Austin IIII. Los Tacos.
Austin is known for their tacos. I know that Texas is where "Tex-Mex" food originated (duh), but what is about Austin and tacos, specifically? The world wide web yields many results for "Best Tacos in Austin" or restaurant/taqueria proprietary sites, but the strong connection between Austin and Tacos is still a mystery.
I overcame the unknown and embarked on a taco adventure in Austin, TX.
The first "tacos" I had were at Arturo's Bakery and Cafe on 17th Street (an easy walk from UT's campus). I walked into this little restaurant/counter service joint and loved how immediately friendly the man behind the counter was. The chalkboard menu features breakfast (served until 11am) with the ever popular Austin staple -- The Breakfast Taco. They had sandwiches and salads and quesadillas. Where were the tacos? I asked for a quesadillas suggestion. If I was in the mood for something sweet, the Sesame Ginger Chicken 'dilla, for something spicy, the Chipotle Chicken quesadilla. I went spicy and made my way to the lemonade/ice tea "bar" (a counter with 3 different types of iced teas). After assembling my gourmet Arnold Palmer (1/2 lemonade, 1/4 unsweetened iced tea, 1/4 hibiscus iced tea), I turned towards the door and caught sight of the taco menu. It was hidden!!! To the right (and written in very small letters) sat the taco menu I had been searching for. Oh well, it had been a while since I had a quesadilla and isn't a quesadilla essentially just a cheesy taco?
I sat outside and really enjoyed the Texan heat. (I was very warm). The quesadillas came out fairly quickly and complete with rice and beans! They were quite hot to touch so I waited a few minutes before digging in, but once I did...BAM! The chipotle was fairly spicy, but it had a sweet aftertaste that was a nice balance to the spicy kick. The melted cheese was oh so good and finished off with a bite of rice and beans, this was a hearty lunch and a wonderful introduction to my Austin, Texas "taco" fare.
My second taco adventure came in the morning. I was rushing up to the Capitol building to meet the group for my free walking tour and passed by a Royal Blue Grocery on Brazos Street that advertised Tacodeli Breakfast tacos in their window. Unfortunately, their tacos do not come in corn tortillas because they don't hold up well to the heat and re-heat. Limited by my gluten freedom, I resumed my speed-walking and came across Taco Shack just a few steps away. The line was long, which could have been problematic due to my time crunch, but I took it as a sign that these tacos we good. I ordered the "shack taco" in a corn tortilla and got ready for my egg, chorizo, potato, and cheese bundle. It did take quite a while (10 minutes approx.) to get my taco. Normally this would have bothered me, but it gave me a chance to watch the wonderful assembly line operations that were happening in the kitchen. I knew this taco would be hot and fresh and really made to order. Eating on the run was the worst part of consuming this taco because it was a bit messy and I had trouble really tasting the taco. The flavors were pretty good, nothing super memorable or that I would rush back to have, but it kept me full for hours!
At this time, I felt a bit jipped in my taco adventure, so I reached out to an Austinite friend for her taco suggestion. "Torchys Tacos. Hands down" she replied to my text. The North Austin Torchy's seems to be the UT go-to and I jumped in line with the throngs of college students decked out in their burnt orange UT and Longhorns gear.
Everything on the menu looked delicious and I struggled to decide which tacos to order. My mistake was thinking that I needed to order two tacos. One taco is a meal in itself! Torchy's reminded me a bit of California style tacos (Gordo, Dos Toros etc) due to the filling to tortilla space ratio. For the sake of comparison, I ordered The Republican - grilled jalapeño sausage, shredded cheese and pico de gallo with poblano sauce, and The Democrat - shredded beef barbacoa, topped with fresh avocado, queso fresco, cilantro, and onions. I didn't realize the jalapeño sausage was essentially a hot dog with a spicy pepper embedded into it so I was really surprised when it was placed in front of me. I alternated bites between The Democrat and The Republican in order to continually compare and contrast the two. The quantity of avocado that came with the Democrat was fantastic. Total win. The pico de gallo on the Republican, as I could have predicted, made the tortilla soggy and the taco fell apart quickly. The Republican was kinda like a chili cheese dog taco, which isn't a bad thing, just an observation. Also, the poblano sauce that came with the Republican was like spicy ranch dressing which was mmm mmm good. The authentic flare (onions and cilantro) of The Democrat was a really nice backbone to fall back on, and the beef was well cooked and extremely flavorful.
Overall, The Democrat (left) won!
You could roll me out of Torchy's I was so full after those two bad boys. Well since this wasn't enough taco fare for me, I went to one more taco commissary on South Congress for dinner. The same Austinite that suggested Torchy's took me to Guero's Tacos for dinner and a chance to have some "queso" (melted cheese with tomato and some other stuff) as a real Tex-Mexer. The line at Guero's was long, but we made our way to the full-service bar area and plopped down to dive in.
I ordered Tacos al Pastor (marinated pork) and was most impressed by the rice. I am used to the soft tomato rice usually accompanying a taco platter, but this rice was less tomato and more salty buttery goodness. And not over cooked! Really really delicious. The taco was good too. I wish the pork had been a bit more moist or flavorful, something about it was not quite right. The taco was topped with onion, cilantro, and pineapple, and I loved the sweet tropical pineapple. It gave the tacos a brightness that kept the plethora of carby food still feeling fresh and light. According to my friend, the queso dip was subpar, but I was very content with the melted cheese.
En total, I ate a satisfactory number of tacos/Tex-Mex while in Austin and did not have a bad experience! Torchy's definitely took the cake and I know there are more tacos to be had so I must go back to Austin. What I really want to try is a BBQ taco. That would be a true Austin experience.