Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 5
This is the fifth in a multi-part series documenting my mission to try all the off-the-beaten-path authentic Tex-Mex taquerías, taco stands, panaderías, and take-out counters on Austin’s predominantly Hispanic Southeast and East sides. FYI: By Tex-Mex, I mean Mexican-American or Tejano cooking and not what some people call “gringo Mex.”
In this part I’m covering the three Tex-Mex restaurants and one take-out taquería I found on East Oltorf Street between I-35 and Montopolis.
La Terraza Grill and Bar, 1605 East Oltorf at I-35
The comparatively large, sophisticated La Terraza came as quite a shock after all the small mom-and-pop establishments that I’ve checked out in recent months. Adjacent to the La Quinta, LT has all the comforts of dining establishments that cater to tourists: continuous hours for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; a comfortable dining area with plenty of tables, a bar, and a TV; numerous staff members including an on-duty manager, more than one waitress, a bus person; happy-hour beer and margarita specials; and an extensive menu bound in faux-leather. Unfortunately, the food is bad. Do not, for any reason, eat here.
For my meal I had an appetizer of chile con queso. Queso flameado is available, which is made with Monterrey jack cheese, and offered either with poblanos or with chorizo but no poblanos. I forgot to specify which queso I wanted so I received the Velveeta version. The melted Velveeta was very thin, as though it had been watered down, and contained only three small cubes of tomato.
For a main course I had the carne asada, which consisted of grilled strips of beef skirt, bell pepper, and nopales, along with some whole green onions. The skirt steak had a note of spiciness to it, but any flavor from the marinade was negated by the cut of meat. It wasn’t tough, but it was low-grade. The poor quality of the meat gave this dish the flavor-profile of boiled or reheated meat rather than something hot off the grill. I had to force myself to keep eating past the first bite.
The accompanying rice contained a few peas and diced carrot, which can be a nice touch, but it was bland overall. The frijoles a la charra had good flavor. This was one of the better dishes that they cooked on-site. I also ordered some guacamole, which contained tomatoes, onions, and green chiles, which gave it some heat. Since the avocado itself was not perfectly ripe, however, the guacamole was lackluster.
Chips were store-bought and uninteresting. They were served with a thin, watery red salsa made from canned pureed tomatoes, which made the salsa very sweet, though the chiles gave it a spicy undertone. The tortillas were also packaged. Neither the corn nor the flour ones were good, though the flour ones were particularly bad. I kept eating them well past the point of reason because I was trying to figure out exactly why they tasted so revolting. The surface texture was oddly porous, and the tortillas tasted stale. I thought briefly that the tortillas must contain cornmeal, but I’m guessing that they tasted like corn because they were cooked on an overly-hot corn-oiled griddle. The corn tortillas, on the other hand, were merely a little old and hard, with no flavor.
The menu is extensive, with several appetizers that aspire to seriousness (like camarones diablos, which are grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp with jalapeños) and numerous dinner “specialties” of enchiladas, beef, pork, chicken, goat, and seafood, plus chiles rellenos, combo plates, and caldos (including menudo). La Terraza is also comparatively expensive: Tex-Mex and “American” breakfast plates range from $5.50 to $9.99; weekday lunch specials are $5.75 from 11 to 2; dinners hit the mid-teens; breakfast and lunch tacos run from $1.95 to $2.75.
This is by far the worst Tex-Mex on Austin’s east and southeast sides that I’ve had since starting this series. The most flavorful parts of my meal were pre-packaged: The canned strips of nopales that came with the carne asada and the horchata made from a powder. Most of the basics were covered—-badly. That’s worthless to us chowhounds. I was particularly irritated to read, after the fact, that a Chronicle reviewer called this “good” and “affordable,” and suggested how “lucky” hotel guests were to have such a choice nearby. Even if you were a guest at the La Quinta, without a car and with no means to leave the property, you would still be better off ordering something to be delivered.
