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Jun 26, 2006 03:02 AM

Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 4

I broke my report on the area around Burleson Road into two parts, since it was getting very long.

Some of you may know about Austin’s BBQ on Burleson Road: It gets a lot of ink. I’m not including them here because they serve burgers, pancakes, and ‘cue rather than the Tex-Mex basics that are my focus in these reports.

In part 4 I cover a much-reviewed taquería on Burleson Road and a relatively unknown one on East Ben White Boulevard just west of Todd Lane.

El Mesón Taquería. 5808 Burleson Road

I wasn’t even going to review El Mesón in this series of off-the-beaten-track Tex-Mex places given how much press coverage it’s gotten. When a restaurant’s listed in a mainstream travel guide of Austin, it hardly qualifies as a hidden gem. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop in there for lunch one recent weekday. (Their hours are Mondays through Fridays 6 A.M. to 3 P.M. and Saturdays 7 A.M. to 2 P.M.)

El Mesón serves authentic regional Mexican dishes, including many that I had just sampled at brunch at Fonda San Miguel: chicken tinga; the ubiquitous cochinita pibil; chicken in mole pipian. Apparently El Mesón, just like FSM, sometimes offer quesadillas de huitlacoche, a fact that print reviews all mention breathlessly. These quesadillas weren’t on the menu when I dined there.

Because I am completely sick of cochinita pibil, I just couldn’t try El Mesón’s version. But I did sample tacos of chicken pipian, carne guisada, calabacitas, [pork] al pastor, and fajitas. (These are also available as lunch plates for $6.55, which come with rice, black or pinto beans, and flour or corn tortillas.) The best taco filling by far was the chicken with mole en pipian, which is a traditional green mole made from tomatillos, chiles, and pumpkin seeds. Mole-wise, their version was a bit too subtle for my tastes, but it grew on me. The chicken itself was wonderfully tender and savory, the result of being slowly stewed and well seasoned. Chicken in Mexican (and many other) restaurants often tastes like it was boiled in plain water before being dumped in some other dish—-say flautas, gorditas, or enchiladas--and heavily sauced. Lovingly poached chicken, flavored with its own broth and just the right herbs and spices, elevates every final dish from enchiladas verdes to chicken & dumplings. The slow cooking of the chicken really made this taco great. EM’s carne guisada was also tender from long-stewing, but their version was less full-flavored than the carne guisada served at some very modest places I've tried. The calabacitas taco was a spicy version of this popular quick-sautéed vegetable dish (often served as a side) featuring cubes of fresh zucchini squash, corn kernels, sliced onion, cilantro, chopped tomatoes, and Mexican spices.

El Mesón is better at tacos de cazuela or de guisados (casserole-style or stewed fillings) than at tacos al carbón and de la plancha (respectively, charcoal-grilled and skillet-grilled or griddled meats). The [pork] al pastor was fresh, but nothing spectacular. I couldn’t taste the chile-based marinade or the grilled pineapple. The beef fajitas consisted of small, shredded pieces of beef that were marinated in an ambitious red-chile and tomato-based sauce and served with grilled onions and strips of poblano peppers. This was an unusually spicy but not especially interesting variation on a grilled fajitas taco. The meat tacos were $1.85 each; the veggie taco was $1.75.

I also tried both kinds of fresh tortillas. The corn ones were very good. Neither too small nor too large, too thick nor too thin, EM’s corn tortillas were tender, pliable, and faintly evocative of earthy corn-goodness. Though perhaps a bit gummy in the middle on the day I tried them, they’re much better than other versions I’ve tried in Austin. It makes me wonder where they could be getting good masa fresca? There are a lot of bad tortillerias in town (the usual source for masa fresca, if there are no molinos). And adding water to masa harina is just not the same. EM’s flour tortillas were fine: thin, small, but ultimately unmemorable. These definitely suffered from the use of vegetarian shortening. The salsas--a red one made from roasted peppers and tomatoes and an orange one featuring jalapeños—-were very fresh. In the kitchen I saw lots of whole beefsteak tomatoes roasting on the grill and chiles smoking in the skillets. But, the salsas were on the weak side in terms of seasoning. A good salsa doesn’t need to scorching-hot, but it should have bright flavors.

