Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 8
This is the eighth 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. I’m using the term Tex-Mex to refer to Tejano or Mexican-American cooking. I’m not focusing on what some people call “gringo Mex.”
In this part I’m covering two more places on East Riverside: one restaurant and one meat market with a take-out section.
Taquería Arandinas, 2110 East Riverside
I should start by noting that, despite the similar name, Arandinas is not linked to the Taquería Arandas mini-chain. With locations on North Lamar, West William Cannon, and Reinli, the Arandinas mini-chain of Tex-Mex/Mexican restaurants is obviously doing fairly well. After my visits, I was forced to conclude that this has less to do with food quality than with this branch’s late hours. They’re open until 3 A.M. during the week and 4 A.M. on weekends.
For eat-in purposes, you have a choice of a medium-sized square-shaped dining room and a fenced-in outdoor patio that resembles, eerily, a cage at the zoo. While the printed menu is bilingual, many staff members are not. Yet it should be easy enough for anyone to place an order. Arandinas offers tostadas, tacos, enchiladas, gorditas, nachos, sopes, quesadillas, a few varieties of caldos (including menudo and pozole), tortas, and burritos. House-specialty plates include parillada, chiles rellenos, steak milanesa, carne asada, and flautas. Breakfast plates ($2.49) and tacos ($.90) are available before 11 A.M. During that time, you can also get 3 of the same kind of breakfast tacos for $1.99. After 11, breakfast tacos are still available, but for $1.40 each, while plates go for $3.75.
I tried a variety of non-breakfast tacos ($1.50 each), on flour and corn tortillas. When the tortillas are store-bought, I almost always go with corn, but I should point out that their store-bought flour tortillas were not bad. They were small (6” in diameter), shortening-rich, and slightly thicker than the store-bought norm. They reminded me of the flour tortillas packaged under the brand-name La Mejor. The tacos came with a watery red salsa made from fresh tomatoes and a forgettable (literally) green salsa.
Taco fillings sampled:
Pierna (pork leg)—It’s hard not to like any version of pierna, which is usually small pieces of crisp, fried, fatty pork leg. At Arandinas, the pierna was cut into tiny sqiglets of mostly pork fat and then over-fried almost to the point of blackness. The pierna had a pleasing crunch, but it was neither meaty nor flavorful, and there was no discernible seasoning. I ate it, of course, but this filling was not very good.
Lengua (tongue)—The lengua at Arandinas was likely just boiled in plain water until tender, as it had no discernible seasoning. However, since tongue is a rich cut of meat, it had a good flavor on its own. Sliced length-wise into long, thin strips, their very tender lengua was tasty.
Chicharrones (fried pork skins)—This was easily the best of the fillings that I sampled. The rich pork-skins had a springy texture and were cooked in a nicely-spicy sauce of tomatoes, onions, and dried red chiles. A good version of the taquería classic.
Barbacoa—The barbacoa was of the very cheap and greasy roast-beef variety, and I don’t mean that in a good way. It didn’t have much flavor, either in terms of seasoning or the quality of the beef. Not good, but perhaps okay.
Carne guisada ($5.95)—Arandinas does a very soupy version of carne guisada. The dominant flavor came from the mild sauce that was made, again, with dried red chiles, though there were pieces of onion and jalapeño floating around in there, too. The few overly-large chunks of beef were dry and flavorless, like the meat had been boiled for too long or had been reheated one too many times.
The beans had a good consistency and perhaps a touch of lard, but they weren’t great. I didn't finish them. Like many other items, the rice was seasoned with dried red-chile powder, which made it redder than most versions that don’t contain any tomato. Oddly, the rice was still not spicy, and its texture was hard and dry. Both rice and beans tasted like they had been reheated in a microwave.
I wanted to try a taco with sesos [beef brains], but they didn’t have any that day. You almost never see these on a menu here in Austin. Oh well. While I didn’t get to sample the breakfast items or caldos at Arandinas, I wasn’t excited enough about anything to warrant another visit. With the exception of the taco with chicharrones, the chow was pretty disappointing.
This would be a good sit-down restaurant to hit at 2 A.M., since the chow is better than what’s served at the many mediocre diners open at that hour. However, in my opinion, it’s not a chow-worthy destination in and of itself.
