Review: Tamale House East

Tamale House East
1707 E. Sixth St. 512-495-9504,
Hours: 7am-3pm Tue-Fri. 8am-3pm Sat-Sun. Closed Mon.
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.16.13
It’s a blessing that only the salsa counter at Tamale House East will remind you of the Tamale House on Airport Boulevard, with hot tomatillo salsa the color of adobe and a cool salsa fresca of onion and tomato in the same slop-topped open containers. I’d order with my eyes closed at the Airport sweatbox if I could, just to block out the hot mess of the place. At the Eastern outpost, I can open my eyes again.

Since it opened last spring, Tamale House East has become a progressive part of the East Austin restaurant surge. Not just for tacos, enchiladas and carne guisada for breakfast and lunch, but also for people like R.L. Reeves Jr. to flex his barbecue, ramen and burger skills with pop-up projects that also showcase craft brewers like independence and St. Arnold’s and the pairing talents of East End Wine.
The setting is decidedly informal, a ragtag line snaggling in front of a counter where the point of retail contact is an iPhone with a Square block for credit cards. Cushioned booths line up across saltillo tiled floors, and the patio offers lunch beneath the shade of bamboo, palms and a skyscraper magnolia. They make their own chicha morada here, a 12-step answer to mulled wine, a spiced tannic Kool-Aid as deep purple as smoke on the water.
Thick knots of roasted pork formed the heart of a carne guisada plate ($7.95). Browned at the edges, the meat fell into its gravy like petals at a fork’s touch, where it mingled with stewed tomato and bell pepper, both with their skins on for color and parchment parcels of flavor. A thin sheen of opaled orange oil pooled across the plate, ready for integration into cafe-grade rice and refried beans. Taken as a whole, the elements could be piled into griddled flour tortillas for tacos with salt, substance and staying power.
The cochinita pibil was sold out on my first trip to Tamale House East, and a smart rule of thumb is to jump on the first alternative the cashier suggests, and a chicken mole taco reinforced the rule. At $3.50, it’d be wrong to call it generously endowed. But it was satisfying, with chicken more torn than shredded in a sauce like brown mortar that never sets. That mortar pulled in thick sweetness and a pantry of dark, aromatic spice across a hard-toasted flour tortilla cracked in half.
The layers of a fish taco ($4.50) were impressive: thick-leafed bitter greens, cool guacamole, tangy pickled onions and chipotle remoulade with slow-building smoky heat. Beneath those layers lay two fresh, elastic yellow corn tortillas. The fish was my only problem, overcooked and sandy-tasting, hanging together in hard fibers like a chicken breast. There was plenty of it, a full thick fillet, but there are better ways to spend $4.50 on a single taco at the Tamale House. One of those ways is cochinita pibil, lying like a desert sunset in generous nuggets, saturated and sweet, marked with dry red powdered spices, finished with jalapeño and pickled pink onion for hot and sour accord.
Whether you like migas at the Tamale House depends on whether you like chilaquiles. You know, chips  layered with salsa and cheese and half-baked, like nachos for ambitious stoners. Add soft-scrambled eggs to that equation and you have Tamale House East migas, an easygoing breakfast casserole with chips in a lead role. They’re $6.95 with homefries, beans and flour tortillas, one of many breakfast options served all morning and early afternoon.
Thinking of the Frito pie I’ve had from high-end restaurants that wear the adobe-colored crinkle bag like ironic armor, I ordered Frito salad “in the bag.” It was a fun way to spend $2.50 for a layer of Fritos covered with cool shredded lettuce and Taco Bell-grade cheese and diced tomatoes. But instead of a bag, the salad was laid across a white porcelain bowl, the most elegant presentation of my Tamale House dish parade.
You never hear people talk about the Tamale House for tamales. Maybe this is why. The pork tamale ($1.50) was as dry as yesterday’s roast left out for lunch. The masa was Wonder Bread minus the wonder, crumbled and tasteless but slick nevertheless. I could tell the chicken from the pork tamale because it was eggshell white instead of dull industrial orange. But the chicken inside was stiff and tired, strung-out after staying up all night making tamales. I added mole and cheese for $1.25, and it turned the ugly duckling into a swan. But really, the mole did all the work.
The diametric opposite to that hard-living tamale chicken was the chicken tinga in the enchiladas verdes ($7.95 with rice and beans). It was having a party, getting stewed in chipotle salsa, dressed in soft clothes that moved with the beat. Folded inside two big white corn tortillas, the plate was finished with the glycerine sheen of tomatillo salsa with a spicy tang and melted white cheese.
For me, Tamale House East didn’t start as a destination but rather as a convenience after touring an East Austin meatpacker, part of a loose neighborhood network for a progressive feeding that might include coffee at Texas Coffee Traders, an early laptop lunch on Tamale House’s wi-fi, a bag of carryout barbecue from John Mueller Meat Co. and a drink at the Yellow Jacket Social Club. None of them is easy to find, but each has its rewards once you get there. One of the benefits of being a local.
(TOP: Tamale House East is run by a branch of the same extended family that runs the Airport Boulevard Tamale House, but the east side has a bar, inside seating and patios for a stick-around lunch or breakfast. Atop right: A fish taco, a cool glass of chicha morado and a cochinita pibil taco. At bottom left: Frito salad, enchiladas verdes and a migas plate. FIRST INSET: Carne guisada plate with rice and beans. SECOND INSET: Chicken mole taco and tamales made with pork and chicken. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)