Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 9
- MPH Apr 7, 2007 12:48 PM
This is the ninth 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 finish up with the last two places on East Riverside and will now move south on Montopolis and Pleasant Valley in search of more deliciousness [with some advance guidance from scrumptiouschef]. In this installment of the series I review one restaurant with its own taco truck and one taco truck with its own unusable restaurant.
[Rosita’s] Al Pastor, 1911 East Riverside Drive
Located in the shopping center with the Bingo parlor near the intersection of Royal Crest Drive, Al Pastor is a friendly place, though you can’t tell when you walk up to it because the interior is hidden by the silver-colored reflective lining on the front windows. The medium-sized dining room is shaped like a square, with a large TV in the far right corner and a to-go counter in back. Although much of the staff speaks Spanish, non-Hispanic customers are not unusual here, especially at lunch.
Al Pastor is, as you might expect, well known for their tacos al pastor, which is their best dish, but I sampled a range of other offerings over a few visits.
The housemade flour tortillas at Al Pastor are one of the two best versions that I’ve had in Austin (the other can be found at Don Luis) . Of course, even the best flour tortillas in Austin taste mediocre compared to the best in San Antonio. Nonetheless, the thick and tender tortillas at Al Pastor are usually good, although I’ve had them when the flour-to-shortening ratio has been off, producing tortillas with a gummy interior and an overly-floury exterior—likely the result of adding a ton of flour when working the too-sticky dough. That time I ended up with a handful of dusty residue. It tastes like AP uses Crisco as their shortening, not lard or bacon grease. Thus, overall flavor is lacking, but the tenderness, size, and texture of the tortilla are fine. Their corn tortillas are not as good, so I almost never order them.
The chips are of the awful store-bought variety. They have also been slightly stale on a few visits. The fresh-tomato-based salsa with green chiles and cilantro is watery but hot; likewise, the avocado-based green salsa was quite spicy. Due to the poor quality of the base ingredients (tomatoes and avocados, respectively), neither salsa was very good. The guacamole was of the type seasoned with cilantro, tomato, and onion. There was no citrus flavor to it. The use of ripe but flavorless avocados produced a bad version of this dip.
As for sides, the refried beans seem to have a touch of bacon grease in them, though they could use a lot more. They have good texture as well and only need a little salt to be pretty good. The rice contains both diced carrots and pickled chiles. There was no chicken-broth flavoring or salt, and the texture was on the wet side. The rice was fair.
Carne guisada—I eat tacos with this filling all the time, and most of the time the carne guisada is just so-so. It was just so-so at Al Pastor, too. The small pieces of meat were very tender, and there was a lot of “gravy,” but there was nothing outstanding about this dish. If you order tacos with carne guisada, make sure to ask them to hold the lettuce and tomato. I didn't, and found it pretty gross to have limp lettuce mixed in with my guisado.
Lengua guisada—The tongue was tender but not seasoned: just plain, small cubes of boiled tongue.
Al pastor—A few of us have discussed the al pastor at this restaurant in earlier threads (for example, see: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/30459... ). I’ve also covered this subject in my review of the taco stand in the same parking lot, that has the same name and is run by the same folks, in the first installment of this series:
Here I’ll just say that theirs is the best of this type of “faux pastor” because they use more flavorful seasonings (chile and citrus), along with chunks of onions and pineapples, plus slices of green peppers, in the dish. I use “faux” as a neutral descriptor to describe “al pastor” meat that is not cooked on a trompo [vertical spit], since “al pastor,” or shepherd’s style, specifically refers to the use of the spit. When the same cut of meat is instead sautéed or cooked on a griddle, technically it’s puerco adobado. However, it’s referred to as “al pastor” all the time.
Chicharron—The texture of these pork rinds was too soft for my tastes, and though chiles were present, there was no heat. Very bland and wet.
Picadillo—This consisted of loose ground meat such as you might find seasoned with a “taco mix.” They did not use a mix to season their picadillo; however, it was very plain.
Chorizo con huevo—This was okay, though there was not enough chorizo and too much egg. In addition, the chorizo was rather flavorless.
Chorizo con frijoles—The lackluster quality of the chorizo was more apparent in this simple taco (as the eggs, which add more flavor than the beans do, mask the sausage a bit). This was not a good version of the classic dish.