I didn’t try breakfast at EM, but I noticed that they offer plates ($4.50 each) of huevos rancheros; huevos motuleños; huevos con papas; migas; “chorimigas,” or migas plus chorizo; and huevos a la mexicana. Breakfast tacos with two ingredients (eggs and something or beans and something) are $1.25 each. The competition from La Pasadita must be keeping the prices low.

Perhaps even more than Casa Moreno, El Mesón appeals to non-Hispanic workers from the industrial and office complexes that line Burleson Road. On two visits I couldn’t help but notice that the only Mexicans in this place seemed to be those behind the counter. That’s the first time that’s happened in this series.

The good dishes that I tried at El Mesón were very good. Their corn tortillas and chicken with mole pipian were better than versions at Fonda San Miguel. Not to imply that I consider FSM to be the ultimate benchmark. In fact, I’d like to suggest right now that all regional-Mexican restaurants in town blaze new trails in Mexican cuisine instead of closely aping FSM’s very traditional, and hence rather uncreative, playbook. As for El Mesón, I’ll be back to try their other tacos de cazuela—-on those tasty corn tortillas.

Taqueria la Tapatia, 2506 E Ben White Boulevard

This place is the complete opposite of El Mesón. It’s certainly not the kind of taqueria that will be mentioned anytime soon in mainstream travel guides. Next time you’re heading to or from the airport, however, stop by here for good fast-food-style Tex-Mex at rock-bottom prices.

Taqueria la Tapatia looks like a former DQ, and it feels like one, too. But that doesn’t mean it’s unpleasant. On all my visits (for lunch and dinner during the week), la Tapatia was full of Mexican-American families with kids as well as groups of men on their way home from or to work. They come for the satisfying food at bargain prices. Tacos ($1.45 each) are available filled with picadillo, aguacate (avocado), lengua, pierna (pork leg), barbacoa, fajitas, [pork] al pastor; and pollo. They also have plates of 3 enchiladas—-your choice of picadillo, pollo, queso—-for $4.50. You can get a 2-meat combo for $5.25. Special plates are also available, such as flautas ($4.99), carne asada ($5.99), parillada ($7.50), and enchiladas a la Tampiqueña ($5.90). To-go chips and salsa are $1.50 (or just $1 in the morning), although they’re free with the meal if you eat in. The chips are store-bought but nice and salty; the thin, spicy red salsa is pleasing. You can also order guacamole for $2 extra and cebollas asadas (grilled onions) for $.99. Tortas, burritos, and tostadas are available, as are posole and a couple of kinds of quesadillas. They offer a couple of aguas frescas along with sodas, juice, and coffee.

I sampled six dinner tacos over a few visits: carne guisada, lengua, al pastor, pierna, aguacate, and barbacoa. (Note: Both corn and flour tortillas are store-bought: the result, as usual, is that the corn ones are better.) The carne guisada was very tender and savory. I enjoyed their version. The pierna, however, is just delicious. As is the case with carnitas, these crispy chunks of pork leg are fried in their own fat. Bits of small, salty squares of pork-fat melt in your mouth when you eat them. The barbacoa was pretty good, too. It had good flavor and nice texture. It’s not made from cow’s head, and I’ve had fattier (hence tastier) versions. I should also note that on my first visit, they must have been scraping the bottom of the barbacoa barrel: The meat was grayish. That’s what I get for ordering barbacoa at 7 P.M. Their aguacate taco was good. They must have given me at least half of a good avocado, along with shredded lettuce and one tomato slice. The tongue was pleasing though perhaps a bit tough. It tasted like the small cubes of tongue had been grilled rather than stewed. The al pastor consisted of crisped morsels of pork, with some chile-powder flavoring but not much citrus. It was a serviceable version. Overall, I felt that TLT's tacos were satisfying.

