Tex-Mex on Austin's Southeast and East Sides, Part 13
This is the thirteenth 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.”
My fellow chowhounds, I have hit the taco-truck motherlode.
This report covers food options at La Pulga, a weekend-only flea market behind the "El Gran Mercado" shopping center at 1500 South Pleasant Valley Road at Elmont Drive. By my count, there were maybe 15 to 20 food trucks and trailers there this past weekend, none of which I'd seen before in my previous explorations around town. (There may be more, when the weather's better.) These trucks were selling main courses such as carnitas, gorditas, tortas, and tacos; beverages like licuados and jugos; snacks such as cocteles [fruit cups] and elotes [delicious grilled corn with chile and cheese]; bags of fried chicharrones; Central-American chow like Salavdoran pupusas and Honduran food; and that interesting Southwest U.S.-Sonoran hybrid called "Mexican hot dogs." And much more. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
For those of us who love good, simple, traditional Tex-Mex, Mexican, and Central-American chow, the food opportunities will be the main attraction. The flea market, of course, also sells clothing, Tejano music, toys, shoes, produce, and plenty of other new items such as you might find at a Super Walmart or similar store. However, here, patrons purchase what's needed while socializing and feasting in a Spanish-speaking commercial and cultural zone. It feels a little bit like a street market in another country, but not that "exotic" and unfamiliar. The potential to learn about new foodstuffs, traditions, and foodways, however, is just as high.
Because of the wealth of options available, I wanted to share the good news with my fellow taco-truck-loving chowhounds as soon as possible. I haven't hit all the food trucks. In fact, it would take me months to do all of them justice. So, I'd like to make Part 13 of my series a collective endeavor. If we all pick a truck and try almost all of their options, or if we check out every available version of one type of food (like elotes or menudo), we can come up with a great list of what's available. Scrumptiouschef, I bet I can count on you to get there as soon as you possibly can. Twill, crippstom, Carter B., rudeboy, Bat Guano, Nab, Knoblauch—and any other fellow chow-explorers whose love for this kind of food is slipping my mind—are you up for the challenge? If so, just chow down to your heart's content one of these weekends and add your report to this thread.
A tip on ordering: All of the very friendly vendors speak Spanish, as do their customers, who consist mostly of Mexican-American and other Hispanic young families and groups of teenagers. There's often a youngster working side-by-side with older family members who can explain your needs to them, or someone at a nearby stand who can translate for you. You can also do what I saw two Indian gentlemen doing and just point at what looks good to you.
One other note: The vendors might still be nervous about previous attempts by the city to shut them down. Of course, as soon as chowhounds get near good food, it's usually obvious that we're only there to eat. When I was taking notes on the chow options, though, I made a couple of people nervous—until I explained myself.
Below I give a list of the food options available this past weekend. From the entrance on Elmont Drive, I moved around the periphery in a U pattern, first checking out those trucks that were parallel to Elmont Drive, then those on the back row (which is parallel to Pleasant Valley), before making my way up the other side of the U. After that, I just wandered around the middle starting at the part closest to the Mercado building and moving towards the back. Unless otherwise noted, the food trucks that I saw were open when I went by around 2 to 3 P.M. on Saturday and Sunday. Some of them didn't have names, so I just noted in quotation marks some of the prominent details.
* Carnitas Santa Rosa [closed when I went by]: carnitas—in tacos, tortas, and by the pound
* Mari Susi: tortas de milanesa y jamón [a toasted sandwich made of a breaded, fried beef cutlet with ham on top]; menudo; [beef] barbacoa; barbacoa y consomé de borrego [slow-roasted lamb barbacoa and the soup made with its drippings]; guisos [stews or stewed taco fillings]; tacos; quesadillas; sopes [thick cornmeal cakes in the gordita family but topped with the filling of your choice plus refried black beans, and other items] huaraches [similar to sopes]; atole de chocolate [also called champurrado, this is a drink of masa harina barely sweetened with chocolate, brown sugar, and cinnamon—imagine a good "thin gruel"; this is often drunk for breakfast or on special occasions]
* Taquito Original de Fajitas: fajitas; elotes
* Taquería Mary: menudo; tacos
* "Hot Dogs - Hamburgers" [closed]: regular hamburgers; Mexican-style hot dogs [these almost always include bacon, sometimes crema (a Mexican-style crème fraîche) or mayonnaise; sometimes the hot dog and bun are topped with ketchup and/or spicy mustard, diced tomatoes, chopped onions (sometimes grilled or fried), jalapeño slices, diced pineapple and mild cheese; other possible toppings are crumbled chorizo, guacamole, slivers of carrots in escabeche (or pickled in vinegar with chiles), avocado- and tomatillo-based green salsa, or even American-style pickle relish]
* "Rica's Tostada": tortillas y gorditas hechas a mano [both flour and corn tortillas, as well as gorditas, are made by hand]; menudo [their own recipe]; tortas; platos [plates]
* La Catradita: comida hondureña [Honduran cooking]
* Rico's Tamales: Michoacán-style tamales
* Unnamed white taco truck: no details
* "Estilo Mexico": jugos [juices], raspas [snow cones], cocteles [fruit cups], mango en chile [fresh mango sprinkled with chile powder], licuados [blended drinks made with milk and any kind of fruit]
* Carnitas Los Dos Amigos: carnitas—any way you want them
* Yellow truck with menu scrawled on the side in green marker: typical fare of tacos, tortas, etc.
