500 Tacos: Don Dario’s

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Don Dario’s
8801 S. IH-35, Austin (map), 512-280-1139, www.dondarioscantina.com
Hours: 7am-9pm Sun-Mon; 7am-10pm Tue-Thu; 7am-11pm Fri-Sat
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 12.13.15
The expansion of the family Tex-Mex restaurant Don Dario’s to Southpark Meadows in 2010 was a landmark for an East Side business at the beginning of Austin’s restaurant boom. Dario Gonzalez took the leap from being a cook at the late El Matador to opening his own place on East Sixth in 1985, and for Don Dario’s to open a second location at a development anchored by national chains like Home Depot was a solid step for a homegrown business. But the original restaurant closed two years ago, and now Southpark Meadows carries the family banner alone. The family carries it well, with a full bar, extensive Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican menus, breakfast all day, handmade tortillas and tacos that can stand on their own.
The taco: Carnitas
You can change the dynamic at a taco place, depending on what you order. Start out by ordering tripas, and it’s a sign you’re down for anything. So when you ask the waiter to recommend the restaurant’s best taco, he’ll come back with something more adventurous than fajitas or picadillo (you know, for the khakis crowd). Mine recommended carnitas, and it’s a charred, flossy, snarled, glorious mess of a taco. Think of it as refried pork: roasted first, then cooked to an edgy crispness with onions on the grill. The heat seals the juices, renders the bulkier fats and adds caramelized bark for texture. It’s old-school enough for the streets, easygoing enough for the khakis crowd. ($2.50)
 Tripas: I’ve had tripas cooked a half-dozen different ways for this series. Crunchy at Mi Trailita, chewy as an innertube at Don Chuy, somewhere in-between at Kike’s. But Don Dario’s style is new to me. The twists and tubes of beef intestine are as deep brick red as cured ham, with the same kind of fat marbled down the sides. They’re as crisp as fried Slim Jims, with no GI funk. ($2.50)
 Al pastor: A restaurant in business since the Reagan administration understands al pastor, even if it’s not cut from a trompo. At Don Dario’s, half-fatty knots of pork get a hard sear over a marinade of understated adobo spices, cooked down with onions and pineapples for the street-and-sweet twang of a good pastor. ($2.50)
 Breakfast tacos: Don Dario’s sells breakfast all day, and that means anytime’s the right time for migas with homemade fried tortillas, ranchero sauce and cheese in a handmade flour tortilla ($2). Nopales and eggs trade textural shades of hot fluff and cactus squeak for a simple $1.79 taco with its roots on East Sixth.
 Tortillas: Don Dario’s handmade thick, pliable, corn tortillas are some of the best-tasting in Austin, the right choice for carnitas, pastor and tripas. Breakfast tacos do well on Dario’s fresh flour tortillas, but they’re a shade on the tough side.
 Salsa: A thick, homogenized red sauce with free chips is as mild as tomato soup. But go ahead, play the tripas card again and ask for Dario’s green sauce. It’s like blended tomatillo aspic fortified with peppers and onions for a salsa as clingy as you are with the ex who ends up slow-burning you every time. And that’s why we like it so much.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)