Restaurants & Bars

Austin Tex-Mex Side Dish

Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 12


Restaurants & Bars 9

Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 12

MPH | Sep 10, 2007 01:38 PM

This is the twelfth 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 report covers food options on and around Vargas Road, in the Montopolis neighborhood of Austin. In order to avoid calling the wrong kind of attention to unlicensed operators, I’ll just give a sketch of what’s sometimes available in the area. About halfway between Felix Ave. and East Riverside, you may encounter a man selling raspas (just five basic flavors) out of his front yard. There is also sometimes, on weekends, a $5 barbecue plate available from a house on the other side of the street. It’s not a bad deal. Near Civitan Park, between Bastrop Highway and Allison Elementary School, you can find paleta carts on most afternoons. Plus, if you really get off the beaten path, as I did, you’ll find a piñata store—but alas, no food—at 6818 Montana. They have good prices, too.

My review in this report focuses on a taco truck on Vargas Road, called Taqueria el Rico, that serves delicious Southern- and Central-Mexican-style food. There are at least two other threads, besides the one linked to above, that discuss their chow:

* Taqueria el Rico, 809 Vargas Road

This taco trailer is located in a shady spot near the fence of the busy Vargas Food Store, just northeast of the intersection with Felix Ave. The view from the parking lot presents an interesting cross-section of the neighborhood. (See scrumptiouschef’s post for the colorful details: ). El Rico itself has limited covered picnic-table-style seating, though I usually took my orders to-go, in order to escape the heat. El Rico’s hours of operation are: Tuesday-Wednesday, 3 to 10; Thursday-Saturday, 8 A.M. to10 P.M.; and Sunday 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. Like many Tex-Mex and Mexican restaurants, they are closed on Mondays.

Because their food was so good, I returned several times in order to check out more of their offerings. Their menu is posted in English and Spanish, and their prices are very reasonable: Tacos are $1.75 each; tostadas are $2; menudo costs $5 for a small, $7 for a large. I ended up paying less than the sum of my individual items on two occasions, so there may be occasional discounts from the friendly, Spanish-speaking lady who runs this trailer. Be prepared to wait, however. Every item is prepared to order, including the corn tortillas. Your patience will be greatly rewarded.

Let me start with some thoughts about their tortillas. The flour ones are just store-bought. There are worse store-bought ones in town, but you should still skip these and concentrate on their homemade corn tortillas. Medium-thick and deliciously textured, with slight little air pockets, their hand-shaped corn tortillas are ever-so-lightly browned on the comal [griddle]. The tortillas themselves are tender and redolent of good corn masa, though some days they could use just a touch of salt. Because the tortillas are not oiled before being used for tacos, they tend to turn chewy quickly. This phenomenon is more pronounced if you get corn tortillas on the side. I would guess that the tortillas are made with no added fat, which preserves moisture (and adds flavor). If you’re at home, you can reheat dried-out corn tortillas on a comal, though if you keep them for more than a day, you’ll need to steam them in a microwave or vegetable steamer. If you’re not at home, you have the perfect excuse to eat your tacos fast. To my palate, El Rico’s corn tortillas taste better than the ones offered at Al Pastor and Taquería El Mesón. I’d also guess that these latter two places do not make all their corn tortillas by hand, even though they’re made in-house.

El Rico's salsas are also quite good. The avocado-based green one was finely pureed and medium-thin, with a judicious use of green chiles. It has a very bright flavor, with an almost-lemony pop at first taste, followed by a fairly intense whole-mouth burn. I loved it. The very thin red salsa is a bright reddish-orange color, with plenty of seeds. I believe scrumptious described it as fiery. This salsa appears to be made almost exclusively of dried red chiles. It went very well with El Rico’s breakfast tacos.

Items sampled (all as tacos, unless otherwise noted):

Tostada—As scrumptious described, the tostada at El Rico is Central-Mexican style. A fried-until-crisp corn-tortilla base is given a schmear of good refried pinto-beans (that are made with some pork fat!) then topped with thin strips of fresh green cabbage, radish slices, tons of Mexican crema [like sour cream, but more similar to crème fraîche], and cotija cheese [a salty, feta-like, semi-hard cow’s-milk cheese of Mexican origin]. I added jalapeño to mine. You can add the meat of your choice, too, but I first tried it plain, just to get a sense of its individual elements. Even without an added meat-topping, I was blown away by the flavors.

Barbacoa—This was very, very good. It tasted like the real deal [by which I mean cabeza, or cow’s head], not the shredded-roast-beef version of barbacoa. It was very simply seasoned, too, and not one of the unusually sweet varieties that I’ve found at a couple of places on the east side. My first thought was that it was La-Monita-like, which is a very good local model for traditional barbacoa. For all I know, this could be El Rico's source. The barbacoa taco came with finely-chopped onions and cilantro. With a shot of their green salsa, I was in heaven. A new favorite for taco-truck versions of barbacoa.

Chicharrones—These also might be a new favorite of the variety that is not stewed with salsa. The chicharrones were tender, not chewy, in texture, and moist but still well-browned. Thus, there was no “slippery” mouthfeel, as is often the case. Although this dish wasn’t the type stewed in salsa, I saw flecks of green and red mixed in with the chicharrones that suggested, along with the flavor, that they were sautéed with just a bit of chopped, fresh green-chiles and dried red ones. This dish wasn’t super-spicy. It was, however, complex and tasty. I wish I knew their source for pork rinds. These were of very good quality.

