Where in the hell am I?

April 15, 2014

An Austinite’s Guide to #SAA2014: Tacos and Mexican food

Filed under: archaeology — Tags: , , , , — John @ 4:00 pm

In my last post, I introduced the concept of tacos, and what a “taco” is in Austin, then proceeded to ramble on about breakfast tacos to the point that lunch/dinner tacos is now being dealt with separately, in this here post. And, I figured I would go ahead and cover Mexican food in general here, because if you like tacos you may well like enchiladas and tortas as well.

A quick recap: tacos are “soft” flour or corn tortillas wrapped around fillings; burritos are bigger and “crunchy tacos” are fried corn tortillas. And a note: I’m trying to focus on places within walking distance (a mile or so) from the Convention Center, with notable exceptions (generally places I personally love or iconic joints).

And with that note, let’s start with the place that you’ve probably had recommended to you by someone who visited Austin within the last couple of years: Torchy’s Tacos. They went from one trailer to places all over town and other Texas cities, which gives you an idea of how popular you are. I’ll be damned if I could tell you why…actually, I take that back, Ask almost anyone and they’ll mention one of two menu items; The Fried Avocado and/or the “Trailer Park” which is a fried chicken taco. Both are perfectly okay twists on a taco, although nothing I wanted to have again. Nothing else stood out as special or worth the price. Obviously, many many others disagree, including my co-worker who likes the green chile pork. None of their locations are super close to the convention center, but the closest are near campus and on South First, both places you may well be visiting anyway.

So, now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s talk about my favorite taco place, which also happens to be relatively close to my house and not close to the convention center: Papalote Taco House. Now we’re talking tacos, not gimmicks, although they smartly offer a fried avocado option. The menu includes an array of traditional “street” taco tastes, as well as a number of delicious interior Mexican options. I have had everything here that isn’t mushroom or cauliflower-based and it’s all really tasty. My love of mole generally leads me to the Guajalote en Mole (turkey) and Puerco en Pipian tacos, or a torta (taco fillings in a sandwich) when I’m really crazy. If you are up for travelling a couple of extra miles for the best tacos in Austin, Papalote is my spot. And if you’d like to read the opinion of another Austin archaeologist who is actually an occasional professional food writer, here’s Rachel Feit’s review from 2011.

OK, now to get you closer to the Convention Center. We’ll start with a place that has been getting a lot of buzz both among my taco-loving friends and in general: Veracruz All-Natural. I haven’t had it yet, although I plan on fixing that this week, but here’s what Yelpers have to say. Taco Journalism gave them 4 stars, here’s their video review. They have a location on east Cesar Chavez, not too too far from the Convention Center. Even better, they have a second spot at The Grackle bar, which is across the street from The Liberty, which is where my blogarch and tweet-up party is!

One other chain jumps to mind, in the vein of Torchys: Tacodeli. There’s a lot to like about Tacodeli’s commitment and history, but (in my opinion) not quite so much the food, or at least the limited times I’ve had it. Again, nothing terrible (with the exception of the Mexican mashed potatoes) but the only really good taco I’ve had there is the Frontera Fundido Sirloin. All that said, you might feel otherwise, as many Austinites do.While none of their 3 locations is close to the Convention Center, their breakfast tacos are available at a number of stores around downtown, Central, and south Austin.

Another series of chains you’ll find around town are Taqueria Arandas and Taqueria Arendinas. Both are pretty basic taquerias done in the Jalisco style, which is explained by one of the TacoJournalism guys here. Actually, there are numerous Jalisco style places (it’s often in the name) that would be similar. These aren’t fancy places, are primarily a Hispanic clientele and staff, and are cheap and delicious (with the exception of the East 7th Arandas, apparently, which is an avoid). You can order individual tacos, or a “plate’ that has meats, fixings (generally cheese, lettuce, and tomato, avocado usually extra), beans, rice, and tortillas. I’m a pastor and barbacoa guy myself, but there’s a variety of options.

While I’ve hit the highs (and lows IMO) of taco places, I would say that there are taquerias and taco trucks everywhere. If something smells or looks good that’s near to your hotel, ask the staff if they’ve heard anything, or just try it.

Now, for Mexican food. I’ll try and make this shortish and sweet, and we’ll start with Tex-Mex.

