Austin has developed a bit of a reputation for being obsessed with the breakfast taco. This morning tradition has been written about in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal; there’s even a book dedicated to the subject. And while there’s no denying the joys of starting one’s day with a tortilla stuffed with eggs, chorizo, and cheese, Austin’s taco culture extends far past the pre-noon hours. In fact, Bon Appétit recently declared that Austin has “the most dynamic taco culture in the country.” While residents of San Antonio and the RGV may vociferously disagree with this statement, it’s hard to ignore that tacos are experiencing a bit of a moment in our capital city. New places have been cropping up on the north side’s Burnet Road. Taco trailers are parked on virtually every other block in South Austin. And several small, family-run restaurants on the East Side are attracting new clientele in that rapidly developing area of town.
We’ll admit that tacos have been on our mind of late—well, they’re always on our mind, especially when we’re hungry—mostly because Texas Monthly is beginning its research on finding the best tacos across the state, a list we’ll publish at the end of 2015. It’s a months-long tasting process (aren’t our lives tough?), and we kicked it off by eating nearly one hundred tacos in Austin to begin our quest for the best the city has to offer. We know this list is far from comprehensive, and we’d like your input on what we missed. We promise to give those recommendations a try, because we never turn down a chance to eat another taco.
Mellizoz established its roots on trailer-saturated South First roughly six years ago, making its mark as a decidedly Americanized and “chef-y” taco spot. The dozen or so offerings range from slight twists on classics (breakfast tacos accented with cotija or spinach) to the blissfully familiar (a solid carne guisada). But Mellizoz pulls a neat sleight of hand with its fried avocado taco. The warm, crusty batter encasing the plentiful avocado slices has a palate-pleasing funnel cake–like texture, but the fresh, peppery arugula and diced tomato fool your brain into believing you’re eating healthy (you’re not). A chipotle-sherry vinaigrette adds both mild sweetness and acidity, while a finely ground sprinkle of fresh cotija brings some salty, earthy balance in to finish. The flour tortillas, while not homemade, were grilled until crispy, the ideal tensile strength to make them easy to fold without losing the generous taco portions to your serving basket. The staff here also got extra points on our visit for staying cool under pressure: when a busload of teenagers from Mexico turned up on a field trip, the trailer’s team kept orders flowing while peppering the kids with Spanish-language questions about their Texas adventures.
1502 S. 1st (512-916-4996). Open Mon–Wed 7:30 a.m.–3:30 p.m., Thu & Fri 7:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Sat 9 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun 9 a.m.–9 p.m.
Nestled in the now-tony confines of this newly developed area, scrappy stalwart El Primo remains a standby with fiercely loyal regulars who have been visiting since the trailer parked here nearly ten years ago. During a recent weekday lunch, El Primo’s crossover love between old South Austin and new South Austin was on full display as some paint-splattered construction workers shared the sole picnic table with a bearded hipster type strumming a Les Paul guitar while he waited. The lengthy menu may sometimes overreach, but most tacos are simply and skillfully executed. On our visit, the pastor was a favorite, a medium-sized portion of shredded, saucy, slightly messy pork, served on thin double corn tortillas. A squeeze of lime, generous helpings of cilantro, and a coarse dice of raw onion round out the mix. At $2.25, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better value in this area. Adventurous eaters will be rewarded here: the lengua (beef tongue) was tender, full of meaty flavor, and best punched up with a splash of the chile de árbol–garlic salsa.
2101 S. 1st (512-227-5060). Open Mon–Thu 7:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Fri 7:30 a.m.–10 p.m., Sat 8 a.m.–4 p.m.
You could live next door to La Flor and likely never notice it. The tiny trailer sits in the corner of a nondescript Stop-N-Shop that has seen better days. But the unassuming exterior masks something heavenly: affordable, filling tacos served on freshly made corn tortillas. The meats are the focus—nopales and onions are as close as you’ll get to proper vegetables here—and rightfully so. Each protein-based variety we tasted impressed, but the simple pollo taco stood out. While an ordinary chicken fajita doesn’t exactly shout “order me,” pass over it at your own peril. The taco is a study in flat-top griddle mastery. La Flor warms the corn tortilla before topping it with crispy chicken that’s been charred on the flat-top, chunky white grill-kissed onions, and a bit of cilantro. The pollo somehow holds the grill char flavor without seeming dry—a simple yet impressive feat. The salsa here is fresh, with a base of jalapeños and garlic, but rather superfluous given the flavor of the other ingredients. Note that the flour tortillas aren’t homemade, so choose corn. If you prefer red meat, we found the desebrada—shredded beef—to be a noble runner-up.
