500 Tacos: The Hot Box Diner

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
The Hot Box Diner
805 Stark St., Austin (map), 512-593-1269, www.thehotboxdiner.com
Hours: 11:30am-10pm Mon; closed Tue; 11:30am-10pm Wed-Thu; 11:30am-midnight Fri; 5pm-midnight Sat; 5-10pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 10.14.15
If the Hot Box Diner looks different from when I reviewed it last year, there’s a reason for that. Co-owner and cook Robert Sharp said the original red and black paintjob was just too much for the Texas sun, a hot box in name and heat index alike. “It was getting up to 120 degrees in there,” he said. And so the van’s a less striking but more reflective white now, but Sharp’s still selling tacos, nachos, rice bowls and sliders to North Lamar workers and mobile McCallum High lunch kids on the lot of his aunt’s Piper’s Upscale Resale shop. He’s added hot wings to the menu, and breakfast tacos are a glimmer in his eye — something to consider when his Hot Box staff can grow to become more than an army of himself.
The taco: Plum tea pork
Sharp calls his pulled pork taco the Latino, but its key element has more of an Asian accent: plum tea pork. It tastes the way a vape pen smells: fragrant, sweet and languorously smoky. The Korean plum tea leaves traces of caramelized sugar that crystalize the tender pork’s flossy coral edges. It’s finished with queso fresco, and like all the Hot Box tacos, fresh red onion and stalks of cilantro. ($6 for two with black bean rice; $2.50 a la carte)
 The Americano: The Hot Box’s Americano taco starts with beef that’s smoked over pecan and mesquite then simmered with spices and chiles. It has the texture and taste of good barbecued brisket, rounded out with Sharp’s Orange Haze sauce for tanginess and mild heat. ($7 for two with black bean rice; $2.50 a la carte)
 The Gringo: Pulled chicken gives the Gringo its name, but charcoal and pecan give the rangy bird its personality. This is the simplest of the Hot Box tacos, a canvas for any of the truck’s excellent salsas. ($6/$2.50)
 The Hipster: Sharp said this taco with avocado and black beans is popular with the McCallum kids, and I like it for its simple, filling freshness, like a quick taco salad with brilliant red tomatoes, cheese, rice, onions and cilantro. ($6/$2.50)
 Tortillas: Basic storebought flour tortillas.
 Salsa: Sharp is proud of his Orange Haze sauce, made with roasted and dried peppers, jalapeños, mayo and heavy cream whirled to salad dressing consistency. It tastes like peppered, pourable pimiento cheese. He makes a variation with fresh garlic and habaneros and their oils that’s as charming as a good bar bouncer — and just as ready to kick your ass when it’s time. But his best salsa — and one of the best salsas in this series — is a classic salsa fresca with onions, jalapeños, cilantro, lime, salt and tomatoes like glass rubies, rubies that refract a rainbow of flavors both hot and cool.
 On the side: I like a food truck that makes its own rules, and Hot Box declares that crunchy coins of fried plantain ($3.75) have a place alongside tacos just like rice, beans and ... fried corn. That’s the other rule-breaker: a petite cob of corn with a caramelized mahogany sheen ($1).
 Wings: I’ll take any reason to have more Orange Haze and its offspring, but these wings — like sticks of savory chicken brulee — are the best of those reasons. ($6.50 for five)
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)