500 Tacos: Gabriel’s Cafe
An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
1900 University Drive at the AT&T Executive Conference Center hotel at the University of Texas (map), 512-404-3654, www.meetattexas.com
Hours: 11am-midnight daily
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 11.26.15
In all the times I visited the Carillon putting together my Fed Man 55 list of Austin’s best restaurants, I hardly noticed Gabriel’s Cafe across the hall. It’s the utilitarian lunch and dinner branch of the AT&T hotel operation, with tall windows overlooking a small swath of the 40 Acres leading up to the Tower. The main room looks like a well-appointed student dining hall; you know, like one they’d set aside for football players, where they can be surrounded by photos of Longhorn football glories past. The Eyes of Texas and Gabriel blowing his horn and all that.
Gabriel’s menu is a predictable mix of burgers, chicken dishes and salads. But there’s a section of the menu dedicated to “Smoked & Grilled” that suggests something more: 13-hour brisket, Richardson Farms pork chops, New York strip, Elgin sausage. The Taco Tray is a spinoff from that menu, a spark of inspiration all the more remarkable for the fact that it comes from the second-string restaurant at a hotel with a largely captive audience.
The taco: The Taco Tray
I wish I’d thought of deconstructing tacos for this series, arranging their elements in brushed aluminum bowls on a wooden platter instead of laying them on these plastic plates. These damned. shiny, light-bouncing plastic plates. For $12, Gabriel’s deconstructed Taco Tray lets you pick two of four proteins — achiote chicken, grilled portobello or smoked beef or pork. Then it surrounds those two bowls with smaller bowls of pico, guacamole, jack cheese and salsa, with corn or flour tortillas on the side. It’s like a solar system map of the taco universe. Presentation is one thing. But both the chicken and pork are pitmaster grade, each a luscious collection of fat and lean with bark, floss and pecan smoke with a trace of sweetness. They’d make decent cowboy tacos on their own, but the guacamole and roasted seeds-and-skins tomato salsa add something that almost makes up for commercial grade tortillas.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)