500 Tacos: Fat Cactus

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Fat Cactus
1318 S. Congress Ave., Austin (map), 512-585-4967, www.fatcactusaustin.com
Hours: Noon-5pm Thu-Mon
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 09.06.15
The mobile food business is a rocky road. Ask Chris Howell and Courtney Jones-Howell. Flooding rains early this year, a neverending construction project next door and the birth of their first baby (besides the trailer) have tipped their Fat Cactus trailer to the edge. They’re certainly not alone, but neither are they pie-eyed rookies with unrealistic hopes. Chris and Courtney are restaurant veterans with more than 30 years’ experience between them. He’s the beverage director at Fork & Vine, and she’s worked at Manuel’s and Malaga. In hopes of keeping their handmade Navajo frybread project alive, they held a fundraiser at the trailer Sept. 6, with a $25 BYOB taco buffet for friends and supporters. Whatever happens from here, this is the best Navajo frybread I’ve found in Austin, and it’s an experience worth preserving.
The taco: O.G. Navajo frybread
We celebrate the indigenous tacos of Mexico all the time, with trailers and restaurants and roadside stands, easily more than 500 strong in greater Austin alone. But we overlook the indigenous foods of our own country’s first citizens, in particular the frybread of the Southwest, interpreted by Fat Cactus as a Navajo taco. It’s a simple dish: seasoned meat, beans, chiles and tomatoes on fried dough like a biscuit-spoonbread-tortilla chimera. I’ve tried it at a Native American Pow-Wow at the Burger Center, where dirty fryer oil taught some lessons of its own, and at Z’Tejas, where the filling hit solid Southwestern notes, but the cracker base turned it into a canapé wannabe. The Fat Cactus employs a hand-fried base with a delicate crust as thin as a croissant shell over stout, chewy bread almost an inch thick, dusted with chile salt. The O.G. version uses ground beef seasoned with a frontier sage profile over stewed pintos. I went Christmas with the trailer’s mild chile sauces — red and green —  to go with the dress of lettuce, fresh tomatoes and cheese. Enough food and tradition to feed two people. ($8; also available in chicken and veggie versions)
 Green chile queso: There are no deeper traditions behind melted white cheese with chiles and tomatoes, but spiked with Fat Cactus’ green chile salsa and served with freshly fried tortilla chips, it makes a respectable street snack.
 Tortillas: The fybread is pressed and fried to order. The trailer has stopped doing traditional tortilla breakfast tacos for now, Jones-Howell said.
 Salsa: The green has a familiar roasted New Mexico twanginess, but the red is special, made with dried New Mexico red chiles, steeped for hours and blended with spices for a warm afterglow and mild sweetness.
 Cool it: The trailer’s tart and refreshing cilantro lemonade tames the polarizing weed with sugar and freshly squeezed lemons.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)