4901 S. 1st (512-417-4214). Open Mon–Sat 6 a.m.–3 p.m.
Papalote Taco House
While Papalote’s menu and signage bear an aesthetic more befitting a chain restaurant, the offerings here are decidedly personal. Owner Sergio Varela designed the menu as a simple homage to his mother’s recipes from southern Mexico, resulting in perhaps the best taco variety on offer in South Austin. The tiny interior isn’t full of atmosphere, but eat in—you’ll want the freshest possible experience with these artful and saucy creations. The pork loin in the puerco pipián taco comes smothered in a creamy, earthy pumpkin mole, which transcends to greater heights when paired with a hit of the restaurant’s extremely spicy, creamy green sauce. The nuttiness and warming spice of the sauce exemplify Varela’s ability to achieve subtle yet deep flavors, a wonder when you consider this is a dish sold for a mere $3.25. Papalote layers on increased textural complexity by topping most tacos with fresh avocado slices, crispy cabbage, and pickled purple onions, an added touch that elevates them above much of the neighborhood competition. Vegetarians should also take heart—both the tortas de coliflor and the rajas y hongos are thoughtful and substantive options here.
2803 S. Lamar Blvd. (512-804-2474). Open Mon–Fri 7 a.m.–10 p.m., Sat 8 a.m.–10 p.m., Sun 8 a.m.–8 p.m.
Sometimes you simply defer to the cook. On a morning visit to the Manchaca location of Veracuz All-Natural, we paused when deciding what to pair with the nopales. The kind woman behind the counter grinned, then finished the order on our behalf with her favorite ingredients. She mixed the cactus with spicy chorizo and then set them on a bed of mostly crisp, chunky potatoes. The starchy potato base helpfully soaked in both the chorizo’s grease and spices and provided an earthy heft to highlight the nopales. We’d have never thought to order this particular combination, yet the results were tough to refute. There are three house-made salsas here, but our favorite is the humble roja served in a molcajete (Veracruz elevates it by doing new batches throughout the day both adding in generous portions of creamy diced avocado). For those looking for a more traditional or familiar taco to order, the migas is also a slam dunk.
4208 Manchaca Rd. (512-629-8238). Open daily 7 a.m.–midnight.
Valentina’s Tex-Mex BBQ
When the brilliant kitchen staff at Valentina’s introduced brisket to the humble taco, they attracted a cult following to their small trailer behind the Star Bar. While we wouldn’t discourage anyone from ordering the famed fifteen-hour brisket, we implore you to not look past the trailer’s notable beef fajita. The taco is stuffed with a large portion of skirt steak that has been marinated in beer and lime juice, then seasoned and smoked over mesquite. The steak is then sliced and combined with hot caramelized onions and bell peppers and finished with sea salt, guacamole, and a squeeze of lime. The taco’s $5 price tag might look steep, but it takes only one to make a meal for all but the hungriest of diners. Flour tortillas are homemade here and crisped on the griddle when you order. The roja sauce uses serrano peppers (along a liberal helping of garlic and onion) and pairs well with both the beef fajita and the also-enjoyable pulled-pollo taco. While Valentina’s has lunch hours five days a week, a dinner visit can prove more fun: your taco can be paired with a craft beer from the Star Bar, which offers its patio seating area to diners.
600 W. 6th (512-221-4248). Open Mon & Tue 5 p.m.–10 p.m., Wed 11 a.m.–2 p.m. & 5 p.m.–midnight, Thu & Fri 11 a.m.–2 p.m. & 5 p.m.–2 a.m., Sat noon–2 a.m., Sun noon–10 p.m.