Barbacoa—This was of the greasy, shredded, cheap-roast-beef variety. Greasy does not equal good, in this case. Still, this was more flavorful than any other filling besides the al pastor.
The Al Pastor restaurant is among the better large, full-service, eat-in taquerías with continuous hours that I’ve covered so far in this series, though they're not great at many things. For me, the al pastor is the only dish here that really stands out.
El Taquito, 500 East Riverside Drive
Note: I’m not sure if there’s any connection between this taco trailer and the El Taquito Express at 9316 North Lamar or the place in Pflugerville.
As I pause to consider some of my favorite spots since starting this series—La Hacienda, Taquería Piedras Negras, Abarrotes Mexicanos, La Regio Montana, El Regio, and now El Taquito—I realize that I’ve had what I consider the very best Tejano/Tex-Mex chow at meat markets, take-out spots, and taco trucks. Only a handful of the “restaurants” were really remarkable: Seis Mesas was my favorite (and it’s the smallest, almost like a take-out counter), though El Meson, Janitzio, and Al Pastor have some very good options, too.
On to the chow.
The tortillas used for all tacos at El Taquito are store-bought, but the corn ones are good, if a little thin. They don’t automatically double up on tortillas when making the tacos, but you might want to pay extra for this, especially if you get your tacos to go. Otherwise, they can get a little soggy. All tacos come with cilantro and onion unless you request otherwise.
My favorite taco was the tripitas. The crunchy bits of fried, chewy tripe tasted great with some hot salsa. Granted, tripe is an acquired taste, and it is not for everyone. I, however, loved their version of this dish.
I also enjoyed their carnitas taco. Their version consisted of shredded pork with a nice, fatty flavor. The pork wasn’t crispy, though maybe it had been originally. While not on the same level as the carnitas tacos at La Hacienda, these were nonetheless quite satisfying.
Other taco fillings included a savory version of al pastor that was not sweet, spicy, or citrus-y, but was flavored with a touch of vinegar and a good dusting of brownish-red chile powder. These seasonings are much like the ones used in San-Antonio-Tejano-style chorizo. Lastly, their standard barbacoa tacos were the good kind of fatty and greasy. These tasted very good with a shot or two of their green salsa.
I met someone there who was from McAllen and apparently drives down from UT several times a week because he considers El Taquito's tacos amongst the best in town. Other folks who live or work on the east side seem to agree. So do I. This is my idea of a solid, fall-back taco source with down-home good, traditional taco fillings—like the barbacoa, al pastor, carnitas, tripitas, picadillo, and bistec—plus something called a “gringa”—all for $1.49 each. I didn’t get to try their breakfast tacos, but I will soon.
Behind this taco truck is a brick-and-mortar restaurant of the same name that has been completed for a long time. Despite the “Opening Soon” banner, I’ve heard that the owners of the taco truck—and the fully-furnished restaurant—are not close to opening it. Apparently, this is due to permit issues. It’s too bad, too, because their chow is really good, unlike the junk served across the street at established restaurants Taquería Puerto Vallarta and Baby A’s.
I found out that the neighborhood association had been trying to shut this place down back in 2002, but the owners of El Taquito got a permit to continue to operate as a trailer (http://mjl.kellogg.home.att.net/nuzju... ). I can’t help but wonder if similar issues are tying up the permit process. If you have any pull with City Hall, or just know something about permits, maybe you can help these people. Their success would benefit us chowhounds, too.
Another great report...only thing to add is La Reyna is still my favorite source for scratch flour tortillas...sometimes they are great but they are always good.Looking forward to the severe scouring Montopolis and her nether regions MPH is about to get down on.Please find a place I've never been....
"It tastes like AP uses Crisco as their shortening, not lard or bacon grease.", "the refried beans seem to have a touch of bacon grease in them"
The detail you include in your reviews makes the rest of us sound like Neanderthals!
Great reviews as usual MPH, but you indicate that Al Pastor serves faux pastor, when they do in fact use a trompo, you can see it in the kitchen when you are paying. That's why these are drier and not stewy like other faux pastors.
