500 Tacos: Tacos Guerrero
An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
96 N. Pleasant Valley Road, Austin (map). Hours: 5:30am until 3 or 4pm daily
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 10.01.15
This is the story of an East Austin taco stand, but it’s also a story about how the Austin taco scene caught the attention of a Texas magazine aimed at millennials. If that magazine wants to write about a post-millennial man chasing 500 Tacos on Fed Man Walking, that’s fine. Because the story isn’t about me; it’s about a city with 500 tacos worth writing about, enough to showcase a taqueria a day for 365 days and still have 150 left over when the series ends Dec. 31. All I had to do was show up and eat.
The taco stand is called Tacos Guerrero, and Yolanda Guerrero is one of the most pleasant faces you’ll meet in a taqueria window in Austin, especially at a trailer this busy, and especially for being a one-woman crew making every taco to order and pressing her own corn tortillas.
The magazine is called Study Breaks, a glossy college lifestyle monthly with a circulation of 40,000 spread among universities across Texas, including UT-Austin. The magazine’s editor in chief is Mark Stenberg, who’s based out of San Antonio. He met me at Tacos Guerrero on a Saturday, along with photographer Steve DeMent, whose work you’ve seen in the Austin Chronicle. Stenberg writes about food as if he knows something about it, something he might have picked up in five years working in restaurant kitchens, including Qui and Lenoir in Austin.
Writing in the magazine’s guide to fried chicken in August, Stenberg called Austin’s 24 Diner a "vision of the improbable dichotomies that the Austin food scene calls normal: new and old, ironic and serious, casual and sophisticated.” And he’s not wrong. And as we sat sunburning outside Tacos Guerrero, all I could think was, “What new thing can I possibly tell a San Antonio boy about tacos?” We’ll find out in November, when the Study Breaks story comes out.
Taco A: Picadillo
I grew up knowing little about tacos beyond the crispy beef kind from Taco Patio and El Chico, the Tex-Mex chain founded by my great uncle’s family, the Cuellars. An incomplete education, true, but still a source of comfort and familiarity, even today at a trailer window where real Mexican tacos and my remedial Spanish find common ground. Picadillo here is uncomplicated and wholly satisfying, just good ground beef cooked with onions and potatoes, served loose and juicy with fresh onions and cilantro. ($2)
Taco B: Bean and cheese
Yolanda Guerrero isn’t satisfied just scooping refried pintos from a pot and folding them into a flour tortilla. No, those beans hit the flat-top grill first, where they develop loamy ridges as brickled as sun-baked earth, crowned with cheddar all melted and glowing with the exertion, laid into a tortilla whose toasted landscape matches the beans for color and crunch. ($2)
► Salsa: I’ve seen molcajete-style salsas in this series — notably at Taqueria Aylin and Tortilleria El Taquito. But not until now have I seen that salsa ground fresh in a real stone molcajete bowl using a pestle the size and shape of an avocado. Guerrero grinds whole roasted tomatoes and jalapeño peppers into sinewy floes of flesh, skin and seed with vibrant flavors and torrid heat, making salsa with no secret ingredients, just the truths of fresh food. If you need more mystery with your heat, there’s a free-flowing jalapeño verde.
► Tortillas: Corn tortillas are hand-rolled, then flattened in a handpress and grilled for rippled edges and a texture like antique parchment. Flour tortillas come from a bag, but they’re given time on the grill to bring out their toasted best.
► Bacon and eggs: I’ve got no use for steampan eggs and bacon, and neither does Yolanda Guerrero. Both are cooked to order for a breakfast taco as fresh as Saturday breakfast. ($2)
► Pork trifecta: Carnitas, al pastor and chicharrones each have a place on the menu. The first two start with fat nuggets of pork with a hard, almost crunchy sear over an austere white-meat center. More like porkchops than fibery carnitas, but still good, even if the deep red spice profile of the pastor is more about paprika than the rakish twang of adobo. Good chicharrones here, with the pork skins cooked soft but not slimy in a spicy green stew. ($2 each)
► Carne asada: One of the best values at the trailer, carne asada is a fistful of seared beef ribbons and curls with a bouncy sear just starting to caramelize. ($2)
► The abiding newspaper guy in me can’t help but recognize Stenberg’s professionalism, bringing his own shooter and not just asking me to fill out an e-mail questionnaire. And when given a choice between this rustic little trailer and an operation on Airport Boulevard with crispy duck and pork belly tacos, Stenberg chose the authentic over the eccentric. Good choice.
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)