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Tex-Mex on Austin’s Southeast and East Sides, Part 4

MPH | Jun 26, 200603:02 AM

I broke my report on the area around Burleson Road into two parts, since it was getting very long.

Some of you may know about Austin’s BBQ on Burleson Road: It gets a lot of ink. I’m not including them here because they serve burgers, pancakes, and ‘cue rather than the Tex-Mex basics that are my focus in these reports.

In part 4 I cover a much-reviewed taquería on Burleson Road and a relatively unknown one on East Ben White Boulevard just west of Todd Lane.

El Mesón Taquería. 5808 Burleson Road

I wasn’t even going to review El Mesón in this series of off-the-beaten-track Tex-Mex places given how much press coverage it’s gotten. When a restaurant’s listed in a mainstream travel guide of Austin, it hardly qualifies as a hidden gem. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist the temptation to stop in there for lunch one recent weekday. (Their hours are Mondays through Fridays 6 A.M. to 3 P.M. and Saturdays 7 A.M. to 2 P.M.)

El Mesón serves authentic regional Mexican dishes, including many that I had just sampled at brunch at Fonda San Miguel: chicken tinga; the ubiquitous cochinita pibil; chicken in mole pipian. Apparently El Mesón, just like FSM, sometimes offer quesadillas de huitlacoche, a fact that print reviews all mention breathlessly. These quesadillas weren’t on the menu when I dined there.

Because I am completely sick of cochinita pibil, I just couldn’t try El Mesón’s version. But I did sample tacos of chicken pipian, carne guisada, calabacitas, [pork] al pastor, and fajitas. (These are also available as lunch plates for $6.55, which come with rice, black or pinto beans, and flour or corn tortillas.) The best taco filling by far was the chicken with mole en pipian, which is a traditional green mole made from tomatillos, chiles, and pumpkin seeds. Mole-wise, their version was a bit too subtle for my tastes, but it grew on me. The chicken itself was wonderfully tender and savory, the result of being slowly stewed and well seasoned. Chicken in Mexican (and many other) restaurants often tastes like it was boiled in plain water before being dumped in some other dish—-say flautas, gorditas, or enchiladas--and heavily sauced. Lovingly poached chicken, flavored with its own broth and just the right herbs and spices, elevates every final dish from enchiladas verdes to chicken & dumplings. The slow cooking of the chicken really made this taco great. EM’s carne guisada was also tender from long-stewing, but their version was less full-flavored than the carne guisada served at some very modest places I've tried. The calabacitas taco was a spicy version of this popular quick-sautéed vegetable dish (often served as a side) featuring cubes of fresh zucchini squash, corn kernels, sliced onion, cilantro, chopped tomatoes, and Mexican spices.

El Mesón is better at tacos de cazuela or de guisados (casserole-style or stewed fillings) than at tacos al carbón and de la plancha (respectively, charcoal-grilled and skillet-grilled or griddled meats). The [pork] al pastor was fresh, but nothing spectacular. I couldn’t taste the chile-based marinade or the grilled pineapple. The beef fajitas consisted of small, shredded pieces of beef that were marinated in an ambitious red-chile and tomato-based sauce and served with grilled onions and strips of poblano peppers. This was an unusually spicy but not especially interesting variation on a grilled fajitas taco. The meat tacos were $1.85 each; the veggie taco was $1.75.

I also tried both kinds of fresh tortillas. The corn ones were very good. Neither too small nor too large, too thick nor too thin, EM’s corn tortillas were tender, pliable, and faintly evocative of earthy corn-goodness. Though perhaps a bit gummy in the middle on the day I tried them, they’re much better than other versions I’ve tried in Austin. It makes me wonder where they could be getting good masa fresca? There are a lot of bad tortillerias in town (the usual source for masa fresca, if there are no molinos). And adding water to masa harina is just not the same. EM’s flour tortillas were fine: thin, small, but ultimately unmemorable. These definitely suffered from the use of vegetarian shortening. The salsas--a red one made from roasted peppers and tomatoes and an orange one featuring jalapeños—-were very fresh. In the kitchen I saw lots of whole beefsteak tomatoes roasting on the grill and chiles smoking in the skillets. But, the salsas were on the weak side in terms of seasoning. A good salsa doesn’t need to scorching-hot, but it should have bright flavors.

I didn’t try breakfast at EM, but I noticed that they offer plates ($4.50 each) of huevos rancheros; huevos motuleños; huevos con papas; migas; “chorimigas,” or migas plus chorizo; and huevos a la mexicana. Breakfast tacos with two ingredients (eggs and something or beans and something) are $1.25 each. The competition from La Pasadita must be keeping the prices low.

