Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 10
This is the tenth 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.”
This is the first of two reports on eateries on Montopolis Drive. Although I started from the southernmost end of Montopolis, where it begins at Nickols Crossing, I found no Tex-Mex places until I arrived north of the intersection with East Riverside.
A quick side note: I don’t want to get any informal operators in trouble, so I’ll just say that you should keep your eyes open for the occasional sign advertising pollos asados and carnes asadas that are prepared and sold from various backyard grills. Sometimes sides like frijoles are available; sometimes they just sell the meat. There are a couple of threads that touch on what’s available:
Back to my report. In this part I review one brand-new take-out shop and one well-established small grocery store with a take-out lunch counter.
* Leo’s Tortas y Supertacos, 1706-10 Montopolis
On my first pass down Montopolis, I noticed a sign that said “Ice House Grills.” What on earth does that mean, I thought. Well, I never found out. The sign belongs to another business in La Rosa Plaza, a small shopping center about a block away from the intersection with East Riverside. What I did find, on my second pass, was the brand-new Leo’s Tortas y Supertacos. A small sign in the corner shop said “Open” and another said “Tacos.” That’s all I needed to know.
This is a very small place, with just a few tables and a window that separates the kitchen and the dining room. It’s so new that the menu was still in the prototype stage (handwritten in a spiral notebook). Four friendly members of the ownership and management team were there when I first stopped by, including two young Hispanic guys who were designing the new print menu on a 15-inch super-thin Mac laptop. I learned from the owner that he’d worked at his brother’s place in San Marcos before opening up this shop.
Despite the fact that I arrived there before the place had officially opened, the kitchen had a few dishes prepared that they were good enough to sell me. I sampled two tacos on decent store-bought corn tortillas: one barbacoa and one al pastor. The barbacoa was good—more meaty than greasy or gristly, with that unusual note that I detected in the barbacoa at La Hacienda. (Maybe LH is their barbacoa supplier.) The al pastor was also tasty. The pork meat was of good quality and was also well spiced, though more savory than sweet, with strong notes of red-chile powder and salt. It’s “faux pastor,” in the sense that it isn’t cooked on a trompo. With a can of Dr. Pepper, my bill came to $3.51.
They seem to be set up for take-out, with a bilingual staff and very customer-friendly prices: $1.25 for lunch and dinner tacos (including chicken fajitas and chicharrones) and $.99 for breakfast ones. They will also offer tortas and a few plates, ranging from $4 to $8, if I’m not mistaken. I also noticed that they’ll be offering pork adobado as a taco or torta filling. It will be interesting to see how they prepare it. From what I sampled, the flavors should be pretty good. Slow down as you speed down Montopolis or you might miss out on some good home-cooking brought to you by a very pleasant group of Tejanos.
Follow-Up: I drove by twice in the past few weeks: once around 4 or 5 P.M. and once at noon. Leo’s was closed both times, though the sign is still up. I can only conclude that their grand opening must have been delayed.
*TomGro Grocery, 1313 Montopolis
When I first stopped by TomGro Grocery at 5:45 P.M. one weekday, I found that although the small grocery store and convenience market was open, the lunch-counter was not. I never found any printed information about the hours of operation, but I’d guess that the window of opportunity for breakfast and lunch chow is something like 7 to 2.
When you walk into this busy neighborhood grocery-store, you’ll notice that they have plenty of beer, chips, and other typical convenience-store favorites, along with some Mexican cooking staples (corn husks, dried chiles) and dried goods (like packaged pan tostado and Mexican cookies). The grocery store is always busy, and they seem to do a good job of catering to the area’s diverse clientele.
If you continue past the cashier, on your left, about halfway towards the back of the store, you’ll find a lunch counter where you can purchase basic cold cuts (think bologna), either to go or on a sandwich. A burger special is available for $2.99, with fries and a drink. But the savvy ‘hound will zoom in on the tacos.
Note on ordering: Follow the standard lunch-counter procedure of ordering and picking up at the counter, then paying the cashier on your way out. If you don’t speak any Spanish, don’t worry; they’re used to it. Se habla inglés.
