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Tex-Mex on Austin’s East and Southeast Sides, Part 14

MPH | May 22, 200810:17 PM

This is the fourteenth 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.”

After hitting the holy grail of taco trucks in Part 13, I've journeyed south on Pleasant Valley to César Chávez Street. Starting at its easternmost point, I'm making my way west as I try any and all chow-serving spots that are new—or new to me. In this report I cover a taco stand and a restaurant at the corner of CC and South Pleasant Valley.

Note: For now I've skipped over Marisco’s Tampico on South Pleasant Valley, as I did with Marisco Grill on East Riverside. These I will return to at a later date when I'm focusing specifically on Mexican-style seafood restaurants. I’m permanently skipping Los Jaliscienses on East César Chávez. It’s not off-the-beaten-track, and I personally don’t think their food is good. Those who are interested in their chow can find other threads on it via a search of this board.

Real Taco, parking lot at 2731 East César Chávez (at Pleasant Valley)

Real Taco is a white trailer in the parking lot of the drive-up Stop-n-Get at the southwest corner of César Chávez and Pleasant Valley. The menu is written on paper and posted in the window. There's a little seating, away from the road, for anyone who wants to eat nearby. On my visits, a middle-aged woman, who speaks English, was in charge.

The tortillas, both corn and flour, were store-bought. The doubled-up corn tortillas were much better than the flour ones. Cilantro and onion came on the side. For my to-go orders, they were packed in separate small plastic bags. Their salsa was very thin and watery, with a sour taste reminiscent of canned green chiles that had been pureed in their own liquid. There were a few noticeable seeds, and the salsa was fairly hot.

"Guisada" and tripas have been crossed off on that paper menu in a manner that looks permanent. I sampled all of the remaining taco fillings.

Ground beef—Dry, browned, ground beef, with salt, pepper, and cubed boiled potatoes. No spices, no sauciness: This was an unflavorful version of Mexican meat and potatoes. I would not re-order this filling.

Fajita beef—Tough, unseasoned, chopped squiglets of beef cooked in a skillet. There was even less to recommend this dish.

Fajita chicken—These were similar to the beef fajitas, but less interesting. Salt, pepper, and something red were visible on the meat—maybe red pepper flakes, but they weren't spicy. This filling was very dry, which made the beef fajitas seem moist in comparison.

Pastor—Stringy stewed pork that had been shredded, like barbacoa. This pastor was not good. I thought it was flavored just with tomato sauce at first, but there was a faint, building note of red chiles.

Lengua [tongue]—This was nicely stewed and moist, with a kick from the red chiles. The tongue meat was shredded (like barbacoa) rather than chopped. This filling was pretty spicy, and definitely their best taco. However, it wasn't at the level of other good versions of the same filing.

Given that Taquería Piedras Negras [reviewed in my first report of this series] operates a popular taco trailer right across César Chávez and serves much better taco fillings on similar store-bought tortillas, I doubt I'll return to Real Taco. If for some reason you must eat there, I suggest you stick to the lengua.

Bejuco's "La Catedral de Mariscos" Restaurant, 2711 East César Chávez

Bejuco's is a bright, cheerful restaurant that mainly seems to attract Spanish-speaking workers, couples on their way to Club Festival next door, and solo diners from the neighborhood. Each of the twenty tables is covered with a bright, colorful "¡Viva Mexico!" plastic tablecloth and features one of those religious candles of the saints that are so popular in Mexican-American homes (http://www.mexgrocer.com/catagories-r... ). A large TV dominates one corner, towards which most diners orient themselves. It's usually broadcasting steamy Mexican soap operas. There's ivy growing from a few hanging plants that has been tacked up so that it covers the entire ceiling.

Bejuco's offers a very extensive bilingual menu, with one page on seafood dishes (including fried shrimp, a combo plate, oysters, whole grilled or fried shrimp), one page on enchiladas (entomadas, suizas, Guerrero, oaxaqueñas [which come with American cheese, for some reason], en mole, de res), etc. They offer cabrito, which is a favorite of mine and is relatively rare in town. I noticed chiles rellenos on the menu, too. On their "Norteño" page, they feature some familiar offerings like quesadillas and chalupas. They also offer a wide array of soups, including shrimp soup, shrimp and fish, and siete mares. Pictures accompany the text so that diners will know what they're ordering.

On to the chow. The chips they serve are standard-issue bagged chips. They're not good, and they need salt. The fresh, chunky, fresh-tomato-based red salsa—with green chiles, onion, and just a few specks of cilantro—is very good, though. It wasn't an unusual combo and featured no exotic chiles. It was just a very satisfying, homemade-tasting version of the usual salsa. I ate every last bit of it. A large glass of horchata ($2), sprinkled with cinnamon, comes with free refills.

Over the course of a few visits, I sampled several dishes, which are discussed in detail below.

