Texan Tacos: Austin's Top Taco Stops
Texas' Capital Tacos
Austin may win acclaim for its barbecue, but it also happens to have one of the best taco scenes in the country. Whether you're on the hunt for migas, chorizo or puffy picadillo, here are Austin's top spots for tacos.
Photos courtesy of Dan Gentile, Tacodeli, La Condesa
Papalote is an underrated gem of a taqueria that has one of the deepest menus in town, and although the grilled steak-and-bacon combination in the alambres is the most popular, the execution of a classic carnitas is strong enough that it more than deserves to be the second taco on your plate. Pickled onions help temper the salty marinated pork, whose crevices are bubbling with devilishly succulent fat.
The Real Deal Holyfield: Valentina's
Central Texas barbecue is nothing if not reverent of tradition, and any brisket fan worth his or her post oak knows to be weary of fusion. But Valentina's manages to excel at both classic barbecue meats and Mexican staples like carnitas and fajitas. Make it there before 11 a.m. to enjoy The Real Deal Holyfield, one of the city's most-decadent culinary experiences and one that’s likely to knock you out for the rest of your day. The fried egg, beans, potato, bacon and tomato-serrano salsa are a meal unto themselves, but the dish enters a new realm of gluttony with a thick slice of fatty brisket.
Fried Avocado: Torchy's
Torchy's is one of those regional chains that are taking over the world, but its Austin roots run deep, with 12 locations spread throughout the city. When President Obama visited, he ordered a Democrat, Republican and Independent, but as good as those politically named tacos taste, the most-unusual one on the menu is the fried avocado. The fatty fruit (not vegetable!) takes perfectly to a thin layer of batter, and the quick flash-fry brings out a level of juiciness that you'll be amazed was hiding in that creamy green flesh.
Bistec: Mi Tradicion
Mi Tradicion feels like a Mexico City bakery, but save a trip to the powdered-sugar-filled pastry cabinets for dessert, because the savory side of the operation is just as much of a reason to seek out this little-known gem. Most taquerias will proclaim pastor as king, and Mi Tradicion's is certainly royalty, but it should watch the throne, because the bistec taco is much more than just a bland bit of chopped beef. Each nugget of steak sings with savory grease that somehow isn't so heavy that you won't have room for empanadas. Cool off from their exceptionally spicy green salsa with a bite of radish.
Al Pastor: El Taquito
Perched on a steep incline about Riverside Drive, El Taquito can be easy to miss. Though there are plenty of other great taco options within a few blocks, it’s worth keeping an eye out for this one. Hang a hard right into the driveway and you'll be rewarded with a plate of tiny pork tacos sliced from a spit just like you'd find on a Mexican street corner. The default dressing is onions and cilantro, but be sure to ask for pineapple. It's a must for cutting through the exceptionally spicy salsas and warm roasted peppers in a slow cooker by the counter.
Tostada de Atun: La Condesa
Named after one of Mexico City's hippest neighborhoods, La Condesa helped define a new style of chic downtown Austin cool. The heartier platos fuertes, like pan-roasted grouper and skirt steak, won't disappoint, but the bite-sized options are the standouts (especially during happy hour). Although they're a half-step away from a taco, the Tostadas de Atun with yellowfin tuna are one of the most-delectable bites of raw fish you'll find in Austin outside of a sushi restaurant.
Chorizo, Egg and Cheese: El Primo
El Primo is the perfect example of a seemingly down-and-dirty taco truck that is anything but. The cook is as friendly as they come, making the tiny picnic table alongside a busy stretch of South 1st feel like a fantastic place to have a meal. The al pastor is a solid choice for lunch, but the chorizo is some of the very best in town, and when folded into a tortilla-friendly omelet with a perfectly melted handful of cheese, it's as close to breakfast-taco heaven as it gets.