Over a couple of visits, I was able to sample various lunch tacos served on store-bought tortillas. The oiled and doubled-up corn tortillas were quite good, but the flour ones weren’t bad, either. Two salsas are available with the tacos: an avocado-based green one, with a slow but noticeable burn, and a bright, tomato-free orange-red one. Normally, I go for the green salsas, but this one was a bit too thin. It was also somewhat one-dimensional, since the avocado had no flavor. I preferred the red salsa.
carne guisada—Tender chunks of meat in a well-seasoned sauce with strong notes of Mexican cumin and minced jalapeños. Larger strips of soft, canned jalapeños were also present in the mixture. This was flavorful, though not really spicy (which is typical for carne guisada). I try this filling everywhere, and I thought theirs was quite good.
barbacoa—TomGro’s barbacoa was not great, but it was okay with a lot of salsa. Although the shredded beef was taken from a fatty cut, the meat itself wasn’t very flavorful. It did have some spiciness to it, from red chiles, which was a nice change from some of the blander varieties available. The surface of the barbacoa was oddly dry-textured, as if it had been reheated a few too many times on the griddle or in the oven. Although their barbacoa grew on me with each taco, it wasn’t one of the best versions in town. Served with a fresh, chunky pico de gallo.
pork chop—I love a down-home pork-chop taco, seasoned with a liberal dousing of red salsa and plenty of salt. This one was made with a thin, breaded, and fried pork chop that had been deboned and cleaned of gristle and then layered over a generous schmear of refried beans. The beans were a bit dry, but they had been mashed to a good consistency—smooth, but with some body; a few whole beans were mixed in here and there. I couldn’t tell if the beans had been refried with a touch of lard or if the pork chop had just rubbed off on them. However, they definitely weren’t the flavorless vegetarian version. This filling wasn’t as complex or interesting as the slow-cooked ones were. But I do love fried pork. I found this taco to be a well-executed, simple pleasure.
cabrito (a daily special)—I find cabrito, or kid goat, delicious prepared a variety of ways, from charcoal- or flame-grilled to stewed to steam-roasted. At TomGro, the cabrito was prepared like birria. In other words, the cabrito was seasoned with a mixture of chiles, tomatoes, Mexican spices (cumin, oregano, garlic, cilantro), vinegar, and other flavorings. Most likely, it was then covered and steam-roasted in the oven to approximate the traditional pit-cooking method also used for barbacoa. The steam-roasting broth or liquid was available for purchase separately, as a consommé.
I loved their cabrito. The shredded, tender meat was mild-tasting, not gamey as people sometimes expect, and redolent of chiles and other spices after the long, careful slow-cooking. Diced onion and cilantro topped the cabrito. Note: the cabrito is not super-spicy, but that doesn't matter to me as long as it's well prepared and flavorful.
I noticed that TomGro doesn’t offer plates, just tacos. Lunch and dinner tacos (all $1.50 each) include beef and chicken fajitas, but I didn’t try them. Breakfast tacos are $.99 each and include the usual bean-plus-one-ingredient and egg-plus-one-ingredient, along with chicharrones and, of course, barbacoa. Some caldos [hot soups] are available, including menudo. A small costs $3.50 and the large may be $5 (but I don’t remember the exact price). Based on my lunch experiences, I bet their menudo and chicharrones are good, and I hope to try a breakfast taco or two very soon.
I’ve been wanting to check out this place for a long time, based on the recommendations of scrumptiouschef (for example: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/36254... ). Their carne guisada and cabrito were some of the best versions I’ve had in a while, and several other items were good enough to make me want more. I’m adding TomGro to my rotation of regular lunch spots.
Glad to read of your adventures at TomGro...it's been one of my go to spots for awhile now....I'm pretty sure IceHouse Grills sells fancy fronts for your mouth...you could get MPH in glittery gold so you could flash your Chowhound set when you're rolling through the Eastside.
On a different note:Please go to El Centenario,it's on the northeast corner of Manor and Airport....the tacos[beef fajita,bad.al pastor,ok]will not bring me back but the red salsa was DIVINE....hopelessly complex,deep burnt red with a good heat index...but the clincher:unreal flavor.I smuggled some out for carnitas out of my home skillet and fed a couple chef buddies a few nights ago.We were all agog.Humble greatness from a small taco cart in a nightclub parking lot.The cook slipped me a thimble of her refrieds and they were nice and porky with a creamy texture.This woman's menu is clearly deserving of more exploration.
I haven't seen carne en su jugo yet, but I think you'll like TomGro, Nab. And scrumptiouschef, thanks for the tip on El Centenario! I've already added it to my list of places to try. Good salsas are hard to find.
By the way, maybe you could get your own icehouse grill with "scrumptious" emblazoned on it. . .
Honey Bee, the short answer to your question below is: no. I love marranitos. The only good ones that I've had were found at San Antonio panaderías located deep on the Hispanic “west side," which actually isn’t geographically near what is now the western part of the city. I usually like the ones at the new "old" Bedoy's on NW 24th Street (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/320296 ).
A "MPH" encrusted customized grill....niiiiiice.
MPH, I look forward to reading about your culinary adventures and keep a running list of places your review that sound great. Thanks for taking the time to post.