Super Burrito, 1800 East Oltorf
This more or less recently-opened take-out and drive-through restaurant on East Oltorf seems pretty busy every time I stop by. There are a few tables outside, but many people simply pull up to the window to place their orders. That’s what I did on my visits.
At Super Burrito the meat fillings are all prepared in advance and then re-warmed on the griddle. Thus, the fattier cuts hold up best. I’ve sampled generous tacos of carne asada ($1.75), lengua ($1.75), carnitas ($1.75), and barbacoa ($1.50). The carnitas were not great: The meat was cut in flat one-inch squares and tasted more like a cut-up pork chop than the rich, crisp-yet-tender pork meat that it should be. The barbacoa, however, was pretty good—-crisp on the edges from being warmed on the griddle, and flavorful. The lengua, also cut in flat squares, was moist and tasty. The small squares of round steak in the carne asada did not reheat well; thus, the meat was tough and barely warm. I opted for pico de gallo with the carnitas, barbacoa, and lengua. The carne asada taco came with a pretty good guacamole, but beware of this combination if you are getting your tacos to go. It was a soggy mess when I stopped to eat it. Other taco fillings are available: [pork] adobada, beef, chicken, carne guisada, and fish. I don’t know how all the beef, chicken, and fish are prepared, but I would imagine that stewed filings, like fattier cuts of meat, reheat better than grilled ones. Tortillas are store-bought and unspectacular. The flour tortillas are bigger, but the corn ones are more flavorful. I’d suggest you ask them to double up on the corn tortillas if you order your tacos to go, even if you have to pay extra.
The menu is more extensive than you might think. In addition to tacos and, of course, burritos, they offer enchiladas, flautas, tortas, tostadas, quesadillas, and combination plates. Breakfast plates are served all day and come with potatoes and beans.
Although I much prefer the food at other take-out establishments like Taquería la Tapatia, Abarrotes Mexicanos, and the Piedras Negras trailer, I’ll keep Super Burrito in mind if I need a cool agua fresca and a quick snack on East Oltorf Street.
El Jacalito, 2030 East Oltorf
Like the other two restaurants on East Oltorf, El Jacalito is open all day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They also have a comparatively large bilingual staff, happy-hour specials, and a large menu of Tex-Mex, gringo Mex, and basic "Americn-diner" fare (including pancakes in the morning), which translates into higher than usual prices for this side of town. Daily lunch specials include chicken or beef caldo ($3.95), carne guisada ($5.45), enchiladas verdes ($5.85), and fajitas ($5.85). They offer pozole ($5.45), carne al pastor ($7.50), and seafood specials on Fridays, including catfish, fish tacos, a combo plate, and a shrimp plate—-which looked good, though I didn't try it. In addition to cheap bottled beer during happy hour, they offer agaus frescas and sodas to drink. Customers have been few on the occasions that I’ve dropped by, and they are largely English-speaking. I would have to rate the food somewhere between not bad and okay. Most likely you won’t hate what you order, but it’s not the best, either.
The warm store-bought chips were better than usual, and they were served with a red salsa with a pureed tomato base and enough chiles to provide a slow burn. The guacamole was basic and acceptable. The enchiladas verdes dinner special that I ordered on my first visit came with rice, beans, and tortillas. The grocery-store-issue flour tortillas (on the side, not used to make the enchiladas) were underwhelming. The rice was on the wet, sweet side, with some peas and carrots from a frozen mix. The rice wasn’t bad, but it had that reheated flavor of food that's been microwaved, which does not help the texture of rice. The refried beans had good body but not much flavor (read: shortening). They tasted as if they could have been made from canned beans. The chicken enchiladas had some very good elements: a spicy tomatillo salsa, decent (store-bought) corn tortillas, Mexican white cheese on top. The filling was shredded moist chicken in a spicy tomato-based sauce, which is not how the chicken should be seasoned for enchiladas verdes. It was like they used a salsa ranchera filling but topped the enchiladas with salsa verde. Or they use one kind of chicken filling for everything. Either way, it's not a good approach. The flan is not made in house, which need not be a big deal if the source is good. This flan was pretty uninspiring. Another word of warning: The crispy tacos are made with pre-fab taco shells. On a second visit, I ordered two tacos to go: one carne guisada and one carnitas, on corn tortillas. They were okay, but not great. Most of the flavor of the carnitas came from the garnish of onions and cilantro. The carne guisada was average at best.