* Tacos Flor: specializing in bistek and barbacoa; fajitas; pambazos [probably meaning the version that is like a torta, or Mexican sandwich, but it could mean the traditional preparation of bread dipped in guajillo sauce and fried, before being filled] ; tortas
* Pupusas Salvadoreñas: pupusas [probably the Salvadoran version of the gordita, but these are sometimes made with rice flour instead of corn masa]
* Fruit stand next to the Salvadoran place: elotes; cocteles; jugos; aguas frescas; raspas
I also saw at least one roaming paleta cart at all times (though the rain on Saturday may have decreased the demand). Bags of fried chicharrones the size of mini-pretzels were available at several stand, and most people were munching on them as they walked around. Drinks were available at almost every stand and mainly consisted of Mexican sodas and brightly-colored aguas frescas in large glass jugs.
La Pulga was packed this weekend with Christmas shoppers looking for bargains, but I managed to sample more of the food offerings.
* Tacos Flor
This place specializes in bistek and barbacoa, so I checked out a taco of each. The bistek consisted of mostly small pieces of beef that were cooked on a comal or hot pan. The meat itself was dry and had almost no flavor, though the nicely browned, softened onions that were cooked with the bistek were flavorful. I wouldn't order this again.
The barbacoa, on the other hand, was delicious. It was the best thing I sampled at the flea market this weekend. The meat was what I call San-Antonio-corner-takeout-shop-style barbacoa: just greasy enough to be very flavorful, and also very moist. Their barbacoa tasted better than the one at Don Luis at its prime, which had been my favorite barbacoa in this category. I'm not sure if it's quite as good as the barbacoa at El Rico, but it's right up there.
I ordered my tacos on corn tortillas which were quite good—and obviously housemade. Since I didn't see anyone making them in the trailer (though perhaps they made them beforehand), it seems possible that their tortillas were being supplied by Los Dos Amigos, which Twill has noted seems to be a source of fresh tortillas for the other food trucks. Tacos Flor offered both with cilantro and cebolla [chopped-up white onion], and a medium-thick tomatillo-and-avocado-based green salsa that I really enjoyed. It had good body and a sour-citrus note to it.
* Carnitas Los Dos Amigos
Twill already reported that these carnitas weren't good, but since I was trying all of the carnitas available, I had one taco. Sure enough, this was the worst of the bunch. I'd say the meat was terrible to mediocre. It had no flavor, though it was greasy and somewhat meaty, occasionally a bit stringy. This taco came with cilantro, onion, and some Mexican limes on the side. I did like, however, their dark-brown dried-chile-based. It had nice complexity and tasted of anchos. I wouldn't suffer through another carnitas taco to get the salsa, though. Maybe they have some better fillings on the menu. At least the taco was made with doubled-up fresh corn tortillas.
* Carnitas Santa Rosa
These carnitas had excellent overall texture and very good flavor. They also did a good job of giving me a mixture of the different parts of the pig: There was plenty of "prime" meat (like loin), fat, skin, and darker cuts. When I unpacked my half-pound of carnitas at home, I thought to myself: Now that's a good-looking pile of pork. Although I could see browned edges on some of the pieces, the foil-wrapped meat had re-steamed on the way home, which affected its crispness. My order came with just a very hot pico de gallo, made with mushy tomatoes, and a thin, bright-red, medium-hot, tomato-and-red-chile-based salsa. Mission-brand packaged corn tortillas came with my order.
