500 Tacos: El Alma

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
El Alma
1025 Barton Springs Road (map), 512-609-8923, www.elalmacafe.com
Hours: 11am-9pm Mon; 11am-10pm Tue-Thu; 11am-11pm Fri; 10am-11pm Sat; 10am-9pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 03.17.15
El Alma has beaten the curse of Barton Springs at Dawson Road, the curse that bounced its building from gallery to sandwich shop to cafe to Italian restaurant to two other Mexican restaurants in 10 years before El Alma opened in 2011. And they did it with one thing the Austin market will bear: good food at good prices. Chef Alma Alcocer-Thomas brings her high-end restaurant skills to dishes like quail in mole and a Coke-brined pork chop, but her Mexican roots run deep enough to support a taco menu that could stand on its own.
Taco A: Duck
“Pato” surely means “duck wizard” in alt-world Spanish, because the alchemical allspice flavors of a mole sauce weave through the fibers of willowy dark meat, with pickled pink onions and toasted pumpkin seeds for contrast. ($4)
Taco B: Lamb barbacoa
I spent the day before this lunch judging 16 lamb dishes for the Austin Lamb Jam. There was lamb belly pho, ribs in rich mole, an elegantly primal shank, even a lamb  chorizo taco. But with a taco that emphasized the lamb’s meadowy richness and the sweet acidics of the braise in equal measure, El Alma could have competed with any of them — and left a few behind. ($4.50)
Taco C: Pork al pastor
Shaved in ribbons like a rotisserie pastor, the tender pork radiates warm red adobo spice with a cinnamon undercurrent. Pineapple counters the richness with a sweet tropical twang in grilled pieces and in flavors that seem to have melted into the meat. One of the best al pastor tacos in this series so far. ($4)
 Shrimp al pastor: Take everything good about the pork al pastor and take it down a half-step for shrimp that’s overcooked by that same half-step and you’re still left with a decent taco, but not a good value at $4.50. It’s finished with a crisp dress of cabbage and freshly shorn yellow corn.
 Tortillas: Single-layer storebought yellow corn and flour tortillas are the weakest links.
 Salsa: Red and green, of course, as you’d expect from a member of the restaurant group that includes El Chile, El Chilito and El Sapo. But the red is a chile de arbol with smoke like a sweet memory, and the green — an electric chop of tomatillo and lime — is proof that something healthy and green can thrive even on this once forsaken corner.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)