This place does a reasonable facsimile of the basics, but as with many places that try to offer all things to all diners, the results are not interesting. Thus, it’s not worth a special trip.
Olmecas, 2121 East Oltorf Street
I’m assuming that Olmecas is named for the great pre-Columbian civilization that lived in modern-day Mexico. If so, they have some work to do before they live up to the achievements of their namesakes. Their food is decent, occasionally good. This is a better choice than El Jacalito for an all-day all-purpose Tex-Mex restaurant on East Oltorf. But the food could be much better.
Like the other two full-service restaurants on this street, Olmecas has a large staff, happy-hour specials, a TV, and a relatively extensive menu. Their few customers were all Hispanic on my two visits. Olmecas offers several aguas frescas, made from a mix and dispensed from automatic machines. (Why is it only the tiny hole-in-the-wall fruterías that make their own from fresh fruit?) There are several menu choices under each category of food—-such as nachos, salads, pork dishes, beef dishes, combo plates, and breakfast plates. Breakfast is served all day.
When I had a late lunch there, I was served a nice, deeply spicy red salsa with a generous serving of their pre-packaged chips. This was brought to me by a very friendly Spanish-speaking young woman; a different young woman (bilingual), who appeared to be a trainee, took my order and brought my food; the bilingual cashier appeared to be a manager or owner. I ordered the carne guisada dinner plate. This was more like an "American-diner" version of beef stew than usual. Diced peas and carrots, along with sautéed mushrooms, accompanied very large chunks of tender meat. The sauce had good heat from the generous use of chiles, in addition to a faint hint of tomato, the usual garlic, etc. I'd say the sauce was the best part of the dish. The meat, however, was a little off. As with any stew, if the meat isn’t browned properly, the beef ends up tasting boiled. Perhaps the chunks of meat were too big (2” long, 1" thick) to brown properly. Plus, it almost tasted as if the beef were cooked separately from the sauce, which always diminishes the overall depth of flavor. The accompanying flour tortillas were small and bad. They buy a particularly lackluster packaged brand. The rice was of the moist variety, with frozen peas and carrots. It didn’t taste of chicken broth at all, but it was okay. The beans had great body and texture, but they tasted vegetarian. The avocado slices that came with the carne guisada were excellent—-perfectly ripe and flavorful.
On another occasion I ordered two tacos--one pierna and one [pork] al pastor—-on corn tortillas. The corn tortillas were also store-bought, but they were better than the flour ones. The pierna filling was fine. It wasn't the best version I’ve had, since the meat was a little dry and a bit too lean, but it was satisfying enough. The al pastor filing was more seasoned than the average version. There were chunks of pineapple mixed in with the bite-sized pieces of pork, though the mix would have benefited from more chiles to balance the fruity sweetness.
I’d try a taco at Olmecas again if I were nearby. Someone at a nearby table, who appeared to be a regular, ordered bean and cheese nachos and a large slice of chocolate cake from their dessert menu. I might try that, too, if I were in the neighborhood. I also might return to sample their breakfast menu. They offered Tex-Mex classics like huevos rancheros, huevos a la Mexicana, chilaquiles, migas, chorizo and egg, nopalitos and egg, ham or sausage and egg. There were also things like omelets on the menu.
This is a friendly neighborhood place that tries to offer everything that people might like—-a large menu, cheap drinks, an air conditioner. There’s something to be said for that. Two of my favorite places, Seis Mesas and Abarrotes Mexicanos, not to mention the taco trucks—-don’t have air conditioning at all. But they serve better-tasting food. For those chowhounds who want to find the most delicious food, I’ll keep on posting about the best of what’s out there on the Hispanic east and southeast sides of town.