Tamale House East
People familiar with the Tex-Mex scene in Austin may be familiar with the Tamale House name—the location on Airport that Bobby Vasquez operated for more than three decades amassed a loyal fanbase who mourned the passing of its owner and subsequent shuttering of this Austin institution earlier this year. This offshoot of Tamale House is run by Vasquez’s nieces and nephews, and they’ve carried the mantle well, serving classic dishes that keep diners happy and the place full. At $4.75, their fish taco is a bargain—it was the single-largest taco we saw on our tour. A large citrus- and garlic-marinated tilapia filet is grilled on a plancha, or flat top; placed on a double corn tortilla; and finished with a mountain of complements: fresh chopped spinach, pickled purple onions, guacamole, and a lovely chipotle remoulade dressing. This bulging taco is so big it risks collapsing under the weight of its almost excessive filling. Our only quibble was the seasoning—we were a pinch of salt away from perfection. Try as we might, we simply couldn’t finish the dish without it disintegrating, but you won’t mind resorting to a fork or your fingers. The family-run vibe, elaborate Día de los Muertos shrines lining the back walls, and live Vince Guaraldi–style jazz piano happening on our visit left us feeling warmly welcomed.
1707 E. 6th (512-495-9504). Open Tue-Fri 7 a.m.-– p.m., Sat & Sun 8 a.m.–3 p.m.
Many of Austin’s best trailers look as though they’re held together merely by the kitchen’s good intentions. Las Trancas marks the exception. It’s a gleaming, oversized beacon of spotless white on Cesar Chavez, with air-conditioning and a fancy drink cooler built into the back corner. The trailer works in the Mexico City street taco style—most tacos are $1.50, but portions are small, so order at least two. On a recent Sunday, Spanish was the only language flowing from the guests at the two picnic tables, and business was buzzing. After consulting the menu and the kitchen, we stuck mostly to the standard items here: carne asada, pastor, and pollo. When we added a cabeza—beef cheek—at the end, the order was met with a long, soulful nod from the man at the counter, as though we’d given the correct password. The small but dense beef cheek taco was served shredded and braised on a pair of compact homemade corn tortillas. A light sprinkle of cilantro and finely diced raw onion sat atop the tiny gut bomb. The taco tasted like amplified barbacoa: a touch greasy but also earthy and bold. A dash of tomatillo salsa and a squeeze of lime proved essential in balancing and brightening the weighty beef. Top Chef fans, take note: Paul Qui is a regular here and often recommends the trailer to visitors.
1210 E. Cesar Chavez (no phone). Open Tue–Sun 11 a.m.–midnight.
Rosita’s Al Pastor
When you ask for the server’s recommended taco in Spanish and she offers up a “gringa,” there’s reason to feel you’re not being taken seriously. But our suspicions were dashed when we were presented with the house specialty. The Rosita’s pork pastor meat is a blinding red-orange, supermoist yet somehow crispy around the edges. The twist to the “gringa”—which is served on a tortilla so fresh it still has a dusting of flour from the prep counter—is the addition of a generous helping of melted queso blanco, which transports the taco from the meaty and savory realm to something that’s unspeakably indulgent. As you might expect, both the cheesy and regular al pastor tacos are topped simply with raw diced onion and cilantro. It’s easy to take chips and salsa for granted, but the standard appetizer is remarkable here (ask for the red sauce, which has árbol and tomatillo chiles and is truly one of the best salsas in town). The shopping center that houses Rosita’s is rather run-down: you’ll find this neon beer sign–filled taqueria somewhere between a faded Family Dollar and a check-cashing window. While the setting may not impress, we’ll vouch that the tacos will.