Caldo de siete mares ($8.99)—Beautiful presentation. "This soup of the seven seas" was chock full of seafood, including a cross-section of a whole fish, mussels, several shrimp—both large and tiny, crab claws, crab meat (both real and maybe not real: the one large cylindrical piece of "crab meat" seemed like imitation; real crab meat came out of the claws), along with large chunks of carrot and potato, all in a bright red dried--chile-based sauce, usually made from chipotles and/or guajillos. I've seen some recipes that call for a tomato-based broth, but I don't think that's the norm. (There was no tomato in the caldo at Bejuco's.) There were also no clams, squid, or scallops in my bowl. One small piece of crab from inside the claw was tough, but otherwise all the seafood was moist and well cooked. The large piece of fish and large shrimp in particular seemed quite fresh; the crab-claw meat was at least quality flash-frozen product. The broth is very lightly seasoned (not a lot of garlic, cumin, or oregano, though it could have used some), but not spicy. However, since the soup comes with chopped fresh jalapeño, onions, cilantro, and wedges of lime, it's easily spiced up. I thought this was a pretty satisfying, affordable seafood stew, not unlike a bouillabaisse in concept. On the side you get your choice of either tortillas or pan tostado [toast]. I went with the toast, since it was mentioned first. If you're a fan of bolillos [the Mexican take on French bread], as I am, then you'll enjoy this option, too. This type of bread has a rich flavor, but its crumb is very soft and the crust isn't exactly European-style, either. Still, when it's toasted up on the comal and buttered on each side, it tastes pretty darn good. The flavor of their bread suggests that their tortas [Mexican sandwiches] would be pretty tasty, too.

Enchiladas Guerrero ($9.99)—These are described as cheese enchiladas in salsa roja with a side of grilled quail or chicken. This dish is a specialty of the Southwestern coastal state of Guerrero. The picture and description don't do the enchiladas justice. Crumbly cotija cheese comes inside the enchiladas and is sprinkled on top, and the enchiladas are served on a bed of a dried-red-chile-based salsa. The dish is also served with large chunks of roasted carrots and potatoes on top (which were really good); a small grilled quail (what's not to like?); and *delicious* refried beans. These are the closest to my ideal that I've found lately: plenty of lard, slow-cooked flavor, soft but not too soft texture of the beans, some broth but not soupy. I'm anticipating enjoying some good breakfast plates here, now that I've tasted the beans. This dish was good to the last drop. I have a feeling that enchiladas are one of their strong suits. And if the owners are from Guerrero, perhaps they make good cecina [dried beef—like a jerky], since it's a regional specialty. Other regional dishes include vuelve a la vida, a spicy "come back to life" seafood cocktail; green pozole; and their own style of tamales (the sheet-of-masa-like gelatinous nejos and super-thick, sandwich-sized, yet light tamales filled with meat, cheese, chiles, or even fruits like pineapple). More info here: http://www.saveur.com/article.jsp?ID=...

Norteño Combo of Beef Fajitas and Enchiladas en Mole—I only got a taste of this, as it was ordered by a colleague. From those few bites, I concluded that they're not using high-quality cuts of beef of the sort called "fajitas" by mainstream restaurants catering to more-affluent customers. However, they did a great job flavoring the thin cut of meat that they used. The real stand-out, however, had to be the enchiladas en mole. The red mole sauce was complex and delightfully sweet-savory. It reminded my co-worker of the sauce on the tacos bañados at La Regiomontana. (Yes, I drag willing co-workers all over the east side with me.) I'd love to give more details, but I didn't get enough of a taste. I must have more soon! This dish came with a Tex-Mex "salad" of shredded iceberg lettuce and chopped beefsteak tomato, which is never good. The guacamole that came with it, however, was really enjoyable. It was very subtly spiced, like all of their food, with just the basic ingredients (avocado, a touch of tomato and onion, a few sprigs of cilantro, a squirt of citrus). Again, it reminded me of Tejano home-cooking.

Cabrito [kid goat]—I had tried to order this dish at several points in the past, but they were always out. It was worth the wait. The very tender cabrito was stewed in a somewhat spicy dried red-chile-based sauce. Their cabrito is a guisado or stew of shredded goat, texturally not unlike lengua guisada or pollo guisado. I say this because when people read "goat," they might think of roasted or grilled goat. There were bits of bone interspersed in the cabrito, which is not uncommon. Be careful if you use the filling to make tacos. This came with more of those addictive refried beans as well as a pretty good version of fluffy Mexican rice sautéed with peas, carrots, and tomato. Lovely.

Bejuco's has continuous hours from breakfast until at least midnight. On Monday through Thursday nights, it's buy one entree, get the second one free (up to $9.99, if I'm not mistaken). Customers might be limited to certain dishes; there's a card on the table with more details. This option seemed to be taken advantage of by lots of couples on their way to Club Festival next door.

Bejuco's serves comfort food, done well. Nothing fancy. The sauces (with the exception of the mole) are a bit one-dimensional in that they seem to be made from only one kind of dried chile, with other spices being barely noticeable or sometimes totally absent. The considerable number of cans and jars of V-8 and Clamato suggest their use in the seafood cocktails and ceviches. In other words, you won't encounter the kind of complexly layered sauces—from several kinds of roasted and fresh chiles, or a wide variety of spices—that you might find at La Regiomontana, El Centenaio [I refer to their salsas], or El Rico. Of course, not all Mexican food is complex like mole or spicy like a diablo sauce.

As I've stated many times on this board, I'm always impressed by places that do the basics right—and to me that includes beans, rice, guacamole, and salsas. I should note that while Bejuco's menu advertised "homemade tortillas," on the one day that I was served flour tortillas, I was not impressed by them. The tortillas were light and of slightly irregular sizes, so they may not have been mass-produced. However, they did not taste like the best freshly hand-rolled tortillas, either. I'd say they fell somewhere between high-quality packaged and cheap-Crisco-shortening-based, unexceptional-Austin-tortillería product. On another day, I hope to be rewarded with different results.

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