and is commonly used for red table salsa in Mexico. Cascabel (it means "rattle") has a smoky, nutty taste that marries well with tomatillos.

More piquant choices include the serrano, the most popular fresh chile in Mexico, used for a number of standard sauces: molcajetera (roasted, chunky), cocida (simmered green sauce with tomatillos), quemada ("burnt," charred with tomatoes), and Mexicana (fresh, chopped with tomato). The chipotle is actually a ripe jalapeño that is smoke-dried over chile branches; often used "en adobo," packed in a mix of vinegar and seasonings. Chipotles have a wonderful rich, smoky flavor with fiery heat. The big daddy of intense heat is the habanero, which sears with a surprisingly fruity finish.


Other Options

There are some final items to be added on top, perhaps as your fruit and vegetable portions of the meal: nopales (strips of sautéed de-thorned cactus pads, slightly tart and refreshing); rajas (strips of mild roasted and peeled poblano chiles); lettuce and tomato; onion; pickled chiles; avocado; radishes; cabbage; cilantro; or perhaps a squeeze of small, zesty Mexican lime. Don't be surprised to also see tortas: a panini-like grilled sandwich made on a bolillo, a small baguette. Perhaps they'll serve menudo: a soup of hominy, tripe, chicken stock, chiles, and seasonings – a very popular hangover cure. Escabeche definitely needs to be sampled, as well: a spicy pickled mix of cauliflower, carrot, mushrooms, onions, garlic, and serrano chiles.


STANDS, SEATS, AND TRAILERS: Taquerias y mas


Taco Sabroso

5100 E. Seventh, 247-3333

Very cute East Austin taco shack with an awesome patio for dining on a nice, sunny day. Their tacos al pastor, a Mexico City staple, are delicious. There are several kinds of salsas – from mild to very hot – to spice things up. Try the refreshing shrimp cocktail tostadas! – Claudia Alarcón


El Chilito Tacos y Cafe

2219 Manor Rd., 382-3797

Fresh, fast, and portable: That's what to expect from this festive little walk-up corner taqueria. The cochinita pibil in fresh corn tortillas is superb, and the paleta selection is great, too. You can still BYOB (until the beer and wine license comes through) and sit on the little patio to enjoy your tacos. – Virginia B. Wood


Changos

3023 Guadalupe, 480-8226

3005 S. Lamar, 416-1500

For me, the whole point of a taco is the tortilla, and Changos makes lovely, light, fresh corn tortillas right before your eyes. They don't monkey around about flavorful fillings, either: I particularly like the Taco del Pueblo with beef, mushroom, and cilantro ($1.95), as well as the Tinga Special with pork in chipotle ($1.85). Tasty, fresh, cheap, and quick, with a fresh fruit liquado on the side – what's not to love? – MM Pack

Taco Xpress
Taco Xpress (Photo By John Anderson)


Taco XPress

2529-A S. Lamar, 444-0261

This spring will be your last chance to eat tacos in the original building – Maria's expansion makeover is in the works. The food at this local icon remains comforting and affordable. Go early for big breakfast tacos wrapped in freshly made tortillas; go late for live music on the patio. – V.B.W.

El Borrego de Oro No. 2
El Borrego de Oro No. 2 (Photo By John Anderson)


El Borrego de Oro No. 2

3900 S. Congress, 383-0031

A real find. Here you'll get spectacular picadillo cooked to order, and a reliable al pastor. Birria lamb tacos are divine, excellent pork in green sauce, and machacado offered for breakfast, all made on homemade corn tortillas. Great salsa, cold beer, and real Mexican Coca-Cola. – M.V.


Polvo's

2004 S. First, 441-5446

Taco options are tucked away at the bottom of the back of the menu, and a fish taco isn't even listed as a choice, but don't let this dissuade you: Your waitperson will cheerfully oblige. Your request will yield a garlicky, buttery, meltingly delicious mound of snapper topped with a strip or two of grilled poblanos enveloped in a hot tortilla. Make it corn, and it's just about perfect. – Barbara Chisholm


Taquerias Arandas

2448 S. First, 707-0887

Some like it hot, and we include ourselves in that group, but sometimes we like it cool, too. That's when we go for the avocado tostado. Topping a foundation of a crisply fried corn tortilla is a smear of refried beans, a cool mixture of barely smashed avocado, shredded lettuce, sour cream, and a blanket of shredded mild white cheese. In the words of Foster Brooks, "Ssmmooooooth." – B.C.

Taqueria La Flor
Taqueria La Flor (Photo By John Anderson)


Taqueria la Flor

4901 S. First, in the Stop-N-Shop parking lot, 417-4214

This "taco truck" in South Austin has friendly owners and the best breakfast tacos I've ever had. Everything is made fresh to order, so the tacos come out so hot it is hard to handle them! They are definitely worth the wait. Pick your own ingredients among egg, potato, bacon, nopalitos, chorizo, and pretty darned good barbacoa, among others. They also serve homemade gorditas, tortas, and other yummy snackables. – C.A.


Curra's Grill

614 E. Oltorf, 444-0012

6801 Burnet Rd., 451-2560

The Garcia brothers are among the most accomplished taco purveyors in the city. We're very partial to their homemade tamales, the excellent tacos al pastor – tangy, tender pork with pineapple – and the crispy flautas stuffed with plump Gulf shrimp. – V.B.W.


Taqueria Jalisco Vallarta

1644 E. Riverside, 444-9484

There are a few of these casual family-owned eateries around town, but our favorite outlet has to be the busy South Shore location with the late-night hours and convenient drive-through. The breakfast tacos are always stuffed with fluffy scrambled eggs, the salsa is fresh and fiery, and they make the best gorditas in town. Wash it all down with refreshing horchata or Mexican-brand sodas. – V.B.W.


Tacos Al Pastor

Trailer located on the south side of East Riverside, in the parking lot between Parker and Royal Crest, beneath the BINGO sign

This is the place to get your post-show, after-2am taco fix. The tacos al pastor, carne guisada, and barbacoa tacos are all excellent. The tortillas are fresh and homemade, the onions and cilantro crisp, the meats redolent of the grill, and the hot sauce wickedly so. Unbelievably inexpensive, and a genuine local treasure. – Kate Thornberry


El Regio Pollo al Carbon

730 W. Stassney, 442-3095

La Michoacana Mercado

512 W. Stassney, 916-9938

El Regio has exquisite mesquite-grilled chickens, with El Molino corn tortillas, fiery salsas, and grilled onions. La Michoacana, right across the street, has wonderful carnitas, gorditas, and pork in green sauce. The picnic tables are at Regio, so get some from each, and combine for a wonderful meal. – M.V.


El Mesón Taqueria

5808 Burleson Rd., 416-0749

A bit out of the way in Southeast Austin, but well worth the drive for authentic Mexican cuisine at unbeatable prices. Everything is cooked fresh, including the homemade tortillas. Not to be missed are the cochinita pibil and the chicken tinga (shredded in spicy chipotle sauce). If they have their quesadillas de huitlacoche (corn mushroom), by all means, try them. – C.A.

The Best of Austin: Restaurants ballot is here! Nominations can be made now through Monday, August 22, at midnight. Vote now at vote.austinchronicle.com.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle