The handmade flour tortilla was thin and appeared dangerously fragile for the job at hand: to contain twists of carne asada and hand-cut french fries. Yet, the thirteen-inch disc was doing its job marvelously. Its filling was a study in delightful contrasts: lightly fried potatoes with fluffy interiors wedged against just-chewy-enough grilled chopped beef, complemented by guacamole, cheddar, crema, and pico. It was everything there is to love about steak and carbs in rolled tortilla form, and it’s served at weeks-old Troublemaker, an Austin bar-record store that also happens to sell some food. Its tight menu consists of chips, dips, loaded fries, a breakfast burrito, and the aforementioned beef and fries-stuffed California-style (or San Diego-style) burrito.
It almost didn’t work out so well. Troublemaker, which occupies the space previously housing Hightower, didn’t receive its Mexico-manufactured tortilla machine until two days before opening. The reason? Customs and border patrol held the equipment for two weeks, said chef and co-owner Chad Dolezal (who was also chef at Hightower). “It was really brutal sitting there going, ‘Oh, really? Everything that the kitchen is based on is sitting at a border station right now?’” But it’s not as if Dolezal and team hadn’t spent years perfecting their flour tortilla game. As the native Texan told me, the tortillas and burritos had been a passion project since he lived in San Diego. Troublemaker’s tortilla recipe was probably the thirtieth version. Still, though, he was concerned about the logistics of hand-rolling the wide tortillas if the machine didn’t arrive in time. Fortunately, it arrived just in time. Although they had allotted for forty burritos on opening night, the kitchen ran through two days’s worth of prep halfway through that first night.
I visited the week after the opening and was surprised not only by the craftsmanship that went into the tortillas but by the restraint. Troublemaker is first and foremost a moodily lit bar with wood booths and tables. To the right of the front door is a fixture holding records. The bathrooms are distinguished by portraits of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. The bar is narrow and long along the far wall. The business’s name is taken from a Willie Nelson album. And there is that limited, straightforward food menu. For the burrito, Dolezal didn’t want to reimagine anything. “[A San Diego burrito] is something that people are familiar with,” Dolezal says. “Most people know what it really is, but maybe it’s a little different than the way they had it. We wanted to make sure that we stayed as true as we could to what we saw were San Diego-style burritos. There was no ‘we want to do our own twist on it.’” (Note: Customers can sub the carne asada for carnitas, pollo asado, or the vegetarian Impossible chorizo.)
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That being said, Dolezal was prepared for a negative reaction from an Austin crowd that clutches to breakfast tacos and tortilla preparations slung out of taco truck windows. “I thought there might be some trepidation of people going in and going, ‘You know, what exactly are we eating here?’ It’s been less of a culture shock than people kind of thought it would be when they first heard about what we were doing. All we’re doing is our best homage to something that we love, that we think is a little bit different. So far, luckily, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
The fact that Troublemaker is a bar helps. The focus is on a good time with a couple of drinks, good tunes, and a casual nosh. If you don’t want to eat, you can stick to the booze. There is no pressure. As Dolezal reiterates, “We’re not churching anything up.”