Sandwich City: Panaderia Chuy

Panaderia Chuy
8716 Research Blvd, Suite 290. 512-374-9910. (Also at 801 E. William Cannon Drive.) Menu printed below.
Hours: 6am-10pm daily
By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 06.04.13
An entrepreneurial friend in Dallas wanted to know about tortas in Austin. The real thing, big sandwiches targeted to Spanish-speaking guests and not just güero wannabes. Panaderia Chuy was an easy answer, a sprawling stadium of Mexican temptations, from pastry conchas the size of first base to tortas as soft as a worn-in catcher’s mitt, plus breakfast tacos all day and aguas frescas lined up like liquid candy. A serious model for any Texas business to follow.
Except for the business part. Last year, Panaderia Chuy paid a quarter-million dollars in back wages after a U.S. Labor Department investigation into minimum-wage and overtime violations. Bad PR, yes, but the people still come by the dozens to mill in front of the bakery cases and stand in line for tortas stuffed with beef, al pastor, chorizo, ham, avocado, sausage or super-sandwiches with all of the above for $4-$7.
Chief among those super-sandwiches is the Chilanga ($6), starting as all these tortas do on a flour-dusted telera roll with a chewy outer shell like toasted cotton. It starts fluffy on the inside, then slowly collapses as the hot fillings do their work. There’s a lot of work going on in the Chilanga. On the hot side, there’s a thin sheet of beef Milanesa with a suggestion of breading, then melted queso blanco, then chorizo and ham.
Unlike its atomic orange cousins, this chorizo works more like loose, spicy breakfast sausage. And the generic sliced ham is saved from its bland destiny by sear marks from the flat-top grill, offering sweet caramelization and the half-rippled texture of pork dreaming one day of becoming bacon. But the dress-out makes the Chilanga more than a toasted protein boat. Shredded lettuce, tomato, onions and mayo, yes, but also long strips of pickled jalapeño and the occasional gold of a carrot coin.
A good dress-out (or maybe a solid thwacking) might improve the Torta de Bistec ($5.50), a tossed handful of rubbery gray beef, a monochromatic field broken only by chopped onions, cilantro and avocado. I watched it being grilled to order, starting as scarlet lines across the flat-top. How it came to this is like the scene in “Apocalypse Now” as Chef describes beef walking the military industrial kitchen’s long, gray line. Never get off the boat.
A sign in the bakery’s front window shows the trompo of true al pastor, a vertical rotisserie shaved down one order at a time into a ragged megaphone of flavor. But the spit in the kitchen was cold and empty when I was there, and an angry pile of drying pork lay to one side of the grill. The Torta Pastor ($5.50) that came from it was like jerky in taste, texture and that rusty orange color peculiar to meat sold by the stick. With the right al pastor, this could have been a good sandwich, dressed with onion, cilantro, avocado and jellybean slivers of fresh pineapple.
So, to my friend in Dallas: Keep the churros and the sandia, thick with watermelon pulp. Keep the friendly staff and take care of them. Hold up the Chilanga as the torta gold standard. Take the rest as a cautionary tale. Buena suerte.
(TOP: Torta Pastor with cilantro, onion, avocado and pineapple. INSET (clockwise from top left): Don’t look for the name “Chuy” on the building, just “Panaderia Bakery”; the Chilanga torta, with beef Milanesa, ham, chorizo and cheese; Torta al Bistec with beef and avocado. Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)