This is the sixth in a multi-part series documenting my mission to try all the off-the-beaten-path authentic Tex-Mex taquerías, taco stands, panaderías, and take-out counters on Austin’s predominantly Hispanic Southeast and East sides. I’m using the term Tex-Mex to refer to Tejano or Mexican-American cooking. I’m not focusing on what some people call “gringo Mex.”
I’ve now moved on to East Riverside, a good thoroughfare on which to find the kinds of food in question. I’ll be starting on the north side of the street and progressing east; then, I’ll move back west towards I-35 as I hit the spots on the south side of the street
Note: I will be skipping Baby A’s on Lakeshore at East Riverside because (1) it’s hardly an under-the-radar eatery and (2) their food is disgusting. I will also be skipping seafood-only places in this series, for the reasons noted below in my comments on Janitzio.
In this part I’m covering two Tex-Mex restaurants on East Riverside: Taquería Jalisco Vallarta and Janitizio.
Taquería Jalisco Vallarta, 1644 East Riverside
TJV looks like it used to be some kind of fast-food restaurant, which left one worthwhile legacy: They have a drive-through window for anyone who needs their tacos fast. Indoors, you can order to go from a limited menu at the counter or sit down at one of the many tables for table service and an extended menu. I ate in on my first visit; the next time, I ordered from the drive-through.
The subject of enthusiastic mini-reviews in the Austin Chronicle, Taquería Jalisco Vallarta had the most diverse clientele of all the restaurants I’ve tried to date in this series. It also had the second-worst food, behind only the horrid La Terraza at I-35 and East Oltorf.
The chips were totally tasteless, and the chile con queso consisted of plain melted Velveeta. [There is a queso compuesto on the menu.] Their red table salsa was decent—you can taste the cilantro and green chiles in the pureed tomato base. Neither the flour nor corn store-bought tortillas were good.
The main dishes that I sampled were all mediocre. The carne guisada was just so-so. The sauce was a deep red color, but there was no pronounced tomato or chile flavor. The barbacoa was blah—even with cilantro and onion piled on. The meat wasn’t too lean, which is often the problem. It just had no flavor. The [puerco] al pastor had no citrus flavor, no chile spiciness. It was just pork squiglets (again, shaped like spätzle), cooked in some pork fat. The pieces were very crisp, which may be a result of cooking the small pieces of meat at a high temperature. However, the pork meat was too lean to get away with only being seasoned with its own fat. The cooking method used is actually more typical of carnitas than al pastor. I’m afraid that this dish wouldn’t have been good as carnitas, either. The lengua was the best of the meat fillings, but that was because of the inherent fattiness of this cut of meat. The tongue itself was just boiled in plain water.
The refried beans had nice body and a hint of something besides beans and water in them (maybe epazote?), but they lacked the necessary addition of pork fat. The rice was not good—it had no flavor and was too dry.
The gorditas were at worst disappointingly mediocre; at best they were mostly inoffensive. The thick corn patties were griddled, not fried. [These were made the same way at the otherwise excellent Habeñero Cafe: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/307124 ]. I ordered my gorditas filled with picadillo. At TJV, this meant ground beef in a kind of ranchera salsa. The gorditas might have tasted better if they’d been topped with white Mexican cheese and were filled with some other restaurant's refried beans. However, a different filling would not have been able to overcome the use of griddled gorditas made from nonfat corn masa with no salt, no broth, and no flavor.
TJV offers tacos with the above fillings plus aguacate [avocado] and tripas [tripe]. Gorditas can be filled with the above plus chicharrones [fried pork rinds]. Other dinner plates include carne asada, mole, chicken flautas, enchiladas, crispy tacos, pork chops, milanesa, and a tamale plate. Mexican seafood is available after noon. They also serve menudo, tortilla soup, and caldo de res [beef soup]. Breakfasts consist of the usual plates, from $3.25 to $4.99, and breakfast tacos are $.99 each or 3 for $2.75. Nopales [prickly-pear cactus paddles] and eggs, chorizo with potatoes, and migas are some of the more-authentic taco options.
TJV is convenient in many ways: It has a large parking lot, a drive-through, and lots of tables. It’s run by a friendly Spanish-speaking family, and the hours are continuous from 7 A.M. until late at night—they’re open until at least 2 A.M. every day of the week. But the food is not good. Given that the only decent items that I sampled were red table salsa and plain boiled tongue, I’m not planning to try this place again, especially since there are much better options on the same street.
