500 Tacos: Benji’s Cantina
A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Hours: Lunch 11am-2pm Mon-Sat; Dinner 4-11pm Mon-Thu, 4-midnight Fri-Sat; Brunch 10:30am-3pm Sun. Taco window 11pm-3am Fri-Sat.
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 05.29.15
It would be easy to dismiss Benji’s Cantina as a boozy, high-priced, chain-driven interloper to the West Sixth Street party district — the Ed Hardy shirt of Austin taco bars. It’s two of those things, to be sure. Boozy and pricey, with a robust rooftop bar business and fajitas at $37-$45 a pound. But the third thing? We have Benji’s all to ourselves for now, and they deserve a fair reckoning.
The taco: Beef fajitas
Few places in town match the spectacle of Benji’s fajitas, served on a toro-stamped iron stand on a block of square iron embossed with “Austin, Texas” like a manhole cover. On that sizzling iron plancha is a melange of onion, red and green bell peppers, fresh tomato, charred jalapeño and beef in its charred, irregular glory. It’s almost too tender for its own good, like the marinade has started breaking down the muscle, but the seasoning is right, and the arrangement of caramelized vegetables around it makes for a taco like a bouquet wrapped in a handmade flour tortilla. I split the bountiful 8-ounce order with chicken, which benefited from the same roasty char and a nice red-powder seasoning. ($22 for 8 ounces, served with pico, jack cheese, Mexican crema, guacamole and tortillas)
► Carnitas: Sometimes the best things in the house get lost in the steam and sizzle of a specialty like fajitas. Benji’s pork carnitas taco is one of those things, with thick, lean shreds and chunks of tender pork with a crispy, caramelized bark, finished with avocado and queso fresco on fresh, doubled-up corn tortillas. ($4 at happy hour; $11 for two at lunch)
► Tortillas: Benji’s makes its own corn and flour tortillas. The corn’s on the mealy and fragile side but with good maiz flavor. The flour is fresh and flexible, oily to the touch and consummately load-bearing.
► Happy hour: From 4-7 Mon-Sat, Benji’s brings out a $4 menu of drinks and food to plunder. Ceviche, guacamole, flautas, queso, fish tacos, carnitas, margaritas and more. My highlights: The pork carnitas mentioned above, plus a refreshing grapefruit and tequila Paloma and a ceviche of firm, fleshy, clean-tasting sole snapping with lime and blood orange.
► Salsa: It’s Christmas in red and green when the big stainless bowl of warm chips shows up, with a roasted, mild red salsa heavy on the garlic and a mellow roasted jalapeño green with onion and garlic, whirled to pure velvet.
► The taco window: From 11pm-3am on Fridays and Saturdays, Benji’s opens a window onto West Sixth for a $4 taco menu that includes beef and chicken fajitas, fried avocado, pork adobada, green chile chicken and those wicked carnitas.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)