Tex-Mex on Austins Southeast and East Sides, Part 2
- MPH May 12, 2006 01:20 PM
Im on a mission to try all the authentic Tex-Mex taquerias, taco stands, panaderias, take-out counters, and restaurants in the predominantly Hispanic East and Southeast sides of Austin, particularly the places that are under the radar for me and maybe for other chowhounds as well. Ive covered a few more well-known places, but I will concentrate on the area around Pleasant Valley, East Oltorf, East Riverside, and Burleson Road. Im primarily on a search for good Tex-Mex, though Ill report on other interesting regional or Central and South American finds as I happen upon them.
Im starting with Part 2 because Im counting an earlier message (see link below) as Part 1.
I have one correction to Part 1: Tex-Mex barbacoa is made of steam-roasted cerveza de res, or cows head, not hogs head. Traditional pork tamales are made with hogs head. (One of the reasons why theyre only made once a year.) I switched these barn animals in my earlier description of barbacoa.
Now, on to Part 2. In this report Im starting a bit slow in terms of under-the-radar eateries. Im including two relatively well-known stops and one less well-known one on East 7th Street along with a small place on Springdale Road near Lyons. Since much of East 7th is well documented, Im skipping the rest of it. However, l may come back to this part of town after checking out what else is out there.
Joes Bakery, 2305 E. 7th Street
Joes Bakery is comforting because it is reminds me of the family-owned taquerias and restaurants Ive known and loved in San Antonio. They sell pan dulce in the front; they make flour tortillas in house. The lines are out the door early on Sunday morning with families waiting to buy barbacoa by the pound and menudo.
Their carne guisada was recommended to me by a San Antonio transplant with whom I was discussing Austins relatively expensive Tex-Mex. It was one of the first things I checked out. Ive had a breakfast taco and also a lunch plate with carne guisada. (Tacos are around $2 each and lunch plates are $4.95, if I remember correctly). The plate came with rice, beans, a salad (lettuce, tomato, and hamburger dills), and 2 tortillas. The carne guisada is tasty. I liked their refried beans-good texture and flavor. Even the rice is a nice mixture of tomato and spices, though its perhaps more liquidy than usual. A side of guacamole was not good: It consisted of an overripe avocado mashed up with some of their table salsa. Since it cost $4 for a small order, this was hard to swallow in more ways than one. Ive also had the barbacoa plate and bought it by the pound on weekends. If its not made with cabeza, barbacoa just tastes like roast beef. I like the barbacoa at Joes, but its too lean for my taste. I dont get carried away by it like I do when its really, decadently rich.
Ive had mixed luck with other breakfast items. I tried the generously-portioned taco of migas with everything. The eggs were too hard-scrambled the two times Ive had this taco, and I think they over-do it with the jalapeño. I wonder what their plain migas are like. Part of the problem is that I dont care for the brand of packaged chips they serve with salsa and also crumble up in the migas. The chorizo-and-egg taco was well prepared-soft scrambled with lots of chorizo so that the mixture was darkly speckled and the texture was like cheese curds. The chorizo itself, however, had too much dried-chile-powder flavor. This doesnt mean it was spicy. It wasnt. A blast of concentrated powder hits the palate with every bite, which makes the chorizo-egg-filling taste acrid. I couldnt finish the taco. This says more about the local chorizo supply than anything Joes does, since I doubt they grind their own sausage. And I know I havent found a good local source for chorizo, other than the packaged varieties at HEB. [Ive been using Garcias brand since my old stand-by APCO started getting too salty a couple of years ago.]
Of their pan dulce, Ive tried a marranito (a spiced ginger cookie shaped like a pig) and a cuerno (a horn: it kind of looks like a sugar-topped, curved croissant). It was serviceable. Ive purchased a dozen flour tortillas from Joes, along with ones from El Milagro and La Victoria. The thin, dry-textured, almost crisp ones from Joes are the best of the three, but I find them a bit bland due to the kind of shortening theyre using. I like the kind of handmade flour tortillas that are common in San Antonio. Theyre thicker and more tender than what Ive found here in Austin, with more air bubbles, due to the fact that they add baking powder to the masa. They might use a lower-gluten flower as well. Thick or thin, the best flour tortillas are made with some lard or butter, and not just Crisco or, worse still, vegetable oil. My search continues for truly amazing ones here in Austin.