* Long, red food trailer with quite a few tables in front for eating; plus, a table where you order and pay, with bags of peanuts for sale
[This weekend, the red trailer was also the one nearest the corner of South Pleasant Valley and Elmont Drive.] Two young women were taking orders while two older women prepared the food inside the trailer. These carnitas were also pretty good and definitely better than Carnitas Los Dos Amigos. Some pieces were salty and stringy; others were not. The pork seemed to be mostly of the same cut: a dark roast. Unlike the bulk carnitas at Carnitas Santa Rosa, these contained no mixture of several types of pork, fat, and skin.
My half-pound of carnitas (also ordered to go) came with regular limes, cilantro, onion, chopped tomato, and lettuce on the side. A thin, hot, green salsa, possibly tomatillo-based, with a strong note of citrus, helped make up for any lack of flavor in the meat. The second salsa was a thick, mild- to medium-hot, orange-red salsa made with pureed chiles and roasted tomatoes, judging from its texture. The corn tortillas that came with them were of the semi-decent packaged variety, though they became rubbery upon cooling.
Note: I don't remember the name of this place being "Caliente," though that word may have been on the sign. If so, these are the carnitas that crippstom recently reported on:
* Taco Ivan
Even though I didn't eat any of the to-go orders of carnitas until much later, I was still too full to eat anything at this trailer. Yet when I noticed a sign saying that they were selling small (maybe 4.5" in diameter) housemade corn tortillas in bulk, I bought some for later. This was a good move. These tortillas were soft, flavorful, and on the thick side. I really liked the flavor of their masa; it didn't even need salt. I think these tortillas may be among the best of this type that I've had in Austin.
I have to agree with your praise of Taco Ivan. I finally made a visit to the promised land yesterday, but I think I missed out a bit on selection because I got there late in the afternoon. Although the sounds of generators and music were still giving each other good competition, I was disappointed to find that the Mexican hot dog stand and the fruteria seemed to be closed.
On the other hand, I came across Taco Ivan, a distinctive yellow trailer, and I could not resist the sign that politely invited me to try their tasty menudo. I ordered a large serving, which came with three of their thick hand-made corn tortillas. The broth was pleasingly greasy with a reddish hue, but was clear enough to see through (unlike, say, the more opaque version at El Rico), and although it had some dried red chiles in it, it was not very spicy. The tables in front of the trailer had large bottles of pepper flakes, though, to allow you to season to taste. The tripe was well cooked, and had a meatier flavor and texture than usual. There was a large proportion of the honeycomb tripe as well. (One piece of the meat was so large I had to cut it into pieces to eat it, but it was so tender that the task was not difficult, even with plastic utensils.) There was an occasional morsel of posole, as well.
As MPH mentions above, the corn tortillas are thick, not too big around, and very flavorful. They are nicely browned from the cooking process, and I must protest next time that 3 are insufficient to a bowl of menudo. (Oddly, 3 bad tortillas would be more than enough.)
I hope to get there earlier on one of the coming weekends.
mph's roll call of hounds in the op:"Twill, crippstom, Carter B., rudeboy, Bat Guano, Nab, Knoblauch—and any other fellow chow-explorers" is a heartbreaker.It seems like my favorite hounds are gone[NAB's move to the North leaves me at loose ends]or sitting on the sidelines these days.Get Back To Work Y'all!
I ate at the Pulga a couple weeks ago and it was still operating in answer to your question Ralph.
i can't sneak by you, scrumptious. in a time of my life when i was resting on my laurels, uninspired by most grub about town, you & your writing gave me the much-needed kick in the arsenic to get back out there and hit the streets, nose to the sky. as did many other hounds on this fine board, including the aforementioned, the insurgents i love (lookin' at you tom), and a handlful of others lurking under the radar.
i thoroughly enjoyed rapping with y'all. i'm right now dreaming of 80-degree march days in austin, the sxsw hustle, the sound and smell of hand-made tortillas hittin the east-side flat-tops, tearing thru brisket under a beating sun, knockin' back brewskies and plates of chili-laden love in the back of a market, even cozying up with ol' Gallows pole. and so on.
cheers and thanks to all the fine austin hounds.
I hear you, scrumtpious.....I haven't been much anywhere since having kids. Hopefully, I'll be over that hump soon and get back in th game. I *can* tell you where all the "kids eat free on Tuesday" meals are, who has the best playground, and what time you have to leave to get home by the time your wife tells you to.
