500 Tacos: Rosa’s Cafe

An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Rosa’s Cafe
509 W. Slaughter Lane, Austin (map), 512-292-1195, www.rosascafe.com
Hours: 10:30am-11pm Sun-Thu; 10:30am-midnight Fri-Sat
Also at: 1509 E. Whitestone Blvd., Cedar Park (map)
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 12.08.15
For advice on getting the most out of the West Texas fast-food franchise Rosa’s Cafe, I turned to Twitter friend and professional West Texan Marshall Scott Owens. “Taco Tuesdays in Lubbock, the drive-through line would be around the block,” Owens wrote back, referring to the deal that knocks $3 off the price of three tacos with rice and beans, bringing it to $3.99 nowadays. “That being said,” Owens said, “they are lacking in the taco area. Basically it's beef or chicken, crispy or soft. I typically ordered one of each. Tortillas are my favorite thing there. No shame in ordering half a dozen and dipping them in something that resembles queso.” And so I did, and without shame. Because no matter what else you say about this big, bright, clean hacienda theme park carnival of a restaurant, it lives up to the “Tortilla Factory” part of its sign with Stay-Puft flour tortillas right off the line.
The taco: Beef taco on flour
Flour tortillas at Rosa’s aren’t the same little spinners you find at taquerias. They’re a full 7 inches across. But the filling never catches up, hiding like a little kid in Dad’s overcoat. That steamy embrace fuses the microshredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes and cheese floss into a new element. We’ll call it Taconium, or TacoMass for short. TacoMass collides with hyperbland picadillo, a dry and lean mixture of ground beef, potato, onions and green chiles. Better to think of this as a big tortilla dumpling. ($1.99 single/$6.99 for 3 with rice and beans, or $3.99 on Tuesdays)
 Tortillas: Rosa’s celebrated flour tortillas aren’t exactly made by hand. The hand-formed dough goes through a corkscrew comal oven that presses, cooks and cools on its way down the spiral and out to the conveyor. But the result is a hot, dusty, agile tortilla with big bakery steam, served in brown-paper packets of two with your dinner. Corn tortillas and crispy corn shells are standard commercial-grade.
 Bakery-fresh jazzhands: On my way to finding a video of the tortilla machine at Rosa’s, I came across this demo video from the manufacturer, worth watching just for the elevator music soundtrack.
 Crispy taco: A commercial corn shell gives back all the ground Rosa’s might have gained with the limited strengths of its picadillo, making its crispy taco little more than a fast-food afterthought. ($1.69 single/$6.99 for 3 with rice and beans, or $3.99 on Tuesdays)
 Chicken taco: I’d stick with picadillo here, but Rosa’s stews its pulled white meat chicken with tomato for something like tinga’s little cousin. (Same price as beef)
 “Something resembling queso”: Mr. Owens got that part right. I’ve had better queso at a movie theater. It never quite melts, nor does it ever quite congeal. Like a cheese version of petroleum jelly, with peppers and tomatoes. That I’m eating it anyway is a testament to the power of Rosa’s flour tortillas. ($3.79/small)
 Salsa: So many sins can be covered up with salsa that I think we could dispense with the bread and wine on Sunday and just have chile con Communion. The communion rail at Rosa’s comes with three shades of cold red blender salsa, going from tomato can to Doritos Locos in terms of spice. Seek ye instead the green, a mild roasted chop of tomatillo and chiles, or better yet, a fresh pico de gallo with crunchy jalapeños. The salsa rail also carries chopped onions, cilantro, pickled and fresh jalapeños, lemons and limes.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)