La Hacienda Meat Market, 2410 East Riverside Drive
On the other hand, this *is* a chow-worthy destination. La Hacienda is a meat market with several locations, along the lines of La Michoacana Meat Market. Everyone seems to speak Spanish at LH, and the clientele is chiefly Hispanic, too. Thus, they have some good deals on staples for Tejano and Mexican cooking, like non-hydrogenated fresh lard, tortillas, beans, and dried chiles. They also have a limited selection of produce like tomatillos, cilantro, and tropical fruits (papayas, plantains, coconuts). There’s a case with pan dulce, too, but nothing that I’ve tried has been noteworthy. The bolillos are quite affordable (it costs like $1.00 for 3 large ones), but they’ve very soft and bland.
When I revisited recently, I initially thought I’d walked into the wrong place. La Hacienda has been redone to look more user-friendly and upscale. They’ve just begun, though, so parts of the store (like the meat counter) still look totally bare-bones, like many urban grocery stores. The take-out area near the meat market has a few tables behind it now, and the main check-out line has been retrofitted with a long, neutral-toned counter.
Belly up to that check-out counter to pay for your tacos in advance (they range from about $1.40 to $1.65 each), then take your ticket to the lady behind the food counter, and just order/point/grunt your way into taco heaven.
I suggest you begin with the carnitas, which are large chunks of rich, fatty pork-meat that are first boiled and then fried in their own pork fat or lard. LH’s version was a bit dry from sitting under a heat lamp all morning, but the crisp-yet-tender pork was still delicious and flavorful. This was one of those times when you want the sensation of the first bite to last forever. My only regret was that I’d ordered only two of these tacos.
Another good option is any of their guisados [stewed fillings]. When I've been there, the choices have included pollo, lengua, puerco, carne, bistec, and nopales [prickly-pear cactus paddles]. In the pollo guisado, slow-cooked, shredded chicken was flavored with Mexican spices (pepper, oregano. cumin, garlic, onion, a touch of vinegar) and thin strips of chiles verdes. The resulting taco filling was spicy and very good. I also tried the puerco guisado, which was milder but still spicy. The small pieces of pork were cooked in a tomato-based sauce with slices of green chiles. The meat was pretty tender, for stewed pork, and not bad at all.
Their version of al pastor consisted of nice, fatty pieces of sautéed pork that were a bit on the tough side. There was a very subtle hint of dried-chile seasoning, but no citrus or sweet notes. This was okay, but I wouldn’t order it again.
Barbacoa is always a good option at a meat market, since it’s often made on the premises. LH’s barbacoa was certainly tender and flavorful, with interesting notes of unusual—for me—spices. I could swear they've added allspice. Or anise. This was not the down-and-dirty greasy San-Antonio-take-out-shop version like the one at Don Luis or the authentic cow’s head barbacoa that they offer at La Monita. But I liked it. Just not as much as I liked their carnitas.
La Hacienda usually offer tripas [tripe] as a filling, but they were out the day I tried to order it. All tacos are available on store-bought flour or corn tortillas. I went with corn. Two kinds of salsa are available, of which I preferred the green, avocado-based one. All of the meats are available as plates or in tortas, too. Some soups are also available, and you can buy barbacoa by the pound.
I had to force myself to go to a different restaurant the day after my most recent visit to LH. I was really craving a carnitas taco, and I want to try each and every one of their guisados. I’d also like to hit the meat counter next time and buy a pound of their version of bulk chorizo. That way, I can make chorizo con huevo at home (which is the only way to make sure the egg-to-chorizo ratio is done right.) For those chowhounds who love the kind of experience that I've described, La Hacienda is definitely worth a special trip.
Postscript: I was going to review a fruiteria in the same shopping center as La Hacienda, but it seems to have disappeared between my first and second visits. It was called Frutas Locas. If you’ve seen it elsewhere on the east side, please let me know.
What really catches my attention here are your mention of the barbacoa and the guisados at La Hacienda. I've been thinking about these two in particular lately, and the fact that I rarely find good versions of either, despite my inclination to order them when I see them.