Thanks for the info, chuckles. I'm glad to hear that they're doing their al pastor on a vertical spit, and I happily take back its characterization as faux pastor. I once thought I saw a trompo in their kitchen, but there was nothing on it (maybe it was off for the day). The bell pepper and onion slices in their version of al pastor—which threw me off—must be separately sautéed and then added to chopped-up pork that’s been cooked on the trompo.
I’ll see what I can do with Montopolis, scrumptious, but it sure is hard to find a place that you’ve never been before!
Like Diane Arbus there is nothing I'd rather do than go a place I've never been...preferably to eat.Not sure if you've been yet but Ray's Barbecue on Montopolis[though not Mex or Tex Mex]would be a decent place for you to start your journey.His brisket is very good,obviously ask for the fatty cut and soon enough ol Ray will fire up his electric slicer and get busy.His sides are desultory but the man knows his way around a pit.
I finally tracked down a taco truck that I’d first seen and described in this thread on favorite food trailers that was started by scrumptiouschef:
It turns out that this truck only comes out at night. Since it’s usually parked between the two spots on East Riverside that I covered in this report, I’m adding an addendum to this old report.
Note: There’s a place by the same name located on 620, but I have no reason to think it’s connected to the place on East Riverside. Rodriguez is a very common surname.
Taquería Rodriguez, 1729 East Riverside, at Parker Lane
Located in the parking lot of Riverside Grocery, at the intersection of East Riverside and Parker Lane, Taquería Rodriguez has been in the taco-selling business for 25 years. Their late-night hours of 6 P.M. to 3 A.M. seem designed, in part, to appeal to the late-night-club-hopping crowd. Other aspects of the business likewise seem aimed at non-Hispanic late-night customers, such as the printed bilingual menu and even some of the “gringo combos,” as they’re labeled on the menu. I think this category includes things like tacos made with al pastor and cheese for $2.50. These tacos are more expensive than the standard ones, too.
When I stopped in on two recent evenings, the women working in the trailer were very busy, but nice. The truck is within sight of nearby El Taquito, which has a smaller menu. The TR menu includes al pastor, fajitas, carne asada, nopalitos, frijoles, and tostadas. Excluding the “gringo” category, taco prices range from $.99 to $1.99.
I ordered all tacos on good store-bought corn tortillas, which were doubled up and oiled before being filled. The flour tortillas, which I didn’t sample, were also store-bought. Cilantro and onion are available as condiments without a fee. Avocado is $.25 extra, per taco. An okay red salsa that was not centered on chunks of fresh tomato and cilantro, but more of a chile-based one, came with my orders.
Taco filings sampled:
Carne guisada ($1.50)—The version at Taquería Rodriguez was just run of the mill or so-so: plain, not-too-tender but not tough beef that had been stewed with a touch of spices but had no real flavor besides the cilantro and onion that are added to every taco, unless you request otherwise. This was quite blah.
Barbacoa ($1.50)—This was the best of the fillings I sampled. It was greasy but good, and tasted good on its own.
Picadillo ($.99)—TR’s picadillo was just depressing after the carne molida at Taquería el Rinconsito. It was just ground beef with maybe some cumin added to it, besides salt and black pepper. There were a few peas and diced tomato pieces in the mixture as well. This wasn’t awful; it was just dull. It reminded me of cheap Tex-Mex platters that feature picadillo just like the kind with the Ortega “taco seasoning” added to standard grocery-store beef.
Chicharrones ($.99)—I often like these when they’re prepared with a spicy, red- or green-chile-based salsa. This filling consisted of just warm, salty, slippery pieces of plain chicharron. They were cut into thin, small squares (1/2” x 1/2” x 1/8”). Often, they give you the entire cross-section or round, if you will, but not here. After I added a ton of red salsa to the taco, it tasted better. But I much prefer the chicharrones at Taquería el Rinconsito, Don Luis, and Taquería Piedras Negras—probably in that order.
Tripitas ($1.99)—These weren’t bad. They just had the flavor of tripe, so you have to like that. They were a bit gritty from excess flour before the frying process, but it wasn’t disturbingly dusty. I think El Taquito’s are better.
I’ll probably check out different options at some point, but honestly, with El Taquito right next door, Taquería Rodriguez likely won’t become a target destination for me. Some owners of taco trucks are true artists. Some run taco trucks that sell convenience food—with many different choices, at more or less comparable prices—to a wider audience. It seems to me that TER is the latter type of taco truck.
