Restaurants & Bars

Austin Tex-Mex Side Dish

Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 10


Restaurants & Bars 8

Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 10

MPH | May 30, 2007 06:13 PM

This is the tenth 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.”

This is the first of two reports on eateries on Montopolis Drive. Although I started from the southernmost end of Montopolis, where it begins at Nickols Crossing, I found no Tex-Mex places until I arrived north of the intersection with East Riverside.

A quick side note: I don’t want to get any informal operators in trouble, so I’ll just say that you should keep your eyes open for the occasional sign advertising pollos asados and carnes asadas that are prepared and sold from various backyard grills. Sometimes sides like frijoles are available; sometimes they just sell the meat. There are a couple of threads that touch on what’s available:

Back to my report. In this part I review one brand-new take-out shop and one well-established small grocery store with a take-out lunch counter.

* Leo’s Tortas y Supertacos, 1706-10 Montopolis

On my first pass down Montopolis, I noticed a sign that said “Ice House Grills.” What on earth does that mean, I thought. Well, I never found out. The sign belongs to another business in La Rosa Plaza, a small shopping center about a block away from the intersection with East Riverside. What I did find, on my second pass, was the brand-new Leo’s Tortas y Supertacos. A small sign in the corner shop said “Open” and another said “Tacos.” That’s all I needed to know.

This is a very small place, with just a few tables and a window that separates the kitchen and the dining room. It’s so new that the menu was still in the prototype stage (handwritten in a spiral notebook). Four friendly members of the ownership and management team were there when I first stopped by, including two young Hispanic guys who were designing the new print menu on a 15-inch super-thin Mac laptop. I learned from the owner that he’d worked at his brother’s place in San Marcos before opening up this shop.

Despite the fact that I arrived there before the place had officially opened, the kitchen had a few dishes prepared that they were good enough to sell me. I sampled two tacos on decent store-bought corn tortillas: one barbacoa and one al pastor. The barbacoa was good—more meaty than greasy or gristly, with that unusual note that I detected in the barbacoa at La Hacienda. (Maybe LH is their barbacoa supplier.) The al pastor was also tasty. The pork meat was of good quality and was also well spiced, though more savory than sweet, with strong notes of red-chile powder and salt. It’s “faux pastor,” in the sense that it isn’t cooked on a trompo. With a can of Dr. Pepper, my bill came to $3.51.

They seem to be set up for take-out, with a bilingual staff and very customer-friendly prices: $1.25 for lunch and dinner tacos (including chicken fajitas and chicharrones) and $.99 for breakfast ones. They will also offer tortas and a few plates, ranging from $4 to $8, if I’m not mistaken. I also noticed that they’ll be offering pork adobado as a taco or torta filling. It will be interesting to see how they prepare it. From what I sampled, the flavors should be pretty good. Slow down as you speed down Montopolis or you might miss out on some good home-cooking brought to you by a very pleasant group of Tejanos.

Follow-Up: I drove by twice in the past few weeks: once around 4 or 5 P.M. and once at noon. Leo’s was closed both times, though the sign is still up. I can only conclude that their grand opening must have been delayed.

*TomGro Grocery, 1313 Montopolis

When I first stopped by TomGro Grocery at 5:45 P.M. one weekday, I found that although the small grocery store and convenience market was open, the lunch-counter was not. I never found any printed information about the hours of operation, but I’d guess that the window of opportunity for breakfast and lunch chow is something like 7 to 2.

When you walk into this busy neighborhood grocery-store, you’ll notice that they have plenty of beer, chips, and other typical convenience-store favorites, along with some Mexican cooking staples (corn husks, dried chiles) and dried goods (like packaged pan tostado and Mexican cookies). The grocery store is always busy, and they seem to do a good job of catering to the area’s diverse clientele.

If you continue past the cashier, on your left, about halfway towards the back of the store, you’ll find a lunch counter where you can purchase basic cold cuts (think bologna), either to go or on a sandwich. A burger special is available for $2.99, with fries and a drink. But the savvy ‘hound will zoom in on the tacos.

