500 Tacos: Cielito Lindo
A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Hours: 11am-9p Mon-Thu; 11am-10pm Fri-Sat; 11am-6pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 12.15.15
Cielito Lindo came across my radar during a Google Maps search for taco-based life forms in Cedar Park. It was just another red dot until a search turned up a story by the Austin Chronicle’s Virginia Wood, with the kind of history only the dean of Austin food writers could tell. Wood worked with Cielito Lindo’s Eusebio Alvarez in the ‘80s at Fonda San Miguel, where he held the line at the kitchen no matter whose name got the press. The spirit of Fonda San Miguel abides here, even in this humble strip-mall dining room, among the ornamented wooden chairs, the sponge-painted and stenciled walls, even the blue and white Mexican pottery plates. But more important, the spirit abides in food that works not because of its surroundings, but because of the people who make it.
The taco: Cochinita pibil
One of the signature dishes of interior Mexican cooking makes one of its best tacos: cochinita pibil, or achiote roasted pork. At Cielito Lindo, the pork is glossy with fat, juicy under the weedy, flinty, twangy spark of achiote, pulled in irregular pieces and dressed with sweet-and-sour pickled onions that go straight past pink on their way to beet red. On a handmade corn tortilla for just $2.75, it’s a master-class taco at a taqueria price.
► Sopes: A sampler of eight sopes comes straight from the Fonda playbook. But the players still have to run the plays to complete the analogy. These little boats of freshly pressed corn masa with al pastor, guacamole, carnitas and barbacoa aren’t as pretty as their Austin counterparts, but they hold their own for taste. The guacamole pops with lime, tomato and onion. The pastor radiates pineapple sweetness, and the barbacoa gives a sense of sauced Texas pit brisket. The carnitas — as mellow as flossy pulled chicken breast — uses its little raft of masa more like a lifeboat; it’s safe, but we don’t wade into restaurant waters just to be safe. ($9.99 for eight. Note: The restaurant subbed al pastor instead of cochinita pibil on my request.)
► Lamb barbacoa: Cielito Lindo’s taco menu — beef and chicken fajitas, carnitas, pibil, pastor, beef barbacoa for $2.75-$2.99 — also includes lamb barbacoa so musky I never made it to the second bite ($3.50).
► Tortillas: Cielito Lindo makes its own small, strong, utilitarian corn tortillas. Flour tortillas come from a bag.
► Salsa: A thoroughly blended, tomato-dominated cool red sauce with smoke and heat just under its calm surface.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)