Rudeboy - noooo, don't fall into that trap. My 2 1/2 yr old daughter eats what we eat (mostly) - she was weaned on hog jowls, sweetbreads and veal toungue at Parkside. "Pesto Pasta", sardines (only fresh grilled and only for breakfast ), lamb, artichokes, asparagus and rasberry sorbet fill her favorites list. She asks for pork belly with fair regularity. She knows not of chicken fingers or the golden arches.
In truth, some Mexican food is out for her. She's not there yet with hot/spicy food. But, she warms my heart everytime she says, "No papa, I don't just want meet. I want fat, too."
I hear you, bro.....she was raised on Madam Mam's and my own cooking (which is crazy) both in the womb and through her first two years. Mama is too quick to give her mac-n-cheese and watered-down grub. I'm trying to keep her on the right path - even with mac-n-cheese......good cheese and a true bechamel are a given. Central Market M&C does fall far short of that.
She does eat gorganzola and any type fo stinky cheese. Something that I wasn't exposed to until my 20s.
OMG - I'm going on about my kid. This thread is about TexMex. I'll start another post.
4477 S Lamar Blvd Ste 100, Austin, TX 78745
Quickie update on La Flor - they no longer serve barbacoa, but as of this morning they have what I consider the best carnitas in town. Their picadillo is very tasty too. The deshebrada was good, but I would forego that for the carnitas. It's very difficult to find them crispy, but here they are!
OK, that's what I thought, just didn't know the name of the store. I saw the trailer, or something almost exactly like it someplace else recently.
I call that the "gully" that flat spot where the creek crosses First street 4 times in the span of a half a mile. Great mountain biking on that dry creek bed from I35 to Manchaca last fall before it started raining again.
Not to be deterred by the cold, spitting wet, I pulled out the overcoat and headed round the corner and over the dam this a.m. to investigate this cryptolocus about which MPH and scrumptious were making wild claims. I can verify that it does, indeed, exist, and is nothing short of a trailer utopia.
After circuitously scoping out the few acres of tented market offerings and trailers and grabbing a bag of fried chicharrones, we headed to La Catradita, a half-trailer of Honduran fare in the sparsely populated southwest end, and ordered by pointing to a skewer of char-grilled pork (the menu was out of sight around the corner, and the name of the dish eluded me). About seven healthy hunks of smoky-sweet meat came atop three freshly made corn tortillas, and we seated ourselves amongst the condimentary at a far table. The meat and tortillas could have each stood alone and together with the comfortably mild green tomatilla salsa were delicious. Upon seeing that the SO and I were splitting the odd plate, the kindly woman working the mini cucina called me up and gave me another several chunks of meat on a tortilla which I graciously accepted and consumed.
Next we headed to Pupusas Salvadoreñas and ordered a bean and cheese pupusa. I have to say that I prefer the El Zunzal version, but with the addition of the Latin American slaw and capzasin-busting green salsa, it was very good. After seeing our fellow diners knocking them back, the SO went back and ordered an atole, which tasted like a liquid version of pastry frosting and was populated with raisins...amazing.
I headed over to Carnitas Los Dos Amigos and settled on the carnitas torta. The meat was extremely tender and contained well-cooked strips of pork fat, but was a bit short on flavor. The condiment cart in front of the register had pico, limes and salsa, but it wasn't enough to sell me on the meat. CLDA is obviously providing stock for several of the other vendors as I saw two different kids come up and retrieve loads of freshly made corn tortillas, the labor of two women working feverishly at the stove.
Having consumed a fare amount of the chicharrones by this time, we decided to end our initiatory visit to the fruiteria located in the center of Pulga next to the pupusa truck where we ordered elotes. We had unwittingly saved the best for last. The corn wasn't grilled, but was perfectly cooked, basted with crema, rolled liberally in crumbled queso fresco and dusted with chile lime. I could eat this every day, quite possibly as an accompaniment to every meal. Hence, I don't think I justify a trip to La Pulga without having one.
There are an enormous number of places to explore and I'm looking forward to more posts on the various spots scattered around this most auspicious of parking lots. I'll certainly look forward to contributing at every possible opportunity.
Great report, Twill! I'm glad to hear that you enjoyed the atole; it's a taste that some never acquire, but I love it. I was out of town over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but I'll definitely check out the Honduran-chow trailer at La Pulga this coming weekend. If I recall correctly, the "Mexican hot dog" place also sells elotes. Maybe I'll try one from there and one from the frutería, just to compare the two. I don't think such thoroughness counts as gluttony when the chow is consumed purely for research purposes. ;-)
I broke this into two parts, as it was already getting very long. Below, I've included a few reports.
