500 Tacos: Z’Tejas
A taco a day for 2015 — and then some
1110 W. Sixth St. (map), 512-478-5355, www.ztejas.com. Hours: 11am-10pm Mon-Thu; 11am-11pm Fri-Sat; 10am-10pm Sun
Also at: 9400-A Arboretum Blvd. (map), 512-346-3506; Avery Ranch at 10525 W. Parmer Lane (map), 512-388-7772
By Mike Sutter | © Fed Man Walking | 04.20.15
They say you can’t go back. But “they” clearly haven’t been to Austin, where everything was better before everybody else got here. Z’Tejas has changed since the days when Jack Gilmore (chef Bryce’s dad and the guy behind Jack Allen’s Kitchen) was cooking here. It’s a California-Arizona-Texas franchise operation now, but the place was co-founded locally by Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso, who’ve gone on to bring us Eddie V’s, Roaring Fork, Hopdoddy and the Salty Sow. I still have a place in my Old Austin heart for all of them for bringing me the late, great Navajo taco. And a spot for Z’Tejas for bringing it back, even if it’s just an occasional guest.
The taco: Navajo taco
Nothing at Z’Tejas tries harder to speak with a Southwestern accent than the Navajo taco, with its roots in the Native American specialty called frybread. But this is about as Navajo as a gift shop souvenir. More like a cracker, a cross between a wonton wrapper and a matzoh, curled on one end like a snowsled. I’d forgotten how enormous the Navajo taco is, a plate-sprawling canape of rice, black beans, sautéed peppers, corn, onions — and the stars of the show: shredded chicken in a spicy braise like tinga, and fresh spinach leaves dusted with cornmeal and fried tender-crisp. I first ordered the Navajo taco more than 20 years ago; it was worth chasing down again, a great-tasting memento of days gone by. ($12.99. Available at the West Sixth location on Tuesdays at lunch from 11am-3pm. Available at the Arboretum location on Mondays for lunch and dinner. Not available at Avery Ranch.)
► Blackened catfish: You’ll have to swallow your chagrin when you discover these “tacos” are technically crosscut tortilla wraps. But the catfish is good, evoking the riverbed without tasting silty, cut in thick, flaky, muscular fillets. It’s seared with a spice that can’t decide whether it’s Cajun or Asian (Casian?), a disconnect fostered by a sweet sauce that evokes a sesame dip more than a Cajun remoulade. ($12.25 for two at lunch with good Southwestern rice and black beans/$12.75 dinner; $11 without rice and beans. $7 at happy hour 3-7 Mon-Fri, 3-5 Sat-Sun)
► Street tacos: Z’Tejas doesn’t follow the street taco template of simple steak and onions. Sure, there’s sirloin, cut in thick ribbons grilled with a light marinade, four to an order on thick 3.5-inch corn tortillas. But it’s finished with chopped cucumber Mediterranean-style, along with crumbled Cotija cheese, fresh avocado and understated chipotle cream. A little fussy for the streets, but just fine for West Sixth Street. ($12.50 for four with rice and beans lunch/$13 dinner; $11.25 without rice and beans. $8 at happy hour 3-7 Mon-Fri, 3-5 Sat-Sun)
► Tortillas: The Navajo taco shingle is cooked to order, I was told. Otherwise: thin, dry commercial-grade flour and small, thick, single corn tortillas.
► Salsa: Stop grousing about it and just pay the $5 for a salsa trio (enough for three people) with a mix of yellow and blue corn tortilla chips. I’ve always favored the rich red salsa here, as thick and flavorful as a Southwestern spaghetti sauce. A fresh tomatillo verde and an avocado-tomatillo salsa as swirled as a smoothie are both dominated by too much raw onion.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)