Joes serves menudo (its okay, not spectacular) and eggs scrambled with chicharrones. Other than that, their menu doesnt include a very wide range of Tex-Mex basics. I like the feel of this place. But, of the authentic taquerias that Ive tried, Joes plays it the safest.
La Michoacana Meat Market, 1917 E. 7th Street
Speaking of chorizo sources, La Michoacana Meat Market is an obvious one. I bought a pound of their in-house bulk chorizo a few weekends ago to make my own chorizo con huevo. It was the oddest-tasting chorizo Ive ever had. Totally sweet. This is not normal for Tex-Mex chorizo. Like any sausage, chorizo has a lot of seasonings, including garlic, vinegar, and chiles. In La Michoacanas utterly mild chorizo, the most noticeable flavoring was canela (Mexican cinnamon) and nutmeg. These are just subtle undertones in most versions.
Ive only tried a couple of tacos while shopping at La Michoacana. One was barbacoa that was on the lean side. It was good, but most of the flavor came from the onions (they added onions and cilantro before I could stop them). The other was lengua guisada. It wasnt bad, though a bit underseasoned the day I tried it. Its hard to mess up this cut of meat, however. One word to the cook: One-inch cubes of tongue do not make for easy taco-eating! Unless the lengua just melts in your mouth, you end up with a shirt full of sauce. These tacos work much better when the meat is cut in thin strips. The doubled-up corn tortillas they use at La Michoacana were quite good. I wish Id seen what brand they used. All in all, the tacos were satisfying, but the ones at Abarrotes Mexicanos and Taqueria Piedras Negras are better. I believe the price at La Michoacana was about $2 a taco.
They sell some pan dulce at La Michoacana. I dont know who bakes it, but it was much better than I expected. I liked the pan de huevo (these are sometimes called conchas, due to the shell-like shape). Their cookies were also good, including the Mexican version of a palmier. The marranito was too hard for my liking (this is one of my favorite pieces, so I have a very particular thing Im looking for). Only the yo-yo (red filling between two golden halves) was too dry and crumbly. Ive also tried their bolillos. They were super soft and oddly salty. The baker must have had an off day. But, at 4 for 99 cents, I could afford to experiment.
Ill certainly be back when Im in the area and need Mexican groceries. They sell cuts of meat that are hard to find at regular grocery stores, though prices seem better at La Hacienda Meat Market. More on the latter at a future date.
La Monita, 2200 E. 7th Street
La Monita didnt look like a place of business when I walked in late one Saturday afternoon-few tables, no lights, no visible printed menus. Just a long room with a table full of regulars talking amongst themselves in the far corner.
Walk up to the counter, though, to order authentic cows head barbacoa! Because this dish can be greasy, I sometimes ask for half lean and half fattier pieces. I forgot this time. Cows cheeks may have become a hot gourmet item, but fortunately barbacoa is still affordable. La Monita is my new favorite source for barbacoa by the pound.
La Monita also serves the central Mexican staple of lamb barbacoa, made here with lambs head. If you like the strong taste of mutton, you might want to try this. They offer menudo (which I didnt order), carnitas, and tripitas (tripe). The carnitas were very flavorful; I enjoyed them. Same with the tripe. You get salsa and the option of adding cilantro and onions to your tacos ($1.95 each, I believe). The corn tortillas that came with the tacos were fine.
LM also sells various packaged tortillas. I bought the flour ones in a clear unmarked plastic bag because they seemed most likely to be made in-house. They werent bad texturally, if you like the thin kind of flour tortillas, but they lacked depth of flavor.