More often than not, I find guisados to be a rather flavourless stew of a rather lifeless meat. Along the same lines, I find barbacoa to often lack any flavour of any kind, and usually not utilizing any part of the cow/goat/lamb that is interesting in and of itself (ie. cabeza). I always have optimistic hopes that the guisado I order will be spiced aggressively/interestingly and that the barbacoa will taste like it was wrapped in banana/agave leaves with spices and cooked in a pit imparting some smoke. Both tend to taste like nothing in particular. They're always b-o-r-i-n-g.
The fact that both of these seem to be stand-outs at La Hacienda excites me. Any other noteworthy mentions of these two taco styles in town ?
For barbacoa, I have friends that love what is served at Jardin Corona in Cedar Park and order it regularly - I think it's by the pound (specifically the location in Cedar Park - they have at least two other locations). I'm not expert on either the Barbacoa or Guisadas, although I have enjoyed both.
The barbacoa at La Hacienda is pretty good, but my favorites can be found at Don Luis (for a greasier San-Antonio-style barbacoa) or La Monita on East 7th (the cow's head variety). As for guisados, the spiciest one I've had lately was the pollo guisado at La Hacienda, described above.
Guisados are supposed to be well seasoned, just like the best versions of stewed beef or chicken at U.S. diners or Texas "country-cooking" cafes, but they are often mild in terms of heat. I think of them, ideally, as very flavorful comfort food.
On the whole, San-Antonio-style Tejano-Tex-Mex is not really spicy. The Austin norm is based on S.A.-style, as is the Tejano-Tex-Mex in Corpus Christi and other towns that are more or less near S.A. I can’t speak to what’s served deep in south Texas, as it’s been years since I’ve been to the Valley. West-Texas-style Tejano-Tex-Mex, on the other hand, is really hot. It’s modeled more on New Mexican cuisine. The hottest puerco en chile verde that I’ve ever had—in Texas—was enjoyed at the Mexican restaurant down the road from Balmorhea State Park. It was delicious, but I was also in pain the whole time.
If you want a really spicy, sauced, barbacoa plate here in town, order the tacos bañados at La Regio Montana on East Riverside. The tlaquepaque sauce they use will burn a hole through the back of your head, but the tacos are so delicious that you'll keep eating them anyway. See this thread for details: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/367316
Thanks for the suggestions both MPH & Rene.
Interesting to learn about the different Tejano Tex-Mex varieties. While I do wish my guisados were spicier, I don't wish the same onto barbacoa at least in the scoville-sense, which is why I particularly find LH's curious, with their use of allspice (or anise).
Another thing when it comes to guisados is that I need to remember to order tortas of this kind more often. I think I prefer eating guisado on a good bread instead of tortilla. Something about a stew-soaked sammich, maybe it reminds me of sloppy-joes of my youth.
Hey MPH, these reviews are really fantastic. Only problem is, after 15 minutes I was unable to find all of the entries in your series -- I only found #7 and #8. (The search feature on this site isn't the world's best!)
Would it be too much trouble to ask if you could paste in links to all of the entries? I'm looking to do more exploration of these types of hole-in-the-wall Mex joints, there are just so many to explore that trying to do it at random is a very daunting task!
OK, I just tried using google and found them myself in about five seconds :). I'll link for everyone's benefit (and to share you the trouble).
1 - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/93175#511775
2 - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/93317
3 - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/304594
4 - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/304597
5 - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/328326
6 - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/358425
7 - http://www.chowhound.com/topics/367316
Thanks for finding those old reports and posting their links, tastegood.
I just now saw your post, or I'd have tried to do the same thing you did: use Google to track them down. I'll be glad when chowhound's search-function is fixed. It used to be fairly simple to search for all posts by any particular author.
Let us know if you find any good holes-in-the-wall around town.
Thanks, rudeboy, for the info on that other Frutas Locas. I'll have to try it, once I finish up with the east side. And scrumptiouschef, I thought I remembered reading that you loved LH’s carnitas, too. I'm going to try to buy the meat by the pound the next time I'm there. Eating that many carnitas tacos will take me straight to hog heaven. . . one way or another.
The first time I ate at La Hacienda a few months ago I swore it would be my sole source for Mexican food for at least a month...I stuck by my words....not much to add to MPH's exhaustive review. Out of the items I tried the Carnitas definitely starred the show...among the best I've ever sampled and at the top of the food chain for Austin dining.