Fed Man 55: Takoba (50)

Mike Sutter’s Top 55 Austin Restaurants
No. 50: Takoba
1411 E. Seventh St. 628-4466, www.takobarestaurant.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday. 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday. 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 08.26.12
Even during lunch, the dining room is like a house party, with people looping the horseshoe bar and tables populated with permanent lunch breakers. Outside, the misters fight the summer heat, and when the sun goes down, the patio and side court make for al fresco dining with a view of the cemetery across the street, reminding us to live today like there’s no tomorrow.
“No tomorrow” could be the motto for a “mezcarita” ($7) made with mezcal, piney Aperol, lime and orange juice, a drink with a deceptively polite tangerine glow that smokes more like a campfire up close. The margarita was long overdue for a makeover, and mezcal has stepped into the picture at just the right time.
The story behind Takoba is part of its appeal. With its Mexi-Mod decor, cool greens and easy yellows and a courtyard built for icehouse irony, Takoba strikes you as a gentrified art installation representing the East Side’s Latino heritage. But it was started by Jose De Loera, carrying on his family’s four decades of taco wagons and respectable El Tacorrido houses. The tradition gets a proper nod of respect with the tacos Don Alberto ($9/$7.50 at lunch), a plate with pit-roasted carnitas. Shredded into corn tortillas piled with cilantro and onions, the pork is lean and efficient, trading on velvet texture with edges just starting to go crisp. A creamy green jalapeño and tomatillo salsa takes the plate a step further.
The sides show off what Takoba can do when it’s challenged. Whereas the refried beans and standard-issue Mexican rice that come with the rellleno capeado ($10.50/$9) could come from the same vat every joint in town dips into, the taco plate lets you choose. And the thinking person chooses charro beans with the fatty languor of bacon and this: nopales sauteed with onions, tomatoes, garlic and cilantro. Built for the long haul, cactus is dense and firm, with the constitution to withstand a stir-fry. One of the city’s best Mexican side dishes. Hell, one of the best side dishes no matter what flag you’re flying.
Some small things I like at Takoba: thick house-fried tortilla chips, a ceviche with a critical-mass of minced shrimp and tails ($8.50). It could stand on its own for lunch, with enough lime juice to count as a fruit serving. It’s a fresh, clean palate cleanser before a chile relleno en nogado ($12.50/$11), with a sweet walnut cream sauce and ground beef. For a competent take on a border relleno, the capeado style carries thick, stringy cheese inside a poblano pepper with a soft-fried egg-batter shell. This is the one you order for the least adventurous among you, and they’ll like it for its Tex-Mex familiarity.
Takoba breeds familiarity with a twist of modernity and adventure. Austin understands that. In 2010, I named Takoba the Statesman’s Newcomer of the Year for casual restaurants. In the broader restaurant arena, it still ranks among Austin’s elite 1 percent, holding down the No. 50 spot in a city with more than 5,000 places that make and sell food.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)
Mike Sutter’s Fed Man 55: Austin’s Best Restaurants