Breakfast is an even better deal. Breakfast plates are just $2.25 each. For that price you can get huevos rancheros; huevos a la mexicana; and huevos scrambled with your choice of papas, chorizo, nopales, jamón (ham), or tocino (bacon). These plates include beans, potatoes or ham, and 2 tortillas. For those on the go, between 6 and 11 A.M., you can get 3 breakfast tacos for only $1.99. Options are beans and cheese; beans, papas, or huevos con chorizo; huevos con papas, jamón, or tocino; and huevos con nopales. Migas plates are available for $2.99 until 11 A.M. and for $3.99 after. Menudo is $3.99 (one size) and is served with onions, lime, Mexican oregano, and salsa picante.

I’ve always envied current San Antonians for their numerous options for $1.99 huevos rancheros and super-cheap breakfast tacos. Taqueria la Tapatia will now be my Austin source for similar necessities. And for that succulent pierna.

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  1. Used to hit la Tapatia in Houston all the time, and based on your review I tried Austin's version today. Had a pastor and a pierna (both on corn), both were really good! Couple inedible hard bits in the pastor, but that goes with the territory. I'll add that both tacos benefited from applications of salsa; their natural state was tasty, but much improved with slatherings of sauce.

    For the price, this is definitely a solid lunch option. Two tacos left me only a little hungry afterwards. Props to MPH for the recon work!

    3 Replies
    1. re: tom in austin

      tom in austin,

      Glad you liked la Tapatia in Austin. It's a great deal for some pretty solid, tasty food. I always stop to get the three breakfast tacos for $1.99 if I'm driving that way in the morning.

      I, too, remember enjoying the tacos at la Tapatia in Houston. And I hear they're back on track again after a brief downhill turn. But I get the feeling that the one in Austin is unrelated to the ones in Houston of the same name. Was that your impression, too?


      1. re: MPH

        If there is any relation, I can't tell. Other than my love for Mexican food, I'm a gringo, so I couldn't say whether Tapatia is a completely common name for taquerias.

        1. re: tom in austin

          Tapatia(o) is what you call someone who is from Guadalajara so yes it is a very common moniker indeed.

    2. OK, turns out I've been eating tacos from El Mesón Taquería for several months at the office w/o knowing. I'd only had the tacos al pastor, which were (in my opinion) really good.

      I went back with MPH's review in mind and tried some different tacos.

      They didn't have the chicken in mole pipian tacos this time around, so I got a chicken tinga, a cochinita pibil, and a pastor (as a benchmark for taco quality, since I knew in advance that I dig their pastor).

      The chicken tinga was kind of bland and featureless. Not bad, but if this is an indication of the quality of the rest of their stewed or slow-cooked chicken tacos, I'm not blown away.

      The pibil was probably my favorite. Although to help you gauge: one taco into this, I definitely like Curra's version better. I'll try this again; probably many times in the future to better calibrate my tastebuds.

      The pastor was good. Superior to the pastor I get at most places. Which makes me wonder: where is the best tacos al pastor in town? There used to be a trailer on the east side that had amazing pastor, but they disappeared a couple years ago.

      I did not have their corn fungus or whatever that stuff is, and don't intend to.

      Oh yeah! The salsas: the unnaturally orange salsa appears creamy. This is a decent salsa if used sparingly. I still haven't gotten used to it, as it doesn't create the taste combination I'm looking for from tacos al pastor. The red salsa is pretty good; good in a drizzle or in a torrent, depending on your salsa proclivities.

      9 Replies
      1. re: tom in austin

        Tom in Austin asks "where is the best al pastor in town?" Get thee to Rositas on Riverside Drive immediately.The pastor is brick red,crispy yet tender and succulent.It's the best I've found in Austin.

        1. re: tom in austin

          tom in austin,

          It's nice to hear about El Mesón. Until my mission to try all the off-the-beaten-track Tex-Mex places on the east and southeast sides of town is complete, I almost never go back to even the places that I liked, since they’ve already been reviewed.

          I enjoyed hearing what you thought of other dishes at EM. I didn't try their chicken tinga, but I know this dish is not supposed to be bland. It's not supposed to be fiery hot, either, but you should be able to taste the smoky chipotle chiles. El Mesón may have a tendency to under-season their food. For example, I did really like their mole en pipian, but I'll reiterate that its flavoring was very subtle. I initially hated it—and thought it bland—but the depth of flavor became more pronounced as I continued to eat it. In the end, I liked their version so much that I had to order another taco.

