500 Tacos: Matt’s El Rancho


A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Matt’s El Rancho
2613 S. Lamar Blvd. (map), 512-462-9333, www.mattselrancho.com
Hours: 11am-10pm Mon, Wed, Thu and Sun; 11am-11pm Fri-Sat; closed Tue
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 03.14.15
Anyone enduring middle age and beyond will tell you that the years make you invisible to the young. But don’t weep for Matt’s El Rancho. At 63 years old, invisibility is apparently one of Matt’s superpowers. Largely invisible to me as the Austin Mexican place you take tourists, this South Lamar institution has rematerialized after an impressive 500 Tacos showing, one of the best in the series.
The taco: Grilled Old Fashioned Tacos
We’ll take tacos three at a time, because today we’re superheroes — and because that’s how they come on this platter, with a guacamole salad and a bowl of charro beans, with chicken, ground beef or brisket. “Grilled” is a loose term for tacos that have been folded over and fried half-crisp in doubled-up homemade corn tortillas, semi-dorados style. The big corn-chip flavor and chewy-crunchy texture compensate for fillings that are loose and wet and largely unseasoned. So wet that I wouldn’t order what tasted like yesterday’s brisket again. Dressed out with onions, cilantro, guacamole and a dash of red salsa, the ground beef and chicken tacos lived up to the better connotations of “Old Fashioned.” ($9.95)
 Remembering Bob Armstrong: This could be Bob’s El Rancho for all the name recognition generated by its Bob Armstrong dip, named for the beloved former Texas Land Commissioner who passed away this month. Armstrong liked his simple yellow queso spiked with guacamole and taco meat. Memorable with those monster chips, unforgettable  with a couple of fresh flour tortillas. ($6.95 for a good-size small, $8.95 large)
 Tortillas: Here’s where old eyes shone new again at Matt’s. When even the tattooed taco renegades are buying their tortillas from factories, Matt’s makes its own. Big, strong, flavorful corn — doubled-up even at this size — and flour tortillas with the steamy exhale of fresh bread, layers like a rolled-out biscuit and real weight in the hand.
 Chips and salsa: Free chips and sauce are value-adds for any restaurant. At Matt’s, they’re crisp, curled, triangled calling cards, made fresh from the same handmade corn tortillas they use for tacos. Among the best in the city, brought in wire baskets like edible flower arrangements. The table sauce is well-balanced tomato red with medium heat. But Matt’s can still bring the pain with its spicy tomatillo green.
 Al pastor: That green salsa comes with an al pastor taco rolled like a dry enchilada in corn tortillas, filled with tender, large-dice pork bearing the concurrent twang of achiote and grilled pineapple. A taste of the street in this gentrified hacienda environment. ($10.25 for two with rice and beans; $4.65 a la carte)
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)