500 Tacos: El Arroyo

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
El Arroyo
1624 W. Fifth St. (map), 512-474-1222, www.elarroyo.com. Also at 7032 Wood Hollow Drive, 512-345-8226.
Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Wed; 11am-11pm Thu-Fri; 10am-11pm Sat; 10am-10pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 03.04.15
“Congratulations Amy Winehouse 10 Days Clean and Sober.” That was one of my favorite signs outside El Arroyo, a Tex-Mex restaurant famous mostly for the roadhouse-style marquee in front of its rambling compound on West Fifth. It came 10 days after Winehouse died in 2011, a monument to the art of the Austin middle finger. And for every tame “Go Fly A Kite” sign for something like the Zilker Kite Fest, there’s a salvo at the Dixie Chicks or butterfly tattoos or Brian Williams. The sign rarely has anything to do with the food; it’s more about attitude — an appropriate metaphor for food that plays it safe behind that cheeky facade.
The taco: BBQ smoked chicken
El Arroyo dedicates a breakout box on the menu to the tacos, enchiladas, nachos and five more meat-and-tortilla variations made with chicken that’s been rubbed with brown ancho sugar and smoked over mesquite. The taco El Arroyo makes with that chicken is a tangle of white and dark meat in chunks and shreds both tall and small, incorporating smoke-bronzed skin for some full-bird character. It’s saturated in a sweet red sauce simmered with celery and onions and tomatoes for something like Dad’s cookout chicken, with a safe suburban garnish of lettuce, tomato and cheese. ($8.95 for two tacos with rice and beans)
 Let me save you $2: I’ll try most any alternative to standard rice and beans, but the $2 “ligero” upcharge to sub a bowl of mixed fruit and an avocado salad is wasted on undressed lettuce, out-of-season tomatoes and two small, tired slices of avocado.
 Tortillas: Storebought stiff flour and doubled-up white corn.
 The prodigal taco: The child that the parents are the most proud of isn’t always the best kid. As a middle child, I can appreciate El Arroyo’s al pastor taco, because it’s over there getting straight A’s while the party-sign chicken gets all the attention. Little cubes of fatty pork are rubbed with red spice and finished on the flat-top with pineapple, then dressed with onion and cilantro for a rebellious taste of the streets. ($8.95 for two tacos with rice and beans)
 Salsa (and queso): You’ll be tempted to doctor El Arroyo’s queso with chili-powder red salsa, but the base-model queso is good enough as is, with bits of red and green pepper for color in a thick cheese that will stand a chip after just a few minutes cooling at the table. You can fortify it for 50 cents a pop with mushrooms or pico or even fajita meat, but at $6.50, it’s already priced too high for this small bowl.
 Breakfast tacos: From 7-10am Mon-Fri, El Arroyo sells breakfast tacos for $1.50-$2.75 outside the restaurant from a little stand made from a chopped blue schoolbus.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)