Perhaps even more than Casa Moreno, El Mesón appeals to non-Hispanic workers from the industrial and office complexes that line Burleson Road. On two visits I couldn’t help but notice that the only Mexicans in this place seemed to be those behind the counter. That’s the first time that’s happened in this series.

The good dishes that I tried at El Mesón were very good. Their corn tortillas and chicken with mole pipian were better than versions at Fonda San Miguel. Not to imply that I consider FSM to be the ultimate benchmark. In fact, I’d like to suggest right now that all regional-Mexican restaurants in town blaze new trails in Mexican cuisine instead of closely aping FSM’s very traditional, and hence rather uncreative, playbook. As for El Mesón, I’ll be back to try their other tacos de cazuela—-on those tasty corn tortillas.

Taqueria la Tapatia, 2506 E Ben White Boulevard

This place is the complete opposite of El Mesón. It’s certainly not the kind of taqueria that will be mentioned anytime soon in mainstream travel guides. Next time you’re heading to or from the airport, however, stop by here for good fast-food-style Tex-Mex at rock-bottom prices.

Taqueria la Tapatia looks like a former DQ, and it feels like one, too. But that doesn’t mean it’s unpleasant. On all my visits (for lunch and dinner during the week), la Tapatia was full of Mexican-American families with kids as well as groups of men on their way home from or to work. They come for the satisfying food at bargain prices. Tacos ($1.45 each) are available filled with picadillo, aguacate (avocado), lengua, pierna (pork leg), barbacoa, fajitas, [pork] al pastor; and pollo. They also have plates of 3 enchiladas—-your choice of picadillo, pollo, queso—-for $4.50. You can get a 2-meat combo for $5.25. Special plates are also available, such as flautas ($4.99), carne asada ($5.99), parillada ($7.50), and enchiladas a la Tampiqueña ($5.90). To-go chips and salsa are $1.50 (or just $1 in the morning), although they’re free with the meal if you eat in. The chips are store-bought but nice and salty; the thin, spicy red salsa is pleasing. You can also order guacamole for $2 extra and cebollas asadas (grilled onions) for $.99. Tortas, burritos, and tostadas are available, as are posole and a couple of kinds of quesadillas. They offer a couple of aguas frescas along with sodas, juice, and coffee.

I sampled six dinner tacos over a few visits: carne guisada, lengua, al pastor, pierna, aguacate, and barbacoa. (Note: Both corn and flour tortillas are store-bought: the result, as usual, is that the corn ones are better.) The carne guisada was very tender and savory. I enjoyed their version. The pierna, however, is just delicious. As is the case with carnitas, these crispy chunks of pork leg are fried in their own fat. Bits of small, salty squares of pork-fat melt in your mouth when you eat them. The barbacoa was pretty good, too. It had good flavor and nice texture. It’s not made from cow’s head, and I’ve had fattier (hence tastier) versions. I should also note that on my first visit, they must have been scraping the bottom of the barbacoa barrel: The meat was grayish. That’s what I get for ordering barbacoa at 7 P.M. Their aguacate taco was good. They must have given me at least half of a good avocado, along with shredded lettuce and one tomato slice. The tongue was pleasing though perhaps a bit tough. It tasted like the small cubes of tongue had been grilled rather than stewed. The al pastor consisted of crisped morsels of pork, with some chile-powder flavoring but not much citrus. It was a serviceable version. Overall, I felt that TLT's tacos were satisfying.

Breakfast is an even better deal. Breakfast plates are just $2.25 each. For that price you can get huevos rancheros; huevos a la mexicana; and huevos scrambled with your choice of papas, chorizo, nopales, jamón (ham), or tocino (bacon). These plates include beans, potatoes or ham, and 2 tortillas. For those on the go, between 6 and 11 A.M., you can get 3 breakfast tacos for only $1.99. Options are beans and cheese; beans, papas, or huevos con chorizo; huevos con papas, jamón, or tocino; and huevos con nopales. Migas plates are available for $2.99 until 11 A.M. and for $3.99 after. Menudo is $3.99 (one size) and is served with onions, lime, Mexican oregano, and salsa picante.

I’ve always envied current San Antonians for their numerous options for $1.99 huevos rancheros and super-cheap breakfast tacos. Taqueria la Tapatia will now be my Austin source for similar necessities. And for that succulent pierna.

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