          Thanks for your comments on EM's pibil, too. I usually am bored by the way this dish is prepared (and am not a fan of Curra's), so I may continue to pass on this one. I'm sure other 'hounds will benefit from your experience, however.

          I wasn’t too impressed with the al pastor at El Mesón, though I only tried it once. While not perfect, the version served at Al Pastor has been my favorite to date. This is the name of both a taco stand and a restaurant located in the shopping center with a bingo parlor on East Riverside, across from Pollo El Regio. In fact, Rosita's, which scrumptiouschef suggests above, may be the full name of the restaurant: Rosita's Al Pastor. [Perhaps scrumptiouschef can confirm if we're talking about the same place?] Here's an excerpt from my earlier review:

          "TAP specializes in tacos al pastor, obviously. Theirs had more pineapple and citrus flavor than many versions, but I found the meat too dry. I should acknowledge that I only really like the Mexican-market versions of pork tacos al pastor (occasionally you find lamb, too), or pork served in the shepherd's style. There it's basically Mexican schwarma. Long, thin slices of meat are sliced from a large roast of marinated pork cooking vertically on a rotisserie-like spit with a pineapple on the top that drips down on the cooking pork. The kind of al pastor served here is like candied carnitas: bite-sized pieces of pork that are cooked in a skillet, though not in their own fat, from the taste of it."

          Here's the link to that review, in the unnamed part one in this series of reports:

          And did you ever see this thread?

          Local ‘hounds had a lot of good suggestions, which I’m surely but slowly checking out.


          1. re: MPH

            Yes,we are talking about the same place.The full name is Rosita's Al Pastor...I'm gonna swing by there for lunch and see if my memory holds true...

            1. re: scrumptiouschef

              Swung by for lunch and my opinion is now re-validated.Had a great taco al pastor[better called a taquito,it's small by most Mexican restaurant standards]the refried beans were creamy and bespoke a loving relationship between pintos and pork...the guacamole was fresh and tasty and the salsa was good but only to a lover of cilantro[the dominant flavor]service was smiling and rapid.

              1. re: scrumptiouschef

                Made the trek to Al Pastor for lunch on Tuesday. It was awesome.

                The pastor is completely unlike any other I've had; fierce red colors, longer strips instead of cubed chunks. But it ruled. Got one on corn and one on flour. EVERYONE WHO READS THIS AND LIKES TACOS AL PASTOR: GIVE THIS ONE A SHOT. It ain't bad!

                Also had a carne guisada taco on flour. Personally, I really dug it. Just the right amount of melty cheese; this thing really stuck to my ribs.

                Al Pastor is a groovy place. Glad I tried it. I will go back.

                1. re: tom in austin

                  did the al pastor come with pineapple? i find it odd that so *many* places in austin serve al pastor tacos sans pineapple. where's the love?

                  edited: i meant to type "so many", not "so few". brain fart.

                  1. re: yimay


                    This one had little pineapple and onion chunks, actually. And limes on the side to optionally crush over the tacos. Delicious.

                    But if you insist on sans pineapple, El Meson ususally doesn't rock it with the pineapple. I would also guess you could just say, "Hey, chill it out with the pineapple one time."

                    1. re: tom in austin

                      no, i want the pineapple. i made a weird typo. what i meant to say is that i find it odd that so MANY places in austin serve al pastor tacos sans pineapple. i LOVE the pineapple. i will try this place for sure.

            2. re: MPH

              After a strange series of 0-fers, today El Meson finally had chicken mole pipian tacos in the house.

              I am forever changed.

              This is a serious taco. Not for neophytes. It is all-at-once mellow and gutpunching. Immediately bland but on analysis, complex and layered in flavor. This is a rich, ponderous taco.

          2. MPH, thanks for pointing those threads out! Looks like I missed an series of awesome discussions. Tex-Mex versus Interior Mex, for instance. I love interior style, bigtime, but I've got to have Tex-Mex style queso once or twice a week or else life is meaningless. The TM+IM places lure me in by catering to that craving; for example, I'd happily never go to Polvo's or Matt's El Rancho again but for their queso dishes. (Polvo's take on al pastor is particularly mediocre, just in case you haven't tried it.)

