Ok, let’s be honest, we’re not really treading any new ground here. Austin has some of the best tacos in the country. Everyone knows that. But it’s an ever-changing landscape with new ideas, ingredients, and innovations, so it’s always good to get a refresher. Plus, cards on the table, I’m new to Austin, I want to eat some tacos, and the boss gave me the thumbs up.
After talking with several locals, reading up on blogs, and scouring reviews, I wrangled my list of taco havens from 35 to 8. There are literally hundreds of taco trucks and restaurants in Austin so I’m going to the ones that constantly overlap as the best local representation of Austin’s taco heritage.
Remember, we’re measuring these on a scale of the best of the best, so I’m going to be fairly unforgiving with some ratings. All of these tacos are good, we’re looking for truly great!
Joe’s Bakery and Coffee Shop
2305 E 7th St. Austin, TX 78702 http://joesbakery.com
Joe’s did a great job of being straightforward. The tacos are executed well and exactly what they claim to be. No frills, no culinary liberties, just good ol’ fashioned tacos in a traditional sense. Seriously, they don’t bother wasting time with silliness like lettuce! It’s all about the meat at Joe’s. The carne guisada was a bit underwhelming but I have to say their chicharrone and picadillo tacos were excellent! Couldn’t help but love the fried pork chop taco, because, well, it’s fried pork! Their homemade tortillas are just awesome; chewy and perfectly charred. Plus, for the average price of $2 a taco you can get full quick without breaking the bank.
Rating out of 10: 8
Tamale House East
1707 E 6th St. Austin, TX 78702
Tamale House East came with high expectations but unfortunately didn’t deliver on the goods. Of the six tacos I had two were too sweet to enjoy (grilled fish and cochinita pibil), lacking overall balance, and the tortilla on the al pastor was so chewy I just gutted the taco and ate the fillings with a fork. Overall the flavors were average at best and the execution was sub-par. The savior of this service was the delicious, smoky, melty, spicy chicken mole. The tortilla was grilled perfectly and it truly stole the show.
Rating out of 10: 6
9414 Parkfield Dr. Austin TX 78758
Ummm, Taco More? Yes, please! More is the definitive word here. Combine their succulent, traditional style tacos with the crazy spread of goodies on the salsa bar (ranging from colorful salsas to grilled jalapeños) and you can’t be disappointed. The pastor, carnitas, and pollo tacos all get top marks for flavor and execution. Their just plain delicious. The true stand out was the cabrito (goat) taco. Gorgeous red color and a smoky citrus flavor profile blended with the gamey richness of the goat made it an instant favorite. The only letdown on this menu was the under seasoned and sadly dull lengua. I’d recommend skipping that for the melt in your mouth chorizo taco.
Rating out of 10: 9
Veracruz All Natural
1704 E Cesar Chavez St. Austin, TX 78702
The “All-Natural” portion of Veracruz leads to a higher price point per taco, but overall decent eats. The characteristic that ran through my tasting here was really light flavors. There are no truly exciting seasonings or flavor bursts on this menu. Every taco benefitted from either a hearty burst of lime (which were not provided with the tacos) or a slathering of salsa. Execution was on point though. All items, including the fish taco, were tender, moist, and overall cooked excellently. The standout for Veracruz was definitely the steak taco, which, unlike the others, was seasoned perfectly.
Rating out of 10: 7.5
Rosita’s Al Pastor
1911 E Riverside Dr. Austin, TX 78798
Compliment sandwich time. Rosita’s al pastor is AWESOME! Not the whole menu, just to be clear, the actual al pastor. There’s definitely a reason that’s in the restaurant’s name. Great flavor, color, execution, and balance of citrus and spice. The gringa taco, which is al pastor grilled with cheese, is melty fabulousness. Give me 5 of those any day. I’ll skip the rest of the tacos though. Mostly bland, oily, and generally unimpressive. Really disappointed with the mushy, flavorless chicharron that was practically inedible on texture alone. On that note, their salsas are terrific! To summarize: al pastor = YES, all others = NO.
Rating out of 10: 5
2803 S Lamar Blvd. Austin, TX 78704
Papalote gets a standing ovation from this eater. What an awesome spread of delicious tacos. They land on more of the culinary side of things with additions like plantain and cactus, but boy do they bring the flavor! Go straight for the alambres taco, a cheesy mix of steak and bacon that just thinking about makes my mouth water. The smoky pork adobada taco made with fresh cactus and queso fresco is another can’t miss. It’s peppery, fatty, and earthy in all the best possible ways. This really was a near perfect spread with clear understanding of flavor and care taken in the cooking process. No doubt that Papalote will become a regular stop for me.
Rating out of 10: 9.5
Torchy’s Tacos: Trailer Park
1311 South 1st St. Austin, TX 78704
Torchy’s is an Austin staple and therefore an obligatory stop for any taco investigator. But, to truly see what they’re all about, skip the restaurants staffed by college students and go back to the trailer park, where it’s a true labor of love. One thing I loved about Torchy’s was their creativity and boldness. Tacos sporting jalapeño sausages, seared tuna, and fried chicken represent their adventurous spirit. Unfortunately, not all of the swings were a hit. The pork on the green chile taco and barbacoa on the democrat were dry and oily, as if they’d been stewing in fat over too high heat for a long time. The fried avocado was very bland and the creamy sauce just added sweetness rather than flavor. Conversely, the tuna was seared masterfully with a solid strip of pink in the center and The Independent was absolute gold! Well-seasoned, flavorful, touting a solid complimentary sauce, this unaffiliated bad boy stood alone amongst the rest. Also, don’t sleep on the Trailer Park; fried chicken + poblano = GOOD!
Rating out of 10: 7.5
Valentina’s Tex Mex
7612 Brodie Ln. Austin, TX 78745
I’ll be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect when it came to Tex-Mex BBQ tacos. I mean, I’m a culinarian, I love food, and I love fusion, but I had my hesitations. Well, did Valentina’s ever make me eat my words (along with all of their tacos). Seriously, phrases like melt in your mouth, masterful execution, and mind-blowing flavor profiles just scratch the surface. The brisket with tomato serrano salsa is rich but not fatty, seasoned well, spicy but not palate busting, and cut perfectly with fresh citrus. Smoked carnitas with tomatillo habanero, are you kidding? Oh, and how ‘bout the beer marinated beef fajita that tastes like something the beer and BBQ gods gave birth too after a night of margaritas and salsa dancing. Oh, and whatever you do get something topped with that sinfully spicy/sour Cole slaw, you won’t regret it. Yea, I’m gushing about this one and I’m not even a little sorry. It’s food crack and I’m hooked.
Rating out of 10: 10
That’s it for this week. I hope you enjoyed the taco round of Austin Eats. Next round we’re going to be looking at all the great vegetarian eateries for my greenies out there (bet you thought I forgot about you), so stay tuned.