I don’t really eat Tex-Mex. Tex-Mex is things like crispy tacos, cheese enchiladas with beef enchilada sauce, fajitas, and the like. Most people go to them for comfort food, because they like a particular place’s margarita or Mexican martini, or for chips and queso. Now, I love queso, but I can’t drink tequila due to a teenage misfortune, so I’m the wrong person to ask on that.

When I do, it’s with other people, and it’s something like Maudie’s, Chuy’s, or Trudy’s. These are big, well known and loved local chains. Both Maudie’s and Chuy’s have what I think is okay and what others will say is great food. Given the choice, I’d go to Chuys. Neither has places close to the Convention Center though. Trudy’s is extremely popular for their Mexican Martinis and their queso, and a lot of people go there just for happy hour to enjoy those two things, which might be the only good things they have (although I can’t personally speak on the Mexican Martini).

One of the most famed Tex-Mex joints in Austin is Matt’s El Rancho, in south Austin since 1952. I know people who go there specifically for the margaritas, and for the chips and queso. I’ve never been there myself. It’s also not close to the Convention Center, but could be considered a destination stop if Austin icons is your thing. Another iconic place, near campus, is El Patio. It’s been around since 1954 and was said to be Lady Bird Johnson’s favorite place. I love her, but I really disliked this place. Just don’t, unless you’re going for icons.

Speaking of politicans, Democrat and Republican presidents alike have said that Guero’s Taco Bar is their favorite Mexican food in Austin. It’s in a great location on South Congress, pretty close to the Convention Center and in an area you’ll probably want to check out. THAT SAID, I think it’s super bland and overpriced, and usually really crowded as well. They do have a large vegan selection (which I suppose we’ll revisit later in that post).

So where do I eat Tex-Mex? If I were to go on my own, it would be El Azteca, partly because it was the first place I ever ate in Austin, partly because of the kitsch, and partly because they have amazing, spicy salsa. It’s not super close to the Convention Center though.

Interior/traditional Mexican cuisine is more my style, as evidenced by my taco recommendations. This one is easier for me.

First, a place near the Convention center I’m familar with: Manuel’s. This is an upscale, gourmet place, so if you’re looking to impress or on a big expense account, this is one option. They have a really unique, very spicy and savory tortilla soup that might be worth the trip. I honestly don’t have a strong recollection of anything else there.

La Condesa is on the far west edge of “near the Convention Center”, and I wasn’t impressed, but it’s been ranked by among the top 10 Austin restaurants. Another upscale place, with a wide menu.

A new spot that is close to the Convention Center is Licha’s Cantina. It’s a mescal and tequila place with a mid-range priced menu, located in a former house on east 6th street in the East Side bar district. Reviews have been positive and I’ve been meaning to check it out (and might do so tomorrow). Also, a friend of mine bartends there, often during happy hour, and she would love to have some intelligent, worldly customers.


First is Curra’s, one of my favorite places to eat. It’s not close to the Convention Center, but will be pretty close to the hotels on south IH-35 and is worth traveling to! One of their signatures is the Avocado Margarita, which tastes like slightly sweet, tequila-y guacamole (I HAD to try a sip). Their salsas are delicious. And basically everything I’ve had on the menu is delicious. I struggle to choose between carnitas, pastor, cochinita pibil, and the chile colorado. There’s also an amazing brunch. However, this place will get crowded! A willingness to sit inside (tough to want to do in the gorgeous Austin weather) can speed things up.

And last, a hipster favorite and becoming an Austin legend, is Polvo’s. Also not close to the Convention Center, but close to a great place (my favorite place) to buy records. Popular with families, 20 and 30 something hipsters and grad students, easy to find a seat at 5:00 but not at 8:00. Famous for incredibly strong Mexican Martinis, notorious for poor (but not rude) service. Their smoky salsa is to die for, and you can serve yourself from the salsa bar inside. Interior Mexican food that’s admittedly not amazing, but very good. There are a variety of sauces and meats to choose from to build your own enchiladas, as well as their specials. The fajitas are good (see, I eat them sometimes!), although my go to is a Goliath burrito with guisado de puerco or pastor.

Typing all that has made me very very hungry, and hopefully you as well. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, add your own recommendations, or tweet at me!



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