500 Tacos: El Caribe

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
El Caribe
5610 N. Lamar Blvd. (map), 512-452-6207, www.elcaribemexrest.com
Hours: 11am-9pm Mon-Thu, 11am-10pm Fri, 10am-10pm Sat, 10am-9pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 02.07.15
Food writers love to use the phrase “life-changing,” applying it with equal zealotry to chicken wings, breakfast pizza and strawberry margaritas. El Caribe didn’t change my life, exactly, but it was there when it happened, over puffy tacos and iced tea in 2011. It was here that the company behind Fed Man Walking pitched the idea for me to leave the Statesman and run my own website. As the newspaper’s restaurant critic, I wouldn’t have considered walking away. But the paper had just offered a generous, wholly optional buyout, and with only 10 days between buy-out and bye-bye, I made the jump. El Caribe’s role in that? De facto conference room, just like it’s been since 2001, one with enchiladas and taco plates — and margaritas for toasting those life-changing moments. 
The taco: Puffy taco with chicken
When does a taco cross the line between taco and taco salad? The puffy taco flirts with that line for a living, but it also answers the question with a delicate shell hollowed like a Faberge egg from a single corn tortilla rather than the posterboard flour tortilla bowl of the modern taco salad. Puffy tacos come in twos at El Caribe, filled with beef or chicken and a confetti cannon of lettuce, tomatoes and cheese. The beef plays it much too safely for even the least adventurous eater, but the chicken is a light and dark stew of tomato, bell pepper and onion with uncomplicated flavors both familiar and satisfying. It’s a taco triumvirate of seasoned meat, crispy shell and a cool shower of vegetables. ($6.75 for two)
 Tortilla: The puffy taco, much like fried tacos dorados, is a hedge against ordinary storebought tortillas. There’s at least some degree of deep-fried personalization.
 Not a puffy taco: I like El Caribe’s al pastor. The pork is marinated and cooked in warm orange spice, tomato and onion rather than just ambushed with them on the flat-top. El Caribe solves pastor’s pineapple problem by incorporating golden nuggets of it in pico de gallo. ($7.75 for two with rice and beans)
 Salsa: There’s a sign on the tabletop salsa bar up front that says, “Warning: May Cause Death!” It’s talking about a habanero salsa (in the center of the salsa photo) that comes out like a rodeo bull, no slow build or subtle heat, just a high hot snort that triggers the body’s emergency response system. Underneath that heat is sharp tomato twang and a finish like the summer’s first charcoal barbecue. Other choices include a fresh and chunky tomato red, a restorative tomatillo green, a smoky chipotle like barbecue sauce and a sweet pineapple salsa that shuts the door on the pineapple problem once and for all.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)