500 Tacos: El Chile Cafe y Cantina

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
El Chile Cafe y Cantina
1809 Manor Road (map), 512-457-9900, www.elchilecafe.com
Hours: 11am-9pm Sun-Mon; 11am-10pm Sat-Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 08.03.15
The El Chile Group is well-represented in this series, with El Alma, El Chilito and now El Chile. Undecided is whether I’ll try their new Alcomar for a DIY seafood taco, and tragic is the fact that I can’t stuff one of their innovative burgers from El Sapo into a tortilla and call it a taco. So today brings me to El Chile, the seed from which the whole group grew, where taco plates are served only during lunch on weekdays from 11-3. Wouldn’t want to compete with El Chilito just a few blocks away, would we?
The taco: Pescado
El Chile is more than just an indoor version of El Chilito. There’s a difference between taco-stand fish tacos and fish tacos from a busy mid-priced kitchen. Better fish to start with. And cooks who are accustomed to cooking fish for people paying $20+ a plate for it. El Chile gets it right, with mildly seasoned red snapper just starting to brown on the outside, staying flaky and opalescent inside. The Baja dress of slaw and lemon aioli is as dense as a thatched roof, but it doesn’t smother the host. ($12 for two with white rice and black beans)
 Puff, daddy: Tender, juicy shredded chicken with an active achiote braise is the icing on the cake — more accurately a corn tortilla jet-puffed as crunchy and airy as a Cheeto. It’s dressed with cool, creamy guacamole, lettuce, tomato and queso fresco. ($10 for two with rice and beans)
 Short-rib barbacoa: The idea of pulling roasted short rib for barbacoa is appealing because the cut has a generous ratio of fat to lean. That beefy lushness comes through in a taco dressed simply with grilled onions and crumbled queso fresco. But the braise is distracting, hitting way too hard on high, flinty spice notes. ($11 for two with rice and beans)
 Tortillas: Commercial flour, lightly toasted, and doubled-up yellow corn storebought tortillas hold back the fish and beef tacos, but the freshly fried base of the puffy taco forgives its humble beginnings.
 In ques o’ emergency: Using these stout, freshly fried tostadas, break through your reluctance to pay $9 for queso and spring for dense, dairy-rich, melted white cheese spiked with ribbons of roasted poblano and onion.
 Salsa: A small bowl of free chips — alas, not the fresh tostadas from the queso — comes with two good salsas: a mahogany puree of smoky charred tomatoes and jalapeños and a tangy, smooth orange blend of habanero and carrot that draws heat from the former and sweetness and body from the latter.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)