500 Tacos: Jack Allen’s Kitchen
A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Jack Allen’s Kitchen
Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Thu; 11am-10:30pm Fri-Sat; 10am-10pm Sun, with brunch 10am-2pm
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 07.02.15
The first time I ate at Jack Allen’s Kitchen in Oak Hill, I thought, “This is just like Z’Tejas used to be.” Which is a good thing to think, because Z’Tejas was one of my favorite places in the days when Jack Allen Gilmore himself ran the kitchen. Now he’s in Round Rock, too, and as of April 2015, at the old Chili’s/Gumbo’s/Trento building on 360. Except this time, the place is packed to the waiting list.
The taco: Steak
I came here not for the chicken-fried beef rib, nor for the 5-cheese macaroni and chicken, though I wanted them both. No, I came for tacos — and this time, I brought a ringer with me: my friend Kevin Wright (below), a wicked rock drummer who also happens to be the chef behind the catering company What’s For Lunch. I needed his help building a better taco from the $16 plate of meat, escabeche, rice, beans, guacamole and tortillas that is “Premium Steak Tacos.” And it was good steak (New York strip, we were told, but with a thin conviction we didn’t fully buy into), neatly sliced into thin rectangles with a glossy sear all the way round ($15.99 with rice, beans and guacamole). I build tacos for show; Kevin builds tacos and everything else for taste. So he pitched aside the bright pink onions and the electric green guacamole and made a restrained garnish of rice, beans, cilantro and a touch of corn-studded pico de gallo. Because we didn’t order $16 premium steak tacos for guacamole and pickles, but for — I don’t know — steak? “Accent it; don’t kill it,” he said. And he made one helluva taco. Not classically beautiful, but more important: tasteful.
► Two if by sea: The build-it-yourself aesthetic held true for a plate of chile-mango shrimp tacos as well, with less tasteful results. I tasted neither chile nor mango, but something like warm cocktail sauce over a seriously underprovisioned dish of small shrimp for $13. Baja fish tacos were presented like foil-gilded purses with grilled drum laid in like currency. Giving in to aesthetics, I loaded them with pickled jalapeños and carrots and a crunchy rainbow slaw. Black drum isn’t exactly sushi, and beneath its bronze glaze, the fish did just fine ($12.99).
► Tortillas: If you’re going to use someone else’s tortillas, they might as well be Fiesta’s, made the same day they’re sold at the restaurant. The flour’s warm and fluffy and folded like hotel linens; the corn’s small and ragged and scarred as your kid’s favorite binkie. Both of them make good tacos.
► Salsa: One of my favorite things at the original Z’Tejas was the sweet, half-chunky red salsa. Jack Allen’s is better than that. If you need to sterilize your throat for surgery, ask for the orange stuff in the tall glass bottle. Emergency-room hot.
► Happy hour: Jack Allen’s makes good food at reasonable prices, especially true of the appetizers. Most of them are around $9, things like queso spiked with guacamole and tender green chile pork, or freshly mashed guacamole with toasted pumpkin seeds and house-fried tortilla chips — or the twangy pimiento cheese they tease you with like a redneck amuse bouche. Here’s the kicker: They’re all half-price from 3-7 weekdays.
► Margaritas and more: Three drinks worth mentioning to go with happy hour include the Tito’s Sage (that overhyped local vodka freshened with grapefruit and whole-leaf sage), Tom’s Favorite (a simple margarita with Herradura, Cointreau and lime) and the Cucumber Jalapeño Rita (a twist on an old Z’favorite, with Ambhar Reposado, St. Germain, fresh cucumber and just enough jalapeño to scare them all).
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)