Chow sampled at the taco truck with homemade tortillas and gorditas:
Gordita con chicharrones ($3)—The relatively thin, six-inch-diameter gordita appeared to have been baked and then griddled. It was split entirely in half (rather than opened just at the top), making it look like a sandwich. The top half was very thin, like a fried corn tortilla; the bottom part was about 1/4" thick. The chicharrones, cut into flat squares, were placed in the center of the two gordita halves. This filling was slightly salty, quite spicy (with a slow heat build-up), and a stewed but non-slimy texture. This wasn't amongst my all-time-favorite versions of chicharrones, but it was quite good. Along with the filling of your choice, their gorditas come filled with refried beans, cheese, cilantro, chopped lettuce, and tomato—unless otherwise specified. [Note: They may even put lettuce, tomato, and even cheese in your tacos, unless you either look like you wouldn't like that or know enough to instead request "con cilantro y cebolla solamente."]
Taco de bistek ($2)—I was worried about ordering steak from a taco truck, since it's not often good unless grilled meats are their specialty. However, I enjoyed this filling. The small, flat pieces of steak were moist and flavored with a bright, citrus-based marinade. A touch of salsa would spice this up, for those who prefer the heat. The corn tortilla that encased the steak was very good. It was of medium thickness, non-gummy, and had pretty good flavor, though the masa could have used some salt.
Other lunch-taco fillings include carne deshebrada [which was sold out], al pastor, and fajitas.
Gorditas and tacos come with a whole charred, blistered jalapeño and a half of a Mexican lime. Their non-tomato-based reddish-brown salsa is thin, watery, and very hot. It appears to be made from dried, reconstituted red chiles with all their seeds and stems.
Chow sampled at the Mari Susi taco truck:
Torta milanesa ($4)—This was tasty, simple Tejano-Tex-Mex-and-Mexican comfort-food. The steak cutlet was not pre-fab. I could see oregano in the very fine bread crumbs that coated the meat. It tasted basically like a beef cutlet that you'd fry up at home. The bolillo [fluffy, soft, white-bread rolls—and a term used by mexicanos as an alternative to "gringo"] was good: The round roll was well-toasted on the comal, loaded up with mayo, and then made into a sandwich with the filling of your choice, lettuce, and chopped tomato. They did not include avocado or guacamole on this torta.
I noticed lots of previously made and ready-to-fill flauta shells and sopes/huaraches on the front counter, but I wasn't hungry enough to try anything else that day.
Chow sampled at the fruit stand next to the Salvadoran place:
Coctel de fruta—This was a very enjoyable fruit cup containing slices of watermelon, cantaloupe, jicama, cucumber, honeydew, pineapple, mango, and papaya topped with chile powder, salt, and a good squirt of lime. I believe this cost $4.
Agua fresca de piña—This refreshing, huge drink of pureed fresh pineapple, water, and sugar (as needed) cost $2, I believe.
Chicharrones—I bought a bag of the mini-pretzel-sized chicharrones that everyone was enjoying. I can see why: They're addictive. If I'm not mistaken, the cost was $1.
Great fieldwork as usual and I too have my favorite stand at this market.As you go south on Pleasant Valley,a few inches past the main building turn in and park.Proceed West about 50 yards,there is a small tent with a Grandmother and Granddaughter cooking with elan.There is no sign,no place to sit and only a small folding table with a couple bottles of Salsa,a lexan filled with cilantro and onion and another with sliced Key Limes.
The whole kitchen is wired into a couple car batteries sitting on the ground.
I nearly wept.
The Gorditas come stuffed with your choice of meat[which for me always means pork...their version is bit like Pierna de Puerco but cooked down into a fatty porky stew.A slit in the gordita is created and the fillings are stuffed inside:Crema,lettuce,stewed Pinto Beans,Cheese and the luscious pork.
I veered off the pork path once and had some wonderful Chicken Tinga,bright red with Chiles,nicely salted and served on Homemeade Corn Tortillas.The Tortillas were made to order by the happy teen girl who knows her way around a ball of masa and a Comal.
You will be completely filled up for about 4 bucks.Walking out after my last visit I poked around a nearby booth and scored a Le Creuset,enameled cast iron omelette pan for $2.It was a great day.
I haven't been to this treasure trove in a couple months but will rectify the situation soon and report back.
Just when I think I've ate Austin dry and start navigating 80-90 miles out for fresh scores[called the Eagle Lake guy today and he was about close up shop]hounds like MPH remind me I've still got a lot of Austin work in front of me before I set sail for foreign lands.