            I will make my way to Rosita's / Al Pastor ASAP: this work week for lunch, as I have an errand that will take me that way early in the week. Thanks to you and scrumptiouschef for the tip!

            1. An update: I returned to El Mesón for lunch today after being reminded of it in this new thread about their hours ( ). Everything is just as good as I remember, especially the chicken en mole pipian. This dish consists of moist, large pieces of chicken in that slow-building, complexly-spiced, light-green mole sauce. The corn tortillas are better than I remembered, though smaller: They weren't gummy at all on this visit. Frankly, I don't know why people even order the flour tortillas. And for some reason, several people today were ordering beef fajitas. In my experience, their guisados [stewed fillings] are better than their grilled ones, but to each his or her own.

              They were out of al pastor this afternoon, so I tried the chilorio instead. Chilorio is a dish from the Mexican state of Sinaloa that's usually made from pork that's been slow-simmered until meltingly tender and then fried—kind of like carnitas up to this point—and simmered again in a dried-red-chile-based sauce (usually chiles pasillas). Its also seasoned with the usual suspects (onions, cumin, garlic). To me, EM's version tasted relatively slow-simmered but not fried. I thought their chilorio wasn't bad, but it wasn't great, either. It was very tender, but it was a little on the bland and one-dimensional side, especially in comparison to the mole. I'd like it if they used a fattier cut of pork, too, but at least EM's version didn't taste like it came from a can.

              I'm still not in love with either of their fairly hot salsas, though I prefer the red to the alarmingly day-glo orange one. Even though the red one is weak—as in watery—and needs more roasted tomato and chile flavor, it's about as good as some of the much-hyped salsas at more "mainstream" places in town (like El Gringo and its ilk.) I've never paid for an order of chips at EM, but I did notice that they were frying up large batches of them on-site. That's usually a good sign.

              9 Replies
              1. re: MPH

                I'm 100% with you on their fajitas. Their pipian and pastor are both excellent, much better than their fajitas. (And while their corn tortillas are superior to their flour, the wetter tacos, like the pipian, hold together much better in a flour tortilla.)

                Try their chips sometime: EM's guacamole is made fresh when ordered (in my limited experience), and is probably the best in town. Usually light on the salt, but when you throw that in yourself, you've got deliciousness.

                I'd order the guac-and-chips more if their salsas were better. I know they make them fresh and are proud of them, but the salsas they provide are one of my least favorite things about EM.

                Also, be warned that the enchiladas are made in a microwave, and while they aren't bad, they aren't great.

                1. re: tom in austin

                  Thanks for the feedback, tom in austin. Great timing, too, since I was just thinking of guacamole before I logged on. I've also suddenly realized that I've never tried EM's breakfast tacos. Any thoughts on what I am—or am not—missing?

                  The chips aren't good and the table salsa and overall spicing are much more basic/low-key, but it occurs to me that you might like the enchiladas Guerrero served at Bejuco's, which I recently posted about in a different thread ( ).

                  1. re: MPH

                    When I crave made to order guacamole I head over to El Zunzal,it's made only when ordered.

                    Two styles are available:Estillo Mexicano,Salty w/white onion,lime juice and tomatoes or Estillo Salvadorena,Not as salty and filled with chopped Hard Boiled Egg.

                    The downhill slide over the Winter has abated but the new menu also features new prices.To wit,$2.50 cent Carnita Tacos.

                    AN OUTRAGE.

                    To be sure but very good.My guess is they're slow roasted then finished per order in a very hot oven.Grab a Pupusa Queso and a quart of Regia,delicious crisp Salvadoran Lager.Good eatin....

                    1. re: scrumptiouschef

                      So, I finally got a chance to check out the chow at El Zunzal, scrumptious, and I really enjoyed the experience. Both varieties of guacamole were indeed very good. The estilo mexicano consisted of mashed ripe avocado, tomato, salt, lots of chopped white onion, and maybe a touch of lime juice—but none of the ubiquitous cilantro common to most versions in Texas. No fresh chiles or salsa, either. I didn't miss the extra ingredients; I like guacamole prepared simply. The estilo salvadoreño was made up of mashed avocado, salt, and chopped hard-boiled egg (white and yolk). This seemed like an unusual combination to my dining companions, but I thought it was delicious.

