500 Tacos: Chuy’s

 
 
An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
 
Chuy’s
1728 Barton Springs Road, Austin (map), 512-474-4452, www.chuys.com
Hours: 11am-10pm Sun-Thu; 11am-11pm Fri-Sat
Also at: 10520 N. Lamar Blvd. (map); 11680 Research Blvd. (map); 4301 W. William Cannon Drive (map); 2320 N. Interstate 35, Round Rock (map)
 
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 10.23.15
 
I’ve taken a seat at every table in the original Chuy’s on Barton Springs since it opened in 1982. The hubcap room, the fish lounge, by the velvet Elvis, under the car tailfins, every stool at the bar. Chuy’s is everywhere now, but this is where it started, and there’s no way I’m leaving out one of my favorite, most consistent restaurant experiences in Austin just because it’s no longer exclusively Austin-weird.
 
The taco: Crispy beef
A Tex-Mex taco from this most Tex-Mex of places, it starts with a handmade corn tortilla fried to a charmingly irregular half-moon crisp. The ground sirloin is moist without going greasy, and Chuy’s supplements its lean nature with peppers and onions. Toss in chopped lettuce, shredded American cheese and tomatoes, and this is the kind of crispy taco you can build a franchise on. ($8.49 for three with rice and beans)
 
 
 Baja tacos: I’m a creature of habit here. Give me the No. 4 Combo with a relleno and enchilada every time. Which is to say I’m new to Chuy’s tacos, and this fish taco makes me feel like I’ve missed out. Roughly the size and shape of an Anaheim pepper, the clean, dense tilapia is coated with tortilla crumbs and fried to an armored shell, then finished with purple cabbage and Chuy’s ranch-style creamy jalapeño sauce and fresh cilantro. One of the best fish tacos in this series. ($9.69 for two with rice and beans).
 Tacos al carbon: Striped with grill marks, fajitas here start with a Shiner Bock marinade that pops with serrano peppers and lime. From those fajitas come solid if not flashy tacos, kind of the grumpy old men of the Chuy’s family. But they know what they’re doing. ($9.99 for two with rice and beans)
 Tortillas: Chuy’s make its own strong corn tortillas and thick dusty flour tortillas, but its best-in-show is made with blue corn, for tortillas with the bumpy, mottled topography of a Tex-Mex planet. From space, you can see shadows that look like the face of Elvis.
 
 
 Salsa: Salsa fresca shows up with chips. It’s tart and fresh and hotter than it looks, with lime up front, followed by peppers, onions and tomatoes. These other two, you have to ask for them: simmered, sweet tomato table sauce with chunks of carrot and a bowl of creamy jalapeño ranch to cool things down.
 Rice and beans: Spiked with roasted peppers, tomatoes and cilantro, Chuy’s green chile rice is worth ordering by itself. But you’ll want charro beans, too, with a thick pot liquor of onions and chiles.
 Queso compuesto: The same picadillo that animates the crispy taco also gives life to creamy yellow queso with guacamole and pico de gallo. The queso by itself — spiked with the green chiles that Chuy’s started using before the other guys ever did — is among Austin’s best. ($6.99/$4.99 half)
 Service note: Chuy’s willl let you mix and match tacos, add one a la carte, go halfsies on queso, bring blue corn tortillas just because you ask. Whatever. It’s always been that way. And not because I’m me, but because they’re Chuy’s.
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The 500 Tacos Project
 
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)