500 Tacos: Fresa’s
A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Hours: 8am-10pm daily; breakfast served until 11am weekdays, noon on weekends
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 06.18.15
As Tropical Storm Bill rattled its chains over Central Texas, I went to Fresa’s on North Lamar because Fresa’s would want it that way. Just a few weeks before, the place was up to its knees in Shoal Creek from the Memorial Day Flooding, but the staff swept away the water, pain and debris and reopened the next day. Bill spared them the worst of his wrath this week, and it’s back to business as usual. And business is good. This little walk-up building with a drive-through makes the best street-style chicken al carbon in the city, even if the meal deal is crowding $30 these days. And the tacos? They were good enough for President Obama during a visit in July of 2014. But for Austin’s taco party, it’s always an election year, and you’re only as good as your last campaign.
Taco A: El Presidente
When chef Rene Ortiz took the kitchen reins at Fresa’s in 2013, he brought two worlds with him: the Mexico City swagger of La Condesa and the Thai sensibilities of Sway. They’re both present in El Presidente (the taco that Fresa’s served to President Obama): the Mexican fruit-cup crunch of jicama and twang of tomatillo salsa and the Asian undertones of pickled carrot and cucumber, playing against the universal language of grilled chicken. ($4.25)
Taco B: The Margie
Steak and eggs combine for a powerful talisman against evil words, but this breakfast taco takes license with a few other words from the menu: rajas and charred onions. Sounds good with steak and eggs, right? The eggs are righteous, a deep country yellow, scrambled firm and high. The steak draws character from the same post oak fire that fuels Fresa’s chicken al carbon. But the onions and peppers were barely cooked and mostly absent, respectively, and the taco was a sloppy mess, soaking through a spongy flour tortilla like white bread in a sack lunch. ($3.50)
Taco C: El Yosh
Fresa’s isn’t just a chicken stand, and this gnarled, primitive pork proves it, right down to the knob of fat the size of a bingo ball at one end, balanced by a hard chunk of meat the same size at the other end. Somewhere in between it merges with smoky salsa, pickled pink onions, tangy cotija cheese and avocado for Fresa’s most robust taco. ($4.25)
Taco D: The Tricky
Like handling an organ transplant, this migas taco was a 9-1-1 call in my hands, shredding along the membranous edge of a wet corn tortilla, bulging with an outsized slick green avocado quarter, the liquid from the pico de gallo castig a pink mist over the operating theater. The flavors are good, once you gather them, with texture and taste from fried corn tortillas. But this would be better off served in a bowl. Or a cup. With a straw. ($3.25)
► The namesake taco: The chicken that made Fresa’s the Chicken Winner in my Rotisserie League showdown lies at the heart of the La Fresa taco, shredded with a mix of light and dark meat and bronzed skin. The twang of achiote is balanced against a dress of cabbage, avocado, cotija cheese and cilantro. But the chicken this time, had drifted toward soft and mealy, like overnight chicken salad. ($4.25)
► Tortillas: Fresa’s makes its own corn tortillas. They’re thin and pale, a functional part of the chicken dinner. But they can’t hold up to the heat, steam and weight of the tacos built from them, even when they’re doubled up for lunch and dinner. Still, they’re better than the undercooked alien sponginess of the flour tortillas.
► Queso: Where there’s smoke, there’s queso. The good kind, with roasted chiles and bits of tomato, onion and diced pepper in every bite, served with thick, crisp tortilla chips with the crunch and corn profile of made-to-measure. ($6)
► Salsa: Fresa’s red salsa is among the city’s best, a rough chop of tomatillo and roasted bits of chile as smoky and hot-tempered as a BBQ shop’s next-door neighbor. I also like the salty, creamy, pureed jalapeño green, but better still is a cool, crisp tomatillo salsa fresca that starts limey bright and finishes with a sting.
► Black & White: Stumptown Coffee? Good. Horchata? Good. Stumptown cold brew and horchata together? A two-tone detente that dulls the coffee’s roasted notes and swamps whatever spice the horchata might have contributed. Essentially a $4 iced coffee with cream.
► For dessert: Laura Sawicki is the other side of the new kitchen management at Fresa’s, the pastry chef who brought hoja santa semi-freddo to La Condesa and coconut-lychee sorbet to Sway before this. You can sample Fresa’s skill with ice cream a scoop at a time for $4, starting with Candied Almond Crunch that preserves the nut’s floral flavors and builds a big rock candy mountain on top of them.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)