In your travels, have you run across a panaderia that serves a superior marranito (pig shaped giner cookie)? I think they make a great breakfast treat, but the ones I have bought in Austin (La Mexicana, Fiesta, HEB) have all been dry.
Couldn't shake the thought of cabrito outta my head, so I ducked out for an early lunch and headed to TomGro. No cabrito. The whole ride over there, I was dreaming of this, as well as the thought of bringing back a cup of consomme to sip on in my meat-locker of an office. On the other hand, they were offering tripas, so I grabbed one of those and a carne guisada taco.
This might be my favourite guisada that I've tried in town thus far. Nice huge chunks of meat that were very tender and flavourful -- pronounced cumin, otherwise mildly spiced overall, but full of flavour. Not extremely saucy, but what little sauce that was in there was very tasty and, moreover, I haven't really cared for the drippin guisadas I've had elsewhere (perhaps b/c they weren't as flavourful). Also liked that while the meat was very tender, it actually remained in chunks (big ones), as opposed to obliterated into bits or shreds. Just a personal preference for me, I think.
The tripas were a nice mix of charred & crispy, with parts that were also nice and chewy. It was the perfect balance for me, and hit with the red salsa, these were fantastic.
Corn tortillas were quite good, and I too preferred the red salsa over the green. The green was pretty boring as far as these avocado-based sauces go (or is it crema?), and also runny as noted by MPH.
Update: Leo's Tacos y Supertortas is no more. In fact, they may not have ever gotten off the ground, which is too bad because the owner's family seemed very nice and the food (pre-opening) wasn't bad at all. It’s been replaced by Taquería La Bonita, which is the place that I witnessed being hassled by the city, as reported in the thread on the closing of El Regio and La Regiomontana (http://www.chowhound.com/topics/543309 ).
There's no posted information on the hours at La Bonita, and no one seemed to be in the mood to divulge business details. That was okay by me. The ambience is pretty stark: white walls, no plants, just a small TV in the corner. There's only one table plus a counter with some barstools against the windows. There’s no air conditioning, either. There is a menu on a white board hand-written in blue lettering that's faded so much that it's hard to read. The small kitchen has an order-up/pass-through window, which I began to approach, but the young woman came out to ask for my order. While waiting for my food, I watched the Spanish-language news with the one other customer. I had ordered a quesadilla filled with puerco al pastor and a taco of bistec [beef steak]. It took about 10 minutes for my food to be prepared. The quesadilla ($6.99) was the better of the two options. It was made with faux al pastor [by which I mean: not cooked on a spit] and a mild white cheese (probably Monterrey jack) on a grocery-store-type flour tortilla. Yet the fatty pork filling was flavorful enough from the use of chiles and other spices. My quesadilla was served with avocado slices and the iceberg-lettuce-and-chopped tomato mixture that often counts as salad in this context. There were also two condiments on the plate: a scoop of sour cream on one side and scoop of something red on the other. What a strange consistency for salsa, I thought. What could this be? Unfortunately, it was ketchup. Yes, ketchup. I covered it with a napkin so that I could pretend it wasn't there and finished my quesadilla. I *was* served salsa on the side. I just was also offered ketchup. The bistec taco was at best mediocre, even doused with their workman-like red and green salsas and a hefty dash of salt. It tasted like boiled beef. Mejor che nada [better than nothing], as they say, but not worth ordering again. This taco was served on doubled-up, non-oiled, store-bought corn tortillas that were better than I expected—especially after the shock of being served ketchup. But the tortillas couldn't make up for the filling.
In the spirit of complete chowhound honesty, I will share that I was overcharged big time for the taco. When I was ready to pay, I was told that the bill came to $10. The quesadilla cost $6.99, which is already on the expensive side, so you can see why I was perplexed by this. Some polite discussion followed, and I was then quoted the right price. I still left a tip, too. I figured that the run-in with the Man must have shaken up the young woman who handled the orders. Still, I've eaten tacos all over town in some pretty surprising places. This was the first time that I’ve been overcharged.
La Bonita’s taco options are pretty much limited to steak, fajitas, and al pastor. They don't serve tortas, despite having taken over the space briefly occupied by Leo's. I noticed that they do offer several seafood dishes, which I didn't sample. They might be quite good. While I wish this restaurant well, I don't think I'd make a point of stopping there again if the menu stays the same. There are other places nearby (like Janitzio) where I prefer to go for seafood dishes, and plenty of places offer better tacos and quesadillas.
TomGro (probably my most frequented weekday lunchspot) recently added 'faux pastor' (no spit) to their menu. Puerco bathing in a deep red & flavorful marinade prior to getting just enough time on the flat-top to get a nice balance of char and juicy chew. It's a pretty good version, of which there are very few in town (good versions, that is).