500 Tacos: Casa Chapala

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Casa Chapala
9041 Research Blvd., Austin (map), 512-459-4242, www.casachapala.com
Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Thu; 11am-midnight Fri; 9am-midnight Sat; 9am-10pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 11.20.15
By night, Casa Chapala is a mild-mannered Tex-Mex place for casual techies, with margaritas and weekend mariachis. By day, it’s a top-tier Mexican lunch buffet, with enchiladas, sopes, roasted chicken, queso, buñuelos, fresh fruit, a quartet of carne dishes and fresh corn tortillas to transform anything and everything into a taco. Casa Chapala moved here in March of last year from its longtime home on Anderson Lane (now Fork & Vine), and its fledgling downtown location didn’t make it, but the new location is lively, tasteful and on a recent weekday lunch, absolutely full.
The taco: Pork chile verde
Of the quartet of taco meats on the buffet — picadillo, carnitas, chicken tinga and pork in green chile sauce — the last one gets the green flag. The cubed, roasted pork is fork tender, with just enough fat for flavor, braised in thick liquor with a bright, roasted green chile aura like a backlit pepper projector. Dressed simply with pico and a little queso fresco on a hot handmade corn tortilla, it’s a buffet taco as good as made-to-order. ($11.99 as part of the lunch buffet Mon-Fri 11am-2pm)
 The rest of the carne quartet: I’ve seen restaurants like Quinta Caporales shred big pieces of roasted pork to order for carnitas, but Casa Chapala leaves that job to me. And it’s an easy job with pork this tender, with enough dark and light meat for flavor and textural contrast. It’s better than the overly salty, generic taco spicing of the picadillo, and much better than dry chicken tinga that hangs out like a milquetoast outcast in the corner of the buffet.
 The rest of the buffet: The puerco verde and carnitas by themselves make an argument for the $11.99 buffet pricetag. But they’re backed up by ground beef enchiladas in tangy red sauce, sopes on thick beds of fresh corn masa, hot queso ready to customize, fried taco salad shells and enough fresh pineapple, strawberry an jicama to make your own street-style fruit cup. The buffet is a serve-yourself line, but the personable waitstaff works the tables like a full-service operation. ($11.99, Mon-Fri 11-2. For comparison’s sake, check out the more modest lunch buffet at El Faro.)
 Tortillas: The fried taco shells and flour tortillas come from a box, but Casa Chapala makes its own corn tortillas, heating them on a comal just inches away from the serving line.
 Salsa: Part of Casa Chapala’s personal touch, even during the buffet, is a steward who spices fresh tomato salsa to order and crushes it in a molcajete as part of the chips-and-salsa service. The buffet also carries a mild tomatillo verde as thick as whirled peas.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)