500 Tacos: El Meson

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
El Meson
5808 Burleson Road (map), 512-416-0749, www.elmesonaustin.wordpress.com.
Sister restaurant with a different menu and hours at 2038 S. Lamar Blvd. (map).
Hours: 6:30am-2:30pm Mon-Fri, 7am-2pm Sat, closed Sun
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 01.22.15
A few years ago, El Meson joined the scramble to fill every building on South Lamar with a restaurant, piling into a former neon shop in a mini-center that includes Barley Swine, Lick Ice Creams and Henri’s Wine and Cheese. But the restaurant’s heart is still on Burleson Road, its original breakfast-and-lunch taqueria with a regular roster of migas, barbacoa and carnitas, punctuated by interior Mexican surprises like cochinita pibil and the pumpkin-seed mole called pipian.
Taco A: Beef fajitas
If fajitas can just lie still on the grill long enough to turn a nice toasty brown on the outside and turn tender in the middle — but not too tender, because we like our skirt steak to push back a little — then their work is done. It’s up to the restaurant to add the showmanship and swerve. El Meson’s not much for show, just a boilerplate chop of lettuce and tomatoes. But its swerve is strong, with a complementary sauté of soft, sweet onions and mild poblanos. ($3.25)
Taco B: Cochinita pibil
Pork can be a subtle beast, when it wants to. Slow-roasted with dusky red achiote spice, it’s mellow and tender, content to share the tortilla with marinated pink onions. The onions do the contrast work, sharp-tongued slivers with a citrus crunch and a sweet-sour finish. ($3.25)
Taco C: Calabacitas
Whereas meat can abide a slow stewing, most vegetables start to break down in that environment. Their personalities melt and merge. And that’s good for a stew, but not so much for a taco, where a sauté is easier on tortillas and shirt-fronts alike. This sloshy stew of zucchini, onions and corn has reassuring buttery vegetable afterglow. An afterglow that would be better in a bowl with a spoon. ($3.25)
Taco D: Chicken tinga
Pound for pound, this is El Meson’s best value, a handful of shredded white and dark chicken, softened and flavored over time in a mild chipotle base with satisfying shades of sweetness and smokiness. ($3.25)
Bonus taco: Al pastor (inset photo)
If imitation equals flattery, the ubiquitous vertical al pastor spit called the trompo is thoroughly flattered by now. Few people in town bother with it, and al pastor has come to describe a loose toss of cubed pork with adobo spices cooked on the flat-top grill. Same here, but El Meson pays homage to the trompo spirit by incorporating pineapple and onion and going easy on the overcompensating orange powder. The result is light and hearty at the same time. ($3.25)
 Tortilla: El Meson makes its own corn tortillas. To that, I say “...and?” They’re like undercooked scuba-suit crepes, torn at the tension points and barely able to hold their own. Forgivable sins if they added a layer of taste. They don’t. Corn flavor, por favor?
 Salsa: Resting in ice on the counter are three bins, one with a pulpy and mild chop of tomatoes and peppers, another with freshly grilled peppers and onions. The third is more inscrutable, an emulsion the color of pumpkin bisque, spiked with fibery strands. It’s sweet, with a tanginess somewhere between remoulade and marinara. And it accomplishes all of that with just serranos, tomatoes, onions and oil.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)