500 Tacos: Mongers Market + Kitchen

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Mongers Market + Kitchen
2401 E. Cesar Chavez St., Austin (map), 512-215-8972, www.mongersaustin.com
Hours: 11:30am-10p Tue-Sat; 11:30am-3:30pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 10.30.15
After keeping two kitchens open by sheer force of personality — at Kenichi and Paggi House — chef Shane Stark partnered with fishmonger Roberto San Miguel this March to open Mongers Market + Kitchen. The restaurant is a sharp modern spin on fish-house decor, with an oyster bar across the front, a half-wall of seashells, tastefully weathered wood, just enough fish trophies to suggest their market provenance, and — this is the key — no fishnets or aquariums. That tasteful execution extends to oysters and appetizers, even if it doesn’t redeem the fish tacos I came for.
The taco: Fish tacos
It’s hard to avoid thinking of fish sticks in these tacos, laid side-by-side in neat breaded blocks on corn tortillas. And while the execution is hot and crisp, the Gorton’s effect expresses itself in fish that doesn’t have the clean, fresh flavor I’d hoped for in this place at this price. It’s still better than the sandy, decomposing tilapia that’s ruining the fish taco’s reputation at so many other places. And it’s dressed well, with chopped cabbage, pickled onions, chipotle aioli and tomatillo salsa. But between the fishy aftertaste and languid sides of shredded jicama and dry rice and beans, it’s not a good representation of Mongers’ work. ($14)
 Tortillas: Mongers’ strength is sourcing, and that extends to these factory-made but light and feathery corn tortillas with a light toast.
 Salsa: Chipotle crema gets the menu mention, but the tomatillo salsa’s the real star, a mild, aromatic chop of roasted tomatillo with peppery notes and a nice citric acid bite.
 Smoked fish dip: This is the best thing I ate at Mongers, a generous spread of smoked mahi chopped with mayo and herbs, dressed with pickled onion and rings of red Fresno chile. It’s sweet and sultry, like the smoke has lured the firm, clean fish into a life of corruption. But everybody likes the bad boy. ($8 for enough to share, with thick, house-fried potato chips)
 Oysters: Oysterguide.com calls the Pemaquid oyster “even brinier than Glidden Points.” I know nothing of Glidden Point, but I like an oyster that tastes like a mouthful of ocean water on a bright blue day, and the Pemaquid is it, a big oyster with a clean taste and firm, pearled flesh, with a rocky shell straight out of Oyster Central Casting. It’s served on a tray of clean ice with wholly unnecessary but completely un-optional sides of horseradish, cocktail sauce and vinegar. ($3 each; one of several rotating varieties daily)
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)