500 Tacos: La Condesa

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
La Condesa
400A W. Second St., Austin (map), 512-499-0300, www.lacondesa.com
Hours: Lunch: 11:30-2:30pm Mon-Fri. Brunch: 11am-3pm Sat-Sun.
Dinner: 5-10pm Sun-Wed, 5-11pm Thu-Sat. Happy hour: 5-7pm Mon-Fri in the bar and lounge
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 10.08.15
I knew the day was coming when I had to eat the grasshopper taco, just as surely as I imagine the day will come when humanity will resort to eating bug proteins before the bugs turn what’s left of our species into proteins of their own. La Condesa — one of my Top 55 Restaurants in Austin — has the style to pull it off, mostly by surrounding the grasshoppers with non-grasshopper food that blends the familiar with the adventurous.
Taco A: Chapulines
Eating sautéed grasshoppers is like ... eating sautéed grasshoppers. There’s no other way to say it, really. The legs, the thorax, the abdominal plates, they lodge in tooth and tongue on their way down. La Condesa spares us the full insect body experience, chopping the bugs into what can only be called Arthro-Bits™. I taste the cook’s skill with oil and garlic with each crunchy grimace. They’re brought to the table in an iron skillet, disguised with leaves of Swiss chard flash-fried to the same brittle crunch as the bugs, with four tiny handmade corn tortillas, two salsas and cooling guacamole to break up the exoskeletal assault. I wouldn’t order them again, but I don’t regret my brief time on the food chain above our eventual insect overlords. ($11; not on the standing menu, but available by request)
 Tortillas: If you’re gonna eat bugs, might as well eat them on some of the best corn tortillas in town, patted small with big cornfield flavor and scalloped. crispy edges.
Taco B: Carne Torcida
Pastrami, sauerkraut, mustard, rye. This is a Reuben by association, its components broken down to fit the circumference of a tortilla. Smoked brisket is sliced sandwich-thin, then seared as dark as sweaty charcoal. I taste none of pastrami’s brined attitude in it, and the meat relies instead on a dusty rye tortilla to foster its Reubenesque illusion. A cabbage salad called vigoron braced with whole-grain mustard extends the illusion, brought home with fancy mustard crema. A Reuben? No. A taco? In name only. But an interesting experiment. ($11 for two small tacos)
 Tortillas: This luggage-strength flour tortilla is infused with more rye than a New York deli loaf.
Taco C: Arabicos
I’ve tried to cook venison at home. And I’ve never been able to get a tight sear and a tender, coral-colored middle the way La Condesa does. It’s an elegant feat, undermined by a heavy shawarma treatment of herbed yogurt and razor-thin cucumber. The venison takes fourth place in the dominance hierarchy, just behind a thick chipotle paste. The result is overpriced street food. ($14 for two small tacos)
 Tortillas: Playing the backup pita in this ersatz gyro is a robust, handmade flour tortilla with a bacon fat dad-bod.
 Street corn: La Condesa lays down one of the best starters in the city with its Mexican street corn, an ear that’s grilled over oak, coated with mayonnaise and cotija cheese and dusted with ancho chile powder. ($5/$4 happy hour)
 Happy hour: From 5-7 Mon-Fri, all of La Condesa’s drinks are half-price, including the one that grabbed me from my first visit to La Condesa in 2009: El Cubico. It’s a fierce little snifter of aged Cazadores tequila infused with tobacco for a Red Man bite, balanced with sweet vanilla brandy and pineapple juice ($12/$6 happy hour).
 Guacamole and salsa: With so many salsa and guacamole variations, La Condesa’s sampler is like a box of chocolates. But at $18, it’s barely enough to feed two, and it proves that “variations” are just that: small adjustments to common elements. The baseline guacamole is processed to velvet smoothness, letting the avocado do most of the work, with an assist by onion and tomato. The other three? If you like that sort of thing on top, then you’ll like these sorts of things on top: sliced almonds and chipotle paste or toasted pumpkin seeds and cotija cheese or real minced crab with a brunoise of sweet apple. That last one? No amount of apple would mask crab so fishy. The salsas calm down for a nod to their street counterparts: dusky chile de arbol, a mild and smoky chipotle, a tart tomatillo-jalapeño with medium heat and a suave avocado-tomatillo that has no real street counterpart. ($18/$15 happy hour)
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)