Seis Mesas, 917 Springdale Road
This small storefront restaurant (the name means six tables, which is what they have) on Springdale Road at Lyons does a brisk take-out business for breakfast and lunch. Ive been trying to check it out for weeks, but I always arrived when they were closed. (FYI: They stop serving food at 2 P.M.) I finally timed things just right. There isnt much in terms of decor, but I felt at home from the moment the friendly waitress greeted us and quickly brought our drinks and chips with salsa. The breakfast and lunch items are posted near the take-out counter. Other items (like caldo or menudo) you have to ask about.
For comparison purposes, I ordered my usual lunch: the carne guisada plate (all plates are $4.99). The tender meat was very good. It was reddish-brown from a judicious use of tomatoes in the sauce, nicely stewed, and quite savory. Plates come with the standard rice, beans, lettuce-and-tomato salad, and 2 tortillas. The rice had a nice, fluffy texture and good flavor. The refried beans that came with the plate were delicious. When I asked for an extra side-order, they brought me a very large serving: The beans spread over the whole plate. The waitress told me that the cook had given me the rest of them when she told her how much I liked them. And darned if I didnt scrape up every last bit.
My friend ordered three tacos-beef fajitas, al pastor, and barbacoa (tacos are $1.45 each, the best à la carte price Ive seen for them). They were all very flavorful. Beef fajitas can be pretty boring, but their meat had excellent flavor all on its own (you get the option of lettuce, tomato, and cheese with fajitas). The al pastor was nicely seasoned with dried chiles and citrus juice. And the barbacoa! It was the real deal, rich and tender, just like the kind I got at La Monita. Delicious. Pico de gallo is an optional addition for tacos.
The salsa they serve with chips was a deep brownish-red, which should have warned me that it wasnt as mild as it initially tasted. A distinct back-of-the-throat burn followed quickly upon my rapid consumption of it with chips. The chips themselves, as well as the tortillas, are store-bought. This seems typical of smaller places. The corn tortillas were better than the flour ones.
And the menudo! Its quite good. I had to return to sample some after I noticed on my initial visit that a party of four were spooning up every last drop from their huge bowls of it. Their caldo de res looked appealing, too, chock-full of veggies. It was too hot outside to eat soup, though. I havent yet tried their hamburgers, but I wanted to taste one of six I saw the cook making for a take-out order. At $3.25 for a hamburger with hot, crispy fries, it seems like a good deal, too.
Seis Mesas serves pretty much the same menu that Joes Bakery does, minus Joes American-style breakfast plates. At lunch Seis Mesas serves plates or tacos with fajitas, puerco al pastor, barbacoa, carne guisada, chicharrones, plus plates of enchiladas, chalupas, and crispy tacos. For breakfast they serve tacos of chorizo and egg or migas, along with various U.S. breakfast meats (ham, bacon, sausage) scrambled with eggs. They also have plates of huevos rancheros, papas rancheras (that sounds really good right now), huevos mexicanos, and migas.
Everyone seemed happy to be working and eating there, and they appeared to have quite a few regulars. The reason is simple--their food is excellent. And, its a really friendly place. Everyone thanked us and asked us to come again on our first visit. Plus, given that we paid less than $12 for two people [excluding the menudo, which I had on a subsequent solo visit], I figured out after the fact that they probably didnt charge me for the extra order of beans or the extra tortillas. All in all, I liked the food better here than at Joes Bakery because it tastes more like good home-cooking. I plan on becoming one of their regulars.
Well, it has taken me a month and a half to follow your advice, but it was worth it. I had some guests for the weekend, and I picked up a pound of barbacoa from La Monita. I was especially pleased with the rich fatty flavor for a special meal--too often elsewhere it just seems like stringy roast beef. Their barbacoa was the centerpiece of a delicious breakfast, with corn tortillas to make tacos and red and green salsas for a touch of spicy flavor.
On the spur of the moment, I also got some menudo, which also satisfied the hounds back at the kitchen table. They thought it was different from the spices they were used to, but still very flavorful.
