500 Tacos: Taco Flats
A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Hours: 11am-midnight Mon, closed Tues, 11am-midnight Wed-Thu, 11am-1amFri-Sat, 11am-11pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 02.18.15
If everybody who says they went to Woodstock actually went to Woodstock, there wouldn’t have been enough love to keep the Summer of Love alive anywhere but Yasgur’s Farm. Old Austin is like that. We’d all like to say we saw Stevie Ray Vaughan at Antone’s or Springsteen at the Armadillo or had a beer at Taco Flats. I’m 0-for-3 on those, having gotten to Austin in 1981, about the time the Dillo and Taco Flats closed. I can’t travel back to the Dillo or catch Stevie Ray, but I can get a taste of Taco Flats, thanks to Simon Madera, who reached out to the original owners to revive a piece of Old Austin in a high-design building of rusty steel and weathered wood on Burnet. (That’s Madera in the photo with his mother and recipe chef, Esther Madera.) True, nobody ever paid $5 for a taco at the old place, but neither did they have more than 25 beers on tap nor anything like the taco named in their honor — El Hippie.
Taco A: El Hippie
I’m skeptical of foods designed to emulate ideologies as much as the next guy. And this taco is a skeptic’s magnet, an earth-friendly commune camping out on a razored slice of jicama in place of a tortilla. There’s a salty slurry of black beans, a crunchy escabeche with the high burn of pickled jalapeño and onion, a daub of fresh guacamole and a blanket of jack cheese grilled crunchy at the edges like a country egg. They come together for one of Austin’s most resolutely unusual and best-tasting tacos. Ideology tastes good. ($4)
Taco B: Chilaquiles
Broiled breakfast nachos get a deconstructed spin in this taco, with an over-easy egg at the core, dressed with a mild ranchero red and strips of house-fried corn tortillas. ($4.50)
Taco C: Barbacoa
There’s a toasted garlic character to this fatty, chipped beef that barbacoa purists might argue over. But Esther Madera’s barbacoa incorporates meat from the cheek and tongue for a flavor that’s happy to hang out in the background. ($5)
Taco D: Al pastor
Taco Flats revives the lost art of the al pastor trompo, or vertical rotisserie. The pork is marinated in pineapple juice, carnitas stock and guajillo and ancho chiles, then built in layers on the spit. Fat and lean fight with each other in this taco, but the red-spice flavor acts as a referee, with an assist from a garnish of onion, cilantro and pineapple. At $3.50, this is Taco Flats’ best value.
► Falling flat: Tacos with grilled fajita beef (carne asada) and pork carnitas ($3.50) both came off too tough and dry to make the cut. At $5 for one small taco, the carne asada was a hard value to swallow.
► Tortillas: Translucent, toasty, chewy and stretchable, the housemade Taco Flats flour tortilla is among Austin’s best taqueria building blocks, and they make it even better with sunspots from the grill. The housemade corn tortilla has less textural character but comforting maiz flavor. Both would benefit from widening their circles — from around 4 inches to something that would back up Taco Flats’ style with more substance. Extra points for the jicama “tortilla” option, which — with its cool, bendy crunch — works better than any giant turnip has a right to.
► Salsa: The garlicky house red veers toward marinara, and the orange roja delivers more pain than pleasure. A silky jalapeño green is the all-around favorite.
► Immodest proposal: No matter your beliefs, can we agree that putting Jesus and Mary on the doors of your restaurant pisser is just bad taste?
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)