Puffy Taco: El Chilito
For a quick Eastside lunch, it's hard to beat El Chilito. The faster and arguably more flavorful offshoot of El Chile, this colorful corner taqueria was part of the first wave of hip eateries to hit Cherrywood and is still an anchor of the street. The chef hails from San Antonio, and he brought with him one of the city's claims to fame: the puffy taco, a corn tortilla fried to a bubbly crisp and filled with rich picadillo, plus crisp lettuce and juicy tomato to offset the oiliness. The only thing that can make it better? A generous line of their roasted salsa.
Cowboy Taco: Tacodeli
Tacodeli is neck and neck with Torchy's for the title of most-beloved fast-casual taco chain. It has fewer locations, but the ubiquity of its breakfast tacos at coffee shops around the city makes it an equally constant presence in the lives of a.m. taco cravers. The potato, egg and cheese is a work of art, but for pure flavor, the standout of the menu is the cowboy taco, which covers juicy dry-rubbed beef tenderloin in bits of corn, caramelized onion, roasted peppers, a sprinkle of queso fresco and a creamy scoop of guac.
Migas Taco: Mi Madres
Austin reveres the breakfast taco, and there's no better barometer of the meal than a simple migas taco. Mi Madres has been dishing them out since way before Manor Road was cool (est. 1990!), and you can bite into the history in the form of a bulging taco that tastes just as if it were made by a loving Mexican matriarch. The fluffy, oversized bed of eggs studded with onions, peppers and the requisite crunch of fried tortilla strips barely fits into the tortilla, and there’s a hearty top layer of molten cheese that can melt even the fiercest hangover.
Fish Taco: Tamale House
Old-school Austinites will remember when Tamale House was on Airport Boulevard serving the absolute cheapest tacos in town. When the owner died in 2012, her grandchildren shifted the business to East Sixth Street, onto a piece of property owned by the family since long before the street's recent boom. The prices have increased, but so has the quality, with the standout being a fish taco starring a perfectly blackened fillet of tilapia, a generous scoop of guacamole, pickled purple onions and chipotle remoulade.
Bacon, Egg and Cheese: Taco Joint
Like its Northeastern bagel equivalent, the bacon, egg and cheese is a craveable morning treat that's only made more delicious by its simplicity. As such, each ingredient needs to sing, and the college favorite Taco Joint has crafted a version that’s as well harmonized as a Broadway musical. The morning combo succeeds thanks to its buttery housemade tortilla, eggs that are just runny enough, chunks of savory bacon and heavily processed cheese that tastes like a kid’s after-school snack (in a good way). Dress it up with one of the restaurant's five salsas, but be careful with their fiery neon-orange habanero.
Birria: El Borrego de Oro
Lamb is a tricky meat to master. The protein's natural gaminess has a way of cutting through even the most-aromatic preparations, but El Borrego's pulled and stewed birria taco dodges those taco pitfalls, thanks to a quick turn on the grill with tomatoes, onions and peppers, plus the requisite sprinkle of cilantro. It's a meal of a taco that earns the restaurant its name, which translates roughly to “The Golden Lamb.”
Crispy Duck: Tyson's Tacos
Renowned for a huge menu of head-scratching taco combinations and a policy of giving away tacos gratis if you play a song on the ukulele, Tyson's has been a welcome addition to Airport Boulevard and a minor consolation for the loss of the neighboring original Tamale House (RIP). The three-taco plate is an amazing deal, made even better if one of the tacos is the crispy duck, an Asian fusion of flavorful fowl in tangy hoisin sauce. The only way to make it better? Show up on Friday, when the restaurant gives away free draft beer.
Al Fresco Migas: Veracruz All Natural
Every Austinite has a personal favorite taco trailer, but among the foodie set it’s most likely Veracruz All Natural. What started as a juice-and-agua fresca operation expanded to tacos and hasn't looked back, with the owners opening a second trailer and a brick-and-mortar shop in Round Rock. The order to get, in the morning or for lunch, is the migas taco on a housemade corn tortilla. A generous slice of avocado tops the mound of eggs, and while many a great migas features the fixings chopped so small they become part of the eggs, in this one each ingredient is chopped coarsely enough to be noticed, especially the crunchy strips of tortilla chip. Don't forget to try both the red and the green sauces.