[Puerco] Al Pastor—This was the faux version [not cooked on a spit] of al pastor. Fairly moist pork squiglets were seasoned with onion, chile powder, and a strong citrus note, which provided the traditional sweet, savory, and tart components of this dish. A decent, but not thrilling, version.

Lengua [tongue]—This was not stewed; rather, the lengua was cut into tiny little cubes of meat that were browned in a skillet until almost crispy. Soft onion slices had also been cooked with the lengua. Although a bit on the dry side, this was not bad. Because this filling was not as good as the others, however, I probably wouldn’t re-order it.

Chorizo and egg—There was not as much chorizo as I’d like in this taco. I'd say that it was about half egg and half chorizo, but fortunately the chorizo itself was very flavorful. Their Mexican sausage was salty, spicy, with less of a vinegar kick than some varieties, but still savory rather than sweet. I want to know her source for this, too, though she just might make it herself. The egg was scrambled medium-hard, not soft-scrambled. This was, however, the only breakfast taco that featured eggs that had been truly scrambled. Only moderately greasy, this chorizo-and-egg taco was quite good.

Potato and egg—This was just delicious. Oh god, I’m fantasizing about this taco even as I type this. What’s interesting is that the filling was faintly spicy on its own, which suggests that a touch of chile was added to the egg, though none was visible. In this case, the egg was fried and then broken up in the taco, rather than scrambled. But the small chunks of potato were heavenly. No skins, totally unbrowned—they were softly seductive, with a lovely flavor that made me wonder if they had been cooked in some bacon grease or lard. Potato-and-egg tacos are usually so bland without salsa, but this one was good on its own. It was also quite good with the red salsa.

Bean and egg—Now these were some good beans. Finally! Rich, smoky depth of flavor and a texture that was well-mashed but not too smooth. These are what refried beans should taste like when they’ve been fried in bacon grease. The egg-to-bean ratio was about half and half, with slightly more egg than beans. The egg, again, was simply stirred-up fried egg. The beans might seem bland to some, so add salsa if you’re looking for spice. For bean purists, however, this will taste oh-so-good on its own. In fact, I was sorry that I'd asked for the egg in the first place.

Bacon and egg—This was very nice. Scrumptious, I think you’ll like this taco if you haven’t tried it yet, although the small bacon pieces are fried to almost just-crisp. The bacon is smoky, meaty, and delicious, and there’s lots of it. The egg, again, is fried on one side, then broken up, rather than scrambled. I could have eaten three more of these, easy.

Menudo—Wow! The menudo was the same deep red color as the salsa, but on its own, it was almost mild, or at most just faintly spicy. Though generously full of large pieces of the most beautiful honeycomb-tripe, almost all the grease had been skimmed off, giving this a clean taste. The pieces of tripe were irregularly sized and of different textures, some with bones, and were very tender from slow cooking. The dimension of corn noticeable in the broth suggested the addition of a touch of masa harina, though not enough to make the base stew- or chile-like in viscosity. El Rico’s version of menudo is different from many Tejano-Tex-Mex versions. It contained no Mexican oregano, no hominy. It wasn’t very spicy. And the broth was clear, as if it had been strained of any herbs used to flavor it. It tasted, however, like it was made with love. Just wonderful. Honestly, I could eat it every weekend. By the way, good menudo takes forever to cook, which is why most places only offer it on Saturday and Sunday. If a restaurant is offering it every day on their menu, then they’re probably not doing it right.

Everyone who placed an order while I was at El Rico ordered the menudo, too, even if they also got a couple of breakfast tacos. It’s obviously a big hit—with good cause. (Of course, many bad takes on menudo are nonetheless popular, like the one at Joe’s Bakery.) The small size, which I ordered, contains about 2/3 of a quart-sized container of stew. With it you get the usual condiments (a lime wedge, finely diced white onion and green chile, and a packet of salt), along with 5 homemade corn tortillas.

Overall, I thought this place not only produced delicious, well-executed chow but did so while paying attention to little things that enhanced the appeal of each dish. For example, all fillings that I sampled were well-seasoned enough to stand on their own. Almost nothing really needed salt, though to me egg-based tacos almost always could use a touch more. Stewed items and soups are slowly, coaxingly cooked and served with pride. The finest-quality ingredients are sought out and used. Her kitchen skills and attention to detail are great, too. Did you notice, scrumptious, how finely and uniformly minced the onion, cilantro and green chiles were that accompany some of the dishes? Anyone who thinks taco trucks only offer cheap, greasy fare, akin to crappy fast-food, should go to El Rico (or El Rinconsito). One experience will put the lie to this unfair assumption. This woman puts her heart and soul into each dish.

By the time I finished this report, I had covered all the fillings except fajitas, which are often the most boring things to order at a taco truck that doesn’t specialize in fajitas and grilled meats. It wouldn't surprise me, however, if theirs are good. There are also different ways to showcase these fillings that I have yet to try, such as in gorditas and flautas. Enchiladas and/or panbozos [like tortas] may have been on the menu, too.

El Rico is now one of my very favorite stops for great chow in Austin. In fact, I may have dreamed about their breakfast tacos last night. Needless to say, I will definitely return to try all of their delicious chow, over and over again.

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