Austin's Tacodeli: A Taco Worthy of a Roadtrip

A trip to Austin isn't complete without a trip to Tacodeli, the quintessential nouveau taquería with a culinary base firmly rooted in tradition and a stalwart dedication to the local -- as is true of all foodways. The most apt comparison here is to Tex-Mex, but it also works for Italian American cookery. What owner Roberto Espinosa has created at his three Tacodeli branches over that last 11 years is a new Tex-Mex. (Disclosure: Espinosa is an acquaintance of mine.) A native of Mexico City, Espinosa opened Tacodeli because he wanted to eat the tacos of his youth. At that time -- and it's still true -- Texas' taco landscape is dominated by Jalisciense-owned taquerías. As such, Espinosa was one of the first to bring the creative, specialty DF-style tacos to Texas. Since then, that style has grown in popularity, most notably in Dallas with El Tizoncito and its trompo pastor.

What Leo Spencer's Oak Cliff shop doesn't do is support local producers -- aside from the business that provides his restaurant's inconsistent tortillas. Espinosa's locavore-leaning culinary philosophy has helped propel the like's of Loncito's lamb into the Austin foodie limelight, being used in the exquisite special Loncito's Lamb Taco (Texas grass-fed leg of lamb braised with adobo, sherry and tequila topped with cilantro and crumbled queso fresco). That menu item still grapples with the succulent Frontera Fundido Sirloin (grilled sirloin with thin slices of sautéed Poblanos and onions glazed with Monterey Jack cheese) for champion taco. One bite of either and my eyes close, my ears jam all aural reception, the words "I need a moment" spill forth from my mouth like the plea of a teenager attempting to ward off a parent's wake-up call with a pillow over the head. "Shh! I need a moment."

The Cowboy and Mole Taco Pork are other showcase selections. "The mole came about because of the customers requested it," Espinosa once told me during a taco tour of Austin's East Side. The 16-ingredient sauce is rich, the kind of food worthy of its own bowl for slurping purposes. The shredded pork and the garnish of cilantro, onion and queso fresco elevate the taco to incredible. The Cowboy taco has received accolades from my fellow taquistadores in Austin. For much reason: The cowboy rubbed (coffee and chiles) beef tenderloin is smooth, tender and given textural juxtaposition with the addition of grilled corn, onions caramelized onions, roasted pepper, guacamole and queso fresco.

Breakfast tacos are a way of life in Austin, as much a part of the daily grind as are Austinites' complaints about the traffic on Interstate 35. Tacodeli loyalists can order the usual chorizo and egg or other customizable combos, but the kitchen here has several first-rate variations. The Vaquero, the Cowboy's breakfast taco sibling, is a moist morning kicker. The soft, slightly wet scrambled eggs fold in the grilled corn underneath the pile of poblano and red peppers topped with shredded Monterey Jack. The Otto (refried black beans with crispy bacon, avocado and cheese) is even better cold and used as a holdover during the return trip to Dallas.

The vegetarian taco options have some standouts, such as the Heather (grilled queso fresco and refried black beans with guacamole, lettuce and tomato) and the Florentino (fresh spinach sautéed in olive oil and sherry with onion, mushroom and red bell pepper). Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the fish tacos. All the mojo-garlic sauce and pico de gallo are incapable of saving the tilapia. The red cabbage pico de gallo doesn't add any contrast to the catfish.

No review of Tacodeli is complete without a mention of the Doña, a brilliant and creamy green salsa that contains no cream and will drop your voice an octave upon consumption. It's addictive. It's mysterious. It's creator, Doña Bertha, one of Espinosa's first employees and a Veracruz native, won't give up the recipe. Many have tried. I tried for 20 minutes during a phone conversation.

Like the mole, the tortilla options (corn, flour and whole wheat) are customer driven. Whatever your sentiments about whole wheat tortillas, it's Espinosa attention to the desires of his patrons, such as the aforementioned support of local producers -- Austinites love that-- that has born the success Tacodeli has achieved. With little advertisement and much word of mouth, the three outposts (most recently the Lamar location that opened in May) are slammed with business from breakfast until closing at 3 p.m.

If only Espinosa would only open a Dallas branch.

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