Note on ordering: Follow the standard lunch-counter procedure of ordering and picking up at the counter, then paying the cashier on your way out. If you don’t speak any Spanish, don’t worry; they’re used to it. Se habla inglés.

Over a couple of visits, I was able to sample various lunch tacos served on store-bought tortillas. The oiled and doubled-up corn tortillas were quite good, but the flour ones weren’t bad, either. Two salsas are available with the tacos: an avocado-based green one, with a slow but noticeable burn, and a bright, tomato-free orange-red one. Normally, I go for the green salsas, but this one was a bit too thin. It was also somewhat one-dimensional, since the avocado had no flavor. I preferred the red salsa.

Tacos sampled:

carne guisada—Tender chunks of meat in a well-seasoned sauce with strong notes of Mexican cumin and minced jalapeños. Larger strips of soft, canned jalapeños were also present in the mixture. This was flavorful, though not really spicy (which is typical for carne guisada). I try this filling everywhere, and I thought theirs was quite good.

barbacoa—TomGro’s barbacoa was not great, but it was okay with a lot of salsa. Although the shredded beef was taken from a fatty cut, the meat itself wasn’t very flavorful. It did have some spiciness to it, from red chiles, which was a nice change from some of the blander varieties available. The surface of the barbacoa was oddly dry-textured, as if it had been reheated a few too many times on the griddle or in the oven. Although their barbacoa grew on me with each taco, it wasn’t one of the best versions in town. Served with a fresh, chunky pico de gallo.

pork chop—I love a down-home pork-chop taco, seasoned with a liberal dousing of red salsa and plenty of salt. This one was made with a thin, breaded, and fried pork chop that had been deboned and cleaned of gristle and then layered over a generous schmear of refried beans. The beans were a bit dry, but they had been mashed to a good consistency—smooth, but with some body; a few whole beans were mixed in here and there. I couldn’t tell if the beans had been refried with a touch of lard or if the pork chop had just rubbed off on them. However, they definitely weren’t the flavorless vegetarian version. This filling wasn’t as complex or interesting as the slow-cooked ones were. But I do love fried pork. I found this taco to be a well-executed, simple pleasure.

cabrito (a daily special)—I find cabrito, or kid goat, delicious prepared a variety of ways, from charcoal- or flame-grilled to stewed to steam-roasted. At TomGro, the cabrito was prepared like birria. In other words, the cabrito was seasoned with a mixture of chiles, tomatoes, Mexican spices (cumin, oregano, garlic, cilantro), vinegar, and other flavorings. Most likely, it was then covered and steam-roasted in the oven to approximate the traditional pit-cooking method also used for barbacoa. The steam-roasting broth or liquid was available for purchase separately, as a consommé.

I loved their cabrito. The shredded, tender meat was mild-tasting, not gamey as people sometimes expect, and redolent of chiles and other spices after the long, careful slow-cooking. Diced onion and cilantro topped the cabrito. Note: the cabrito is not super-spicy, but that doesn't matter to me as long as it's well prepared and flavorful.

I noticed that TomGro doesn’t offer plates, just tacos. Lunch and dinner tacos (all $1.50 each) include beef and chicken fajitas, but I didn’t try them. Breakfast tacos are $.99 each and include the usual bean-plus-one-ingredient and egg-plus-one-ingredient, along with chicharrones and, of course, barbacoa. Some caldos [hot soups] are available, including menudo. A small costs $3.50 and the large may be $5 (but I don’t remember the exact price). Based on my lunch experiences, I bet their menudo and chicharrones are good, and I hope to try a breakfast taco or two very soon.

I’ve been wanting to check out this place for a long time, based on the recommendations of scrumptiouschef (for example: ). Their carne guisada and cabrito were some of the best versions I’ve had in a while, and several other items were good enough to make me want more. I’m adding TomGro to my rotation of regular lunch spots.

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