                      Their thin chips are just standard-issue industrial ones; in fact, they kept breaking as I used them to scoop up the guacamole, which I ended up just eating with a spoon. The table salsa (made with dried red chiles) was fairly hot in spiciness but just okay in flavor.

                      As for tacos, I only sampled two fillings: the carnitas and the carne molida. The [pork] carnitas, served with cilantro and onion on a good-quality store-bought corn tortilla, was easily the better of the two. The small, fatty, bite-sized pieces of pork were very crispy. The carne molida was just sautéed ground beef with fairly standard "Tex-Mex" taco seasoning. Their version of this filling wasn't school-cafeteria-type bad, but it was no substitute for the transcendent version at the now-defunct El Rinconsito.

                      The pupusa con queso was really wonderful, as you promised. I could have happily eaten about five more. Theirs looked like these:

                      El Zunzal makes them right. A pupusa is not supposed to be just two corn tortillas with melted cheese in the middle, which is typical of a quesadilla. Traditionally, (ideally, fresh) corn masa is shaped into a ball, the filling of choice is pressed into the dough and completely enclosed within it, and the ball is flattened and then cooked on a comal [griddle] or skillet until lightly browned and blistered. A piping hot, fairly crisp, thin corn-masa exterior molded around deliciously melted white cheese. I wish I'd tried them with fillings of revueltos [often chicharrones, beans, and cheese] and chicharrones [pork rind or skin, like cracklings] as well. They also serve the traditional filling of loroco [an edible flower that grows in El Salvador and other Central American countries whose buds and flowers are popular in all types of regional cooking], which is on my list of things to try at El Zunzal very soon.

                      (I'll also point any interested parties to this lyrical ode to the pleasures of pupusas on the L.A. board: ).

                      Their curtido [Salvadoran condiment, like relish or sauerkraut, that is served with pupusas and meant to go on top of it; however, the majority of the non-Salvadorans in the restaurant tended to approach it as a side dish, like cole slaw] more or less adhered to the traditional recipe of pickled cabbage [purple cabbage, in this case], onions, carrots, and sometimes lemon juice. The cabbage was a bit limp, but I had no complaints.

                      El Zunzal serves many El Salvadoran specialties, including salpicón, a cold salad of shredded beef; yuca frita con chicharrón [fried yuca (or cassava) roots with chicharrones], carne asada, plátanos fritos [fried bananas], and tamales de elote con crema [tamales with a filling of fresh corn that are topped with crema, which is like crème fraîche]. There are many, many inviting foods to explore on that menu! I'll definitely return—many times.

                      1. re: MPH

                        I forgot to add that El Zunzal's menu includes some tempting-sounding desserts, including a (sweet) quesadilla, nuegados de yuca [yuca fritters], budín [bread pudding], and maybe even some type of cake. Empanadas de plátano were the only only dessert available when I visited. Each empanada is made of a scoop of mashed banana encased in sweet batter that's freshly fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Their dessert is not served with sauce.

                        1. re: MPH

                          A Salvadoran Quesadilla... is a type of moist cheese bread... kind of like a fusion of a Cheescake & a Pound Cake.

                          1. re: Eat_Nopal

                            Thanks for the info. That sounds delicious. I'll try to check out this dessert soon and report back.

                    2. re: MPH

                      As for EM's breakfast tacos, My personal favortie is the migas taco. Their sweet corn tortillas and the very simple migas go together very well in my opinion. I usually pair the migas taco with a papa, huevo, y queso. The key here is that the papas are sauteed in butter and quite delicious compared to most versiond of this dish. This taco is better to go because the few minutes it spends wrapped in foil melt the white shredded cheese.

                      I usually eat both of these with lime only added, as EM's salsas aren't to my taste.

                      1. re: MPH

                        Wow! A personal recommendation from MPH! I'll definitely go there and let you know what I think.

                        My favorite breakfast taco is a late (9:45 AM) pastor on corn. Like El General, I love their migas and their potato-egg-cheese. I really like their chorizo, although it is definitely a heartclogger. On a good day, their migas taco is pretty unbeatable.