1911 E. Riverside Dr. (512-442-8402). Open daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m.
La Fruta Feliz
Past Salty Sow, Dai Due, and all the rest of the restaurants dotting newly trendy Manor Road, tucked into a nondescript shopping center, sits a little juice shop that also offers some of Austin’s best tacos at a mere $1.75. The star at Fruta Feliz is the barbacoa de chivo—braised goat. The slow cooking coaxes the gentler side from the meat, meaning you’ll not encounter the gamier side of goat flavor. All the elements were in perfect balance here: the large portion was a bit messy due to the moist, stewy meat, but it wasn’t greasy; the spice level of the dish is assertive and warming, but not excessive; and the high-quality tortillas are just the right thickness, strong enough to handle the meat and the generous helpings of cilantro and chunky onion. Of the three salsas offered, the roja was a standout for its sneaky, slow burn that built over the course of our meal. For diners not inclined to sample goat, the beef picadillo taco ran a close second during our visit. Service is friendly, if not rapid—one cheerful server appeared to be covering the whole restaurant on our most recent visit.
3124 Manor Rd. (512-473-0037). Open Mon–Fri 7:30 a.m.–8 p.m., Sat 6:30 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun 6:30 a.m.–6 p.m.
In the five decades Joe’s has been open, it’s cultivated a reputation as a local institution, a place as likely to be serving city and state officials as Longhorns-capped college students and large, extended families. Tejano ballads on the jukebox complement the bustling atmosphere. The bright booths are almost always full, and portraits of Henry Cisneros and Ann Richards look down on diners, a testament to the longevity and popularity of this place. Chips and salsa are tough to pass up—Joe’s excellent verde sauce is packed with chile seeds and carries a pleasant, lingering heat. Tacos here come in generous portions (order no more than two) on thick, fluffy homemade tortillas, though the weighty tortilla could still barely contain the salty barbacoa, slow-cooked to a true melt-in-your-mouth-type disintegration. The fine chop meant that there was no abundance of the fatty chunks that can derail some lesser barbacoa tacos—this version is smooth, rich, and comforting. Carne guisada was also a standout during our meal, mostly due to the thick, flavorful red gravy. Even if you can’t fit dessert in your stomach immediately, stop at the bakery counter for a bag of galletas on your way out—you’ll be happy you did.
2305 E. 7th (512-472-0017). Open Tue–Sun 6:30 a.m.–3 p.m.
On an unseasonably cold fall morning, we sampled Pueblo Viejo’s offerings based on a tip from a nearby restaurant owner. The lengthy menu caters to hip East Austin worker bees with myriad options and many veggies, but we focused on the traditional. Our breakfast favorite, the Taco Azteca, places peppery eggs packed with chunky jalapeños and grilled onions on a bed of creamy refried beans. The freshness and crunch of the peppers and the jalapeño-based verde salsa elevate the taco to greatness, as does a perfectly crisped flour tortilla. The roja and verde salsas lean mild but are impeccably fresh—daredevils can request the orange sauce, which employs five peppers, including the habanero. If visiting at lunch, the meaty and earthy Pueblo Viejo Taco (seasoned steak, mushroom, and avocado) is a strong, fulfilling choice.
907 E. 6th (512-373-6577). Open Mon–Wed 7:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Thu 7:30 a.m.–midnight, Fri & Sat 7:30 a.m.–2:30 a.m., Sun 9 a.m.–3 p.m.
Another day, another Torchy’s. Back in 2006, Torchy’s was a single trailer. But with crazy expansion now resulting in nearly thirty outlets, the Texas chain’s amped-up, highly Americanized tacos have spread to the Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston urban areas, as well as to smaller cities like Lubbock, Amarillo, College Station, and Waco. The company is even planning a move on San Antonio. (Good luck with that. San Antonioans have their own ideas about “foreign” tacos and especially chains that don’t use house-made tortillas.) The Burnet Road location in Austin, open since fall 2010, sums up the usual praise and gripes: the flavors generally rock, but the assembly is often slap-dash. In particular it drives a lot of people crazy that they overfill the tacos. (One solution to avoid a collapse is to order extra tortillas and divide the filling.) Another gripe: The corn tortillas are a shreddy mess and the flour ones are ordinary and commercial. That said, of the six breakfast and fourteen regular tacos, the Baja Shrimp is a favorite. The small—yet not tiny—shrimp—are very fresh, well seasoned, and hand-breaded. There’s cabbage slaw, topped with pickled jalapeños and red onions, a sprinkling of queso fresco, cilantro, and a lime wedge on the side. A pureed chipotle sauce comes along too. The ultimate effect is dynamite.
