500 Tacos: Santa Catarina

Santa Catarina
1310 RR 620 S., Lakeway (map), 512-300-0946, www.santacatarinarestaurant.com
Hours: 11am-9pm Mon-Thu; 11am-10pm Fri-Sat; 10am-9pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 07.01.15
It’s saying something that Chili’s didn’t make it in Lakeway but Santa Catarina did. It says that marketing-driven food doesn’t always win over food that’s driven by ... food. And it says that there’s room out here for old-school Tex-Mex down the road at Rosie’s Tamale House and new-school interior Mexican cooking at Santa Catarina. I agree with all of it.
Taco A: Baja Fish
Most fish taco discussions end with the fish, usually prison-grade tilapia or some unfortunate whitefish in the wrong place at the wrong time. The way they’re dressed out is entirely beside the point. Santa Catarina flips the script with black drum that’s clean and flaky, a pearled opaque beneath salt-and-pepper breading as firm and crunchy as Sunday fried chicken. They put that fish inside a toasted, handmade corn tortilla with fresh pico and purple cabbage dressed with sweet and smoky chipotle sauce for the best fish taco of this series so far. ($10 for two with firm white rice with vegetables and black beans or $4.50 a la carte Mon-Fri 11-3; $14 at dinner)
Taco B: Cochinita pibil
Pulled pork makes a good taco. Pulled pork roasted in a banana leaf with achiote spice makes a cochinita pibil taco, a style in a class by itself. And Santa Catarina finds the cochinita sweet spot: juicy without being greasy, thoroughly infused with achiote’s dusky chile-and-citrus twang without going weedy or sour. With tart pickled onions, guacamole, lettuce and tomato, this taco’s overdressed. But that’s OK. You can take away some of those layers, but you can’t take away from the power of the pork. (Available 11am-3pm Mon-Fri only; $8 for two with rice and beans; $3 a la carte)
 Queso fundido — the forbidden taco: A skillet full of thick, baked Chihuahua cheese, roasted jalapeños, onions and tomato is like a deep-dish pizza without the crust, a grilled cheese without the bread or a ... taco without the tortilla? Except that we have tortillas right here, and so this slab of half-melted cheese dripping with oil and garlic becomes a chimera of comfort foods: the grilled cheese pizza taco. Get marketing on the phone. ($7; $4 during happy hour, 4-7 daily)
 Tortillas: Santa Catarina makes its own thick, grill-toasted corn tortillas with sweet maíz flavor. Flour tortillas are commercial grade.
 Salsa: The table salsa is a tart, mild, viscous red with tomatillo and onion. There’s a thick, salty jalapeño puree available on request.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)