500 Tacos: Polvos

A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
2004 S. First St. (map), 512-441-5446; also at 14735 Bratton Lane, 512-251-5596 (map), www.polvosaustin.com
Hours: 7am-11pm daily
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.02.15
We’ll always have escabeche. Coming back to Polvos after a couple years away, I’m stricken wistful at what’s become of the salsa bar. Whether the fullness of memory has filled in the empty ice with salsas that never were there or the contraction that’s gripped us up and down the economic food chain has extended to the actual food chain, the salsa bar at Polvos doesn’t justify the reputation that precedes it. What’s left in the circular community well — a decorative tile birdbath for margaritawhills — are three stainless steel bowls of red-earth salsas. And one for memory’s escabeche.
The taco: Chicken mole
Polvos is a wheel of fortune for Mexican standards. Moles, enchiladas, guisada, rellenos, pescado al mojo. Tacos are on the breakfast menu, but available all day and not limited to the eggs-bacon-cactus canon. Polvos' mole works the dark and sweet side of the spice rack, weaving through silky shredded chicken with pepper, paprika, cayenne and a baker’s breath of aromatics. There’s not much of it in this $4 taco, but what’s there works hard. And it comes on handmade corn or flour tortillas. ($3.99)
 Bonus tacos: Where $4 seemed precious for one mole taco, the same price became a better value with steak and al pastor tacos ordered at the same time. For one thing, both tacos had more substance. The second thing: An order of two or more tacos comes with rice. The light orange rice from the Tex-Mex playbook, but still. The steak conforms to the tao of fajitas, with thick pieces of fatty beef skirt grilled with onions and peppers, while the al pastor brings pork in chalky cubes with an oily orange adobo and cooked pineapple.
 Tortillas: Polvos makes its own corn and flour tortillas. They’re the same shade of pale, distinguishable by the translucent lardpools left behind on the flour. That’s a compliment, by the way. The corn is toasted stiff at the edges with good maiz flavor.
 Salsas: The basic red lets ripe red tomatoes do most of the talking, with some side chatter from cilantro and onion for low heat. The roasted version brings a different kind of chile heat, influenced by oil and gritty specks of the charred vegetables that went into it. If I couldn’t recognize the tomatillo salsa by its low orange glow, I certainly could by its glossy viscosity and sweet-tart underbite. And there’s escabeche: pickled long-cut jalapeños, tart white onions and silver dollar coins of carrot with scalloped edges. A relish to remind you why you like this place, a little burn to scold you for not coming back more often.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)