When I was shut out of El Regio and La Regiomontana yesterday, I went by the new restaurant version of El Taquito. Despite the fact that the place still looked like a lunch rush had stampeded through there, the dining room was inviting. When I went by, the other guests consisted of three Hispanic families with young children and a couple of male workers on their way home. The design of the building suggests that it used to be a fast-food restaurant, but at least there are a lot of windows. Most of the walls are painted in bright yellow, with one wall in a lime green. There are black tables with chrome chairs throughout the dining room, with two TVs in different corners of the room. There are also a few outdoor tables that would be a nice option in cooler weather, since the restaurant is set back from the road. There’s plenty of parking available, too.
When you enter the restaurant, there will be a hallway to your right where the restrooms are located. If you’re ready to order, however, proceed straight to the counter. The menu is written above the register; there are also a couple of signs and a small board with additional items. You place your order at the counter for both dining in and take-out. Once you pay, you will be handed an itemized receipt with a number on it that will be called when your chow is ready. The friendly young woman who worked at the counter is completely bilingual. There’s a small salsa “bar” at one corner of the counter. The kitchen is open, so you can watch the young women at their work. One was prepping a small mountain of tripitas; one was chopping up twice as much fresh cilantro, and one was in charge of the grill.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until *after* placing my order that I remembered how much I love their crispy tripitas [which are like chitlins]. Really, El Taquito’s are the best ones in town. [For background on tripitas, see: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/524884 ]. Instead I went with two taco fillings that I’d tried before: the barbacoa and the carnitas. I ordered them on corn tortillas again, and the fillings hadn’t changed at all, so the above description in my OP [original post] still applies. That’s not a bad thing, since so many places go downhill. I will say that I appreciated the barbacoa even more this time, but this may be because it’s been a long since I’ve had it. I also tried a third taco of deshebrada that I believe was shredded pork, not the beef that’s more commonly served around here. This taco was solid, possibly even soulful, though a bit on the dry side. Still, it was a decent choice. Now that the restaurant lets you serve your own salsa, you can add plenty of flavor to any tacos that need it. ET makes, in house, a slightly chunky version of the standard fresh-tomato-based red table salsa with green chiles, onion, cilantro, salt, and usually a good squirt of lime (or sometimes vinegar) . El Taquito’s salsa had good flavor, good body, and good heat, but it also was well balanced. There was a thin, sour green salsa, too, but it was not memorable. FYI: If you want cilantro and onion on your tacos, just order them “con todo” [with everything]. In this case, “everything” is really just those two items. The type of tortilla you order and the way you want your tacos will be printed on your ticket, too, so you can make changes, if necessary, before your food is served. The tacos that I ordered cost $1.59 each.
El Taquito’s menu is pretty much the same in terms of taco fillings, but since opening their brick-and-mortar store, they’ve added a new menu of quesos. You can choose from quesos con rajas [with strips of poblano], con nopales [cactus], con champiñones [mushrooms], con jamón [ham], con chorizo, or queso fundido [like Mexican fondue, made from a mix of melted cheeses]. There’s also a small blackboard with additional items like guacamole, beans a la charra, aguas frescas [“fresh waters,” ideally made with real fruit, not a powder], and menudo, plus daily-special plates of enchiladas (with a chicken or cheese filling) or taquitos. When I visited, the available aguas frescas were horchata [the cinnamon rice-milk drink], melón [cantaloupe], or piña [pineapple]. The melón was so refreshing. I could have easily finished off a gallon of it, but I settled for one glass (for $1.62).
Considering how hard the city and the neighbors make it for taco trucks to even exist, it’s nice to see a taco truck that’s become so successful that the owners were able to open their own restaurant. This is a great development for their customers—and for savvy chowhounds who know better than to waste their money at the lame Taquería La Vallarta Jalisco across the street (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/358425) or the truly dreadful Baby A’s.
I had barbacoa for the first time last night, at Jorge's on Hancock. I'm hooked! I'm not sure what it's meant to taste like, but this was of the non-greasy, almost brisket-like variety, accompanied by chopped raw onions and fresh cilantro. I'm already looking forward to having it again!