Janitzio, 1422 Town Creek Drive at East Riverside
The first time I went to Janitizio, for a very late lunch during the week, I had to force myself to enter the restaurant. For some reason, this place has always seemed unwelcoming to me. I think this has to do with the physical space itself. It’s not a great room—It’s long and square, but not deep enough to really spread out or find a small quiet corner. There’s a sign on the door that says that restrooms are for customers only. Maybe that’s why the staff sometimes closely watches people who approach the establishment. Among those who dine at the restaurant, most people sit facing the large TV in the rear of the room, so you end up looking at the back of a lot of heads. There are usually a lot of single diners, some couples, and a few groups of men on their way home from work. Plus, many people stop in to pick up take-out orders.
I frequent a lot of modest places and find that most staff are friendly and helpful. The one exception was the place on Burleson Road where they welcomed me in the door and then proceeded to act like I had committed a great offense by expecting to be served one hour before closing time. On my first visit to Janitzio, they weren’t rude, but I had the impression that they couldn’t wait for me to leave, even though I was there around 4 P.M. and they were open until after midnight. [Note: Like TJV, Janitzio has continuous hours and is open until at least 1 A.M. every day of the week.] Their reaction seemed to confirm my initial instinct not to enter. However, I made myself go back to taste some more items on the menu. The second time, I was there on a Saturday afternoon. Everyone was perfectly nice, and some of the food was really wonderful. It just goes to show you that the best chow must be doggedly pursued.
On to the chow. Janitzio’s menu concentrates almost entirely on fajitas, combo plates, and Mexican seafood. On my first visit, I saw diners eating raw oysters and a seafood “spaghetti,” served with salad. That latter dish looked particularly good. On this visit I ordered the fried tilapia, which turned out to be a whole fried fish, with Mexican rice, a salad with a couple of avocado slices, and a mound of french fries. It cost $9.99, which is a very good deal for a plate of cheap, filling chow. But, I’m sorry to say, I didn’t think it was delicious. I liked the fries; the avocado was perfectly ripe and delicious; frying was probably the best way to cook a previously-frozen fish. This is a characteristic experience for me at Mexican seafood places. Modest joints near a coast can serve great-quality, fresh seafood for rock-bottom prices. Far away from the sea, inexpensive seafood at restaurants is usually frozen.
Janitzio’s store-bought chips and agua fresca (piña) were fine, The chipotle-based salsa that came in a squirt-bottle with the fish as well as the red table salsa made with fresh tomatoes and green chiles were both quite good. The store-bought corn tortillas, on the other hand, were hard and chewy, with no corn flavor whatsoever. The flour ones were equally lackluster.
On this first visit, I also got one order of sopa de mariscos (shellfish soup) to go, at the request of a coworker. When I tasted it, this soup was somewhat spicy but flat. I don’t think they used fish broth as a base, and the shellfish were obviously frozen. The soup came with minced onion and cilantro, plus lime wedges, for seasoning. My coworker finished all of it and thought the soup pretty good.
On my second visit, I skipped the Mexican seafood options. I ordered a chile relleno, with chicken. I never order chiles rellenos with chicken as the filling, so I don't know why I did this time. But, I'm glad that I did. This was truly delicious. They used a huge, bell-pepper-sized poblano pepper, stuffed with a delicious, slow-stewed chicken guisado that tasted like it had been seasoned with tomatillos, the way the filling for enchiladas verdes [de pollo] should be. (Instead, you usually get plain boiled chicken encased in corn tortillas that are then drenched in a green salsa.) The whipped egg batter for the chile relleno was light and fluffy, though it was then covered in Mexican white cheese and a fresh-tomato-based salsa. Lettuce, tomato, and a nicely spicy guacamole came on the side. There wasn’t enough guacamole to really analyze its ingredients, but I didn’t see any onion, tomato, or cilantro in it. My guess would be that it’s made with just avocado and their regular table salsa.
The chile relleno also came with ho-hum rice and better—though still not great—refried beans. They’re still using the same store-bought tortillas.
I dream about that chicken-filled chile at Janitzio. If this was their usual chicken guisado, then I expect that they would serve very good enchiladas verdes, flautas con pollo, and other chicken-based dishes. These would all be even better if they had good corn tortillas, but then, almost no one in town does. I definitely plan to return to try other non-seafood items on Janitzio's menu. Plus, scrumptiouschef has posted that they serve a very good queso compuesto [see this thread: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/335546 ].