500 Tacos: Tyson’s Tacos
An Austin taco a day for 2015 — and then some
Hours: 6am-8:30pm Mon-Sat; 8am-2pm Sun
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 12.10.15
The ukulele thing really did happen when I was at Tyson’s, that thing where you play a song and get a taco for free. Twice. The first one could’ve been a loose fanbelt on Airport Boulevard, but the second one was like a rockabilly tent revival. While it might be the novelties that lure the Instagrammers to this old Tastee Freez building —the thriftshop decor and ukuleles, the crispy duck and pork belly — they come back for honest food at good prices. Tyson’s represents the convergence of Austin’s restaurant renaissance and its taqueria traditions without taking either one too seriously. And that makes it one of Austin’s best taco shops.
Taco A: Fried beef rib
You can’t talk about this taco without using Torchy’s as a reference. Torchy’s figured out the chicken-fried taco game a long time ago. But their Dirty this and Trailer Park that are love at first crunch, a one-bite stand. At Tyson’s, fried beef rib brings the crunch but sticks around for better or for worse. And it’s all better. The rib brings the dense, fatty fiber we love in a barbecued Flintstone bone but leaves the carnivoral jaw fatigue behind. It’s lush and disciplined, a discipline reinforced by smoked cherry tomatoes and roasted jalapeños. ($4.95)
Taco B: Crispy duck
Equal parts blame and credit go to hoisin sauce on this one. Blame for being as sweet as doughnut glaze from Mrs. Johnson’s next door, credit to the fermented beans at its core for balancing the duck’s aggressive wild streak. The duck’s cooked as hard and dry as a chicken thigh without quite going to that crispy place. A Crispin Glover place, maybe, where sliced cucumber and green onion are like the tics of a character actor bound for density (Back to the Futurists in the house). ($3.75)
Taco C: Balls o’ Sunshine
By now, I figured a million chefs in a million chef hats at a million stoves had written the Complete Works of Breakfast Tacos. But here’s a new chapter: Batter and fry the yolks all by themselves in neat little planetoids with centers of liquid gold, then lay those over scrambled egg whites with a trace of tangy hollandaise sauce. And so the other chefs won’t make fun of you for being “all cheffy,” throw in bacon and cheese. ($2.99)
Taco D: Pork belly
In Austin, any place called “Tyson’s” will draw the inevitable question: Is that the Tyson Cole from Uchi? No, different Tyson. Tyson Blankemeyer. But I’ll forgive the question after trying Tyson’s pork belly taco. Like Uchi’s “Bacon Steakie,” it’s a blue-collar block of pork belly, not just bits and rinds. It’s roasted through and through, with the fat mostly rendered under a seared herbal crust like a rosemary garden. It draws sweetness from mandarin orange supremes and bitterness from precise florets of fried parsley. And it’s the best pork belly taco in town so far — at least until the other Tyson opens a taco bar of his own. ($3.25)
Taco E: Tempura drum
“Tempura drum” sounds like another instrument you’d play for free tacos. And Tyson’s would deserve every single freebie, with fish that stays firmly opalescent beneath a crunchy amber batter with more whorls than an ancient lava flow. It’s dressed with plain Napa cabbage, sweet-hot mango and a contrasting streak of piquant sriracha mayo for one of this series’ best fish tacos ($3.99)
► The plate deal: Where execution and value converge, this might be the king of the three-taco plates in Austin. That’s a mix-or-match combo of any three tacos on the menu — any taco, even the $5 fried beef rib — for $8.99 with respectable rice and beans. It’s served on a brushed steel plate with a real fork, because you might be eating under a tin roof next to an old maltshop, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it with style.
► Migas: Tyson’s makes a gallery of tacos with migas as the base element. By “base,” I mean an empty canvas, mostly eggs and cheese with a few ragged tortilla bits and a speck of pico de gallo. The Robinsonian adds bacon and avocado for a good breakfast taco, but the bacon and avocado are doing all the work. ($2.45)
► More breakfast: Proving it can handle a simple $1.99 breakfast taco, Tyson’s spices and grinds its own breakfast sausage with eggs and cheese for the Bond Girl, and it comes off like Jimmy Dean with a Sergio Leone overdub.
► Al pastor: I like the roasted pork rib in this taco, but it takes more than a piece of cooked pineapple to make al pastor. Put the pineapple aside and eat a fine rib taco for just $2.75.
► Basic steak: Given all the half-measure mystery meat that passes for “steak” tacos, these fat slices of grilled ribeye are a refreshing argument for truth in advertising, balanced with sweet grilled onions and powerful green bell peppers. ($3.50)
► Shrimp: The “Damnitt Hammitt” is the rare taco at Tyson’s that swings hard and misses. Three big curled shrimp are coral-colored studies in how to cook shrimp, but the trio gets overwhelmed by those hard corn chip tubes called Takis and their unnatural orange Taco Loco glow. Leave them off and it’s a better taco, with crescents of cucumber, rings of fresh jalapeño and escabeche carrots. A value at $2.99.
► Tortillas: Basic storebought flour and doubled-up yellow corn tortillas are among the only traces of the ordinary amid all the splendor of Tyson’s.
► Salsa: Orders sail out the window with stubby little squeeze bottles of salsa. One holds respectable taco-shop emulsified green sauce with seeds and skins that builds from cool deception to fierce retribution. The other one, the loose red stuff with little seeds and specks of cilantro and soft slivers of onion, tastes like it was simmered, reduced and fussed over like a cooking sauce, with balanced esthers of acid, sweetness and spice. One of the best red salsas in this yearlong project.
► Queso: It’s cheating to add meat, guacamole and pico de gallo to queso and declare it one of the city’s best bowls of melted cheese. But when that meat is your own house-ground chorizo with the grease, gristle and muscle of Mexico’s best, you get special dispensation. No matter, you can’t make good queso compuesto without good queso, and this velvet hammer of mellow spiced cheese holds up its end of the bargain. ($6.50 with chips)
The 500 Tacos Project
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)