500 Tacos: El Naranjo

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
El Naranjo
85 Rainey St., Austin (map), 512-474-2776, www.elnaranjo-restaurant.com
Hours: 5:30-10pm Tue-Sat; brunch 11am-2pm Sat-Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 10.22.15
When Rainey Street was a quaint dive-bar side street, El Naranjo was there, in a trailer well-adapted to the shabby chic ethos of the street. And as Rainey Street evolves into an upscale mixed-use condo and nightlife district, El Naranjo is just as well-adapted, now a fully realized restaurant in the revitalized bungalow where the trailer once stood. But that’s history. And El Naranjo is about tradition, bringing the food that owners Iliana de la Vega and her husband, Ernesto Torrealba, were cooking in Oaxaca before adapting their rich mole sauces, chiles rellenos and tikin-xic to their new home in Austin. And because this is Austin, this anything-but-a-taqueria has added tacos to its dinner menu. And because this is El Naranjo, they do it better than Austin has come to expect from even its best Mexican restaurants.
The taco: Tacos de arrachera estilo Baja-Med
El Naranjo does a great job with duck, which is the long way of saying that the kitchen does equally well with beef skirt steak, which poses some of the same challenges. Sear it well enough to start rendering the fat, and you risk turning the meat gray. Or blow the sear, and you wind up with gamey fat and bubblegum con carne. The beef at the heart of this taco carries a full-flavored mahogany char on the outside, but the inside is as red as a Valentine’s blush and just as heartfelt. The taco’s balanced with a thick slice of fresh pineapple, a crescent of avocado and a pallet of greens on a fresh corn tortilla, finished with salsa macha at once hot and candied. ($18 for three)
 Tacos de Gaonera (at bottom right in the photo above): I’ve gnawed my way through dozens of bistec tacos and half-hearted fajitas for this series. And so I steeled my jaw for the wide wale of steak across a modest corn tortilla. A waste of good jaw steel, as it happened, because this tenderloin is expertly seared and sliced perfectly against the grain for the full, rich, beef taco taste without the mandibular CrossFit session. An elegantly simple taco that makes the best of its premium key ingredient, served with guacamole and salsa verde. ($24 for three)
 Tortillas: This is the model of a handmade Mexican corn tortilla. Compact, strong enough to hold up under grilled steak, soft enough to pull apart by hand.
 Queso fundido: El Naranjo’s guacamole is among the best in Austin, so I wanted to test its skill at another simple dish: thick melted cheese with chorizo, poblanos and onions. It’s hot, sweaty, melty and messy — all the things I want queso fundido to be. And at El Naranjo, I also want it to have mellow chorizo in a thick chile braise, and sweet sauteed onions and long strips of poblano with a little squeak left in them. But most of all, I want a good excuse to get more of those corn tortillas. ($14)
 Salsa: This isn’t a chips-and-salsa place. But there’s a sweet, tart tomatillo verde with the tenderloin tacos, and an escabeche of cauliflower, carrot and allspice that comes with the bread service, along with an elegant orange butter. But the salsa that defines El Naranjo is a growling red crush of dried chiles in oil called salsa macha. The oil softens the flesh and brings out not just the heat but the peppers’ natural sweetness.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)