I noticed two more of your reports just went up. I'm scheduling time to read them later this week, and I hope I follow your advice in less than 6 weeks this time.
I agree with your post, but I must bring up a complaint.
This has a lot to do with semantics. The places you are
visiting are not "tex-mex". They are traditional taquerias/
carniceras. Tex-Mex is Chuys and Trudys. Menudo and breakfast
tacos have become tex-mex, and sooner or later the two will
be one. Not yet. No self respecting cook will make a chile
relleno with bread crumbs and never put pineapple in the
last minute for el pastor. The east side is full of wonderful
places to eat, as you have found. Just don't call them "tex-mex"
I’m afraid that I disagree with your definition. Tex-Mex is not “really” found at Chuy’s or Trudy’s or similar places that cater to mostly white middle- to high-income locals and tourists—-plus students, this being Austin (WM2HILT+S). Tex-Mex is a regional variation of Mexican food: It's the traditional food of Mexicans who emigrated from Mexico to Texas, aka Mexican-Americans.
I use the term Tex-Mex to differentiate this food from the culinary traditions of Mexican-Americans in California, New Mexico, etc. And I also use it to distinguish the cuisine of Mexican-Americans living in Texas from that of residents of the various regions of Mexico.
Thus, Tex-Mex is definitely on the menu at these taquerias on the east and southeast sides of Austin. Chuy’s is simply what happens when this food is geared specifically to the palates of WM2HILT+S.
But I’m repeating an argument that came up in General Chowhounding Topics back in May. You can check out that whole thread for yourself:
I see your point. Regional names and such. I guess it is
just my upbringing in south texas. Applebees, Taco Bell,
hell, even Sirloin Stocade. Not Mexican. In that area,
definitely tex-mex. There is a pride in our regional
cusine. It could be called south-tex-mex. I quibble.
Your reviews are nevertheless detailed and usefull. You
do know your "tex-mex". Your link to the topics page
was very interesting. It seems there is still a disagreement
amongst the posters. Oh well.
Continue reviewing and I will note them, overlooking the
tex-mex. I have just one request, never call Baby Acapulco
either tex-mex or mex. That place is horrible, unless you
want to get drunk.
Thanks for your reply.
It certainly is tempting to just abandon a term like “Tex-Mex” when some people think it means what’s served at Chuy’s or even—heaven forbid—Taco Bell. (By the way, I totally agree with you on Baby A’s; their offerings only barely qualify as food.) Because of this, I try to find out what people mean by Tex-Mex before giving recommendations. But I also have to ask for clarification from folks who want to know where to find “good” pizza, Italian, Chinese, French bread, etc. And don’t get me started on odd local misconceptions about New-York-style delis!
I think it’s important, however, to acknowledge that the authentic Tex-Mex tradition is vital, interesting, and delicious in its own right. Or rather, I should say: authentic Tex-Mex traditions. As your message suggests, there are regional variations. The South-Texas version of Tex-Mex is different from El-Paso style, which in turn is distinct from the San-Antonio variety.
Yet they’re all part of the foodways of Mexican-Americans living in Texas, or Tejanos. Many Tejanos from places like San Antonio have never even been to Mexico. They wouldn’t know how to make regional-Mexican specialties such as Oaxacan-style tamales wrapped in banana leaves. Yet they—and some lucky others—know what Tex-Mex pork tamales are supposed to taste like. And it’s not that junk that’s regularly pressed out by machines.
WM2HILT+S is my not-very-short way of saying "white middle- to high-income locals and tourists—-plus students," who are mostly the target audience for places like:
El Sol y La Luna
These joints are fine for chips and salsa(s) while enjoying the scene--and the drinks. But they're bad choices if you’re looking for authentic Tex-Mex. They remind me of a similarly popular Tex-Mex restaurant in my own college town. I enjoyed myself there, but not if I ate the food. It’s the same with these places, except that some entertain illusions of serving great Tex-Mex.
Maybe our paths will cross on the east side one of these days!