5119 Burnet Rd. (512-382-0823). Open Mon–Thur 7 a.m.–10 p.m., Fri 7 a.m.–11 p.m., Sat 8 a.m.–11 p.m., Sun 8 a.m.–10 p.m.
Any Burnet Road taco crawl demands a stop at Taco Flats, if only to pay homage to the long-gone scruffy original bar named Taco Flats that once graced North Lamar. Open since October 2014, with the permission of Taco Flats former co-owner Linda Steele, the new TF is a small neighborhood sports bar that sells cocktails, craft beers, wine on tap, and what owner Simon Madera calls gourmet tacos. The term translates to Mexican ideas adapted for the Austin market (e.g., two tacos are named El Hippie and the Austinite, and you can opt for the taco to be served on a thin slice of jicama instead of a tortilla). Most of the dozen tacos on the menu are familiar and tasty enough—pastor, pollo asado, carnitas. But one stands above the rest, and that is the Pirata—the Pirate. It’s utter simplicity, with beef fajitas with refried black beans, but the meat is amply seasoned and tender, the black beans are garlicky perfection, and whether you choose a corn or flour tortilla it will be house-made. With grilled onions and cilantro as a garnish, it’s the largest and most expensive taco on the menu ($5.50) but well worth the investment. (Allegedly it comes with jack cheese, but ours had none and didn’t need it. Nor did it need any extras, which was good, because there is only one salsa—a smooth jalapeño–green tomato.) The room, with its long pine communal tables, colorful horizontal paneling, and raw wood accents, is agreeable, but you’d better like sports, because there are at least half a dozen flat-screens, and the game is on!
5520 Burnet Rd. (512-619-9848). Open Mon–Fri 4–midnight, Sat 11 a.m.–1 a.m., Sun 11–midnight.
Fork & Taco
At this stylish new counter-order taco place, open since September 2014, recipes come from the fevered brain of chef-partner and Uchi veteran Casey Fannin. The fundamentals are Mexican (especially the terrific house-made corn and flour tortillas), but the fillings are international, like the excellent pork shoulder with sriracha mayo and pickled cucumber (with ingredients that parallel what you find in Mexico). But you will also be happy if you embrace the unexpected, like roasted beets with grapefruit; yes, you might want that fork after all. There are no separate salsas, so ingredients stand or fall on their own. Mostly, they stand, like jerk chicken and tender, nonfatty green-chile pork, almost like a carne guisada. Same with the seared cauliflower florettes with Mexican corn and avocado. If seasoning is timid, ask for a lime wedge. Dessert is soft-serve ice cream, with avant-garde soy-maple and a fabulous dulce de leche. P.S. There’s parking in back.
4801 Burnet Rd. (512-838-6768). Open Tue–Sun 11–9.
Only in Austin would a taco menu include half a dozen vegetarian and/or vegan options. But the owners here still know they’re in Texas—beef leads the menu, with eight choices. When Tacodeli launched in November 1999, founder Roberto Espinosa drew on his childhood in Mexico City and experience interning at a large hotel in Cancún to craft the menu. To that, he added his knowledge of Austin, where his family had lived since 1980. Co-owner Eric Wilkerson came on board in 2000, and by 2014 Tacodeli had expanded its brand of creative, Mexican-street-food-based tacos to a total of five Austin locations. Scattered from north to south, each one, from the tiny original on Barton Skyway (where you have to turn sideways like a crab to navigate the crowd) to the one on Burnet, their most recent iteration (with colorful walls and decor and roomy, tree-shaded sidewalk seating), has its own fiercely loyal following. Although the best-selling Cowboy Taco is hard to beat (loaded with beef tenderloin, grilled corn, caramelized onions, roasted poblano, guacamole, and queso fresco), the mole tacos are, if anything, even more compelling. Dark with chiles and slightly sweet, the sauce is poblano in style. Of three meat choices, the shredded organic pork is the most flavorful, augmented by a simple sprinkle of queso fresco, cilantro, and onion.
7301 Burnet Rd. (512-467-9999). Open Mon–Fri 7 a.m.–3 p.m., Sat & Sun 8–3 (breakfast until 11, all day weekends).