Now that warm weather has arrived, trips to the lake, the pool and summer parties are a regular occurrence. While it can be tempting to grab a quick burger or a taco from one of our local chains for easy fuel, there are some excellent taco options throughout the city you may not have explored yet.
Below you'll find a selection of six restaurants offering creative takes on Austin's favorite food, with a number of options for both vegetarians and carnivores alike. While each kitchen takes a different approach, three common threads emerged from our conversations with these business owners: family recipes are in use, many ingredients are made in-house and slow cooking techniques are often employed. This combination of extra time, tradition and care makes each spot below worthy of a visit — or pilgrimage — for a taco to remember.
Central: Valentina's Tex Mex BBQ
When Valentina's first opened, some (including Texas Monthly's barbecue guru Daniel Vaughn) were skeptical of the "barbecue taco" concept. As it turns out, there was no need to worry. Miguel Vidal and his team have put together a menu Austin didn't know it was missing, and utilize great care on their well crafted and thoughtfully brief menu. Mike Sutter of Fed Man Walking calls the brisket "a taco with few equals," and it's tough to argue.
The tortillas are homemade, the meat is mesquite-smoked on site and the garnish (guacamole and a chile lime salt) is well-edited. While the proteins are the star at Valentina's, don't overlook the truly super veggie taco. Modestly, Vidal describes the dish: "It's basically almost all of our sides wrapped in taco form. The beans are made in-house, and utilize [my] mom's recipe, just without bacon. We smoke the corn on the cob, then cut off the kernels, throw it in a cast-iron pot and smoke it more. It's actually one of my favorite menu items!"
Suggested tacos: Brisket, carnitas and veggie
North: Taco More
In a town filled with solid tacos, North Austin sometimes feels bereft of high-quality options. The low-key Taco More isn't much to look at, but nearby worker bees and locals swear by it as a cheap and reliable take-out option. The menu leans traditional, and lengua, chorizo and cabrito feature heavily in the offerings. The goat is a favorite here, as is the pastor. The salsa bar is also varied and delicious, always offering multiple options to dress your tacos of choice.
The restaurant's service can be disinterested at times, but you can't argue with the food's flavor or pricing. If you're not feeling like a taco, the soups are also well-regarded — the Chronicle's Mick Vann wrote a love letter to their posole in his most recent review.
Suggested tacos: Cabrito, pastor
East: Tamale House East
An initial look at Tamale House East's new menu can be jarring: taco prices are all over the map. While many rightfully gravitate toward the affordable and massive tamales, the regulars know the score: a single fish or cochinita pibil taco qualifies as a full meal for under $5. These behemoth tacos likely contain 4-5 ounces of meat and are as flavorful as you'll find anywhere in town.
Explains Tamale House East owner Carmen Valera: "The Grilled Fish Taco is tilapia that is marinated overnight in olive oil, garlic, spices, peppers and lemon juice. It is grilled on a plancha carefully calibrated for fish. We top it with fresh spinach, marinated purple onions, guacamole and chipotle remoulade. The Cochinita Pibil is rubbed with a 12-ingredient marinade including salt, black pepper, agave, cinnamon, onion and orange juice. It marinates overnight, gets wrapped in a banana leaf, and is slow-roasted for 10-12 hours at the lowest heat possible." A selection of of affordable Austin Beerworks cans only adds to Tamale House East's air of utterly unpretentious cool, as does the consistently pleasant service.
Suggested tacos: Fish, cochinita pibil, migas
East: Veracruz All-Natural
A relative newcomer on Austin's taco scene, Veracruz has become wildly popular. A 78702 brick-and-mortar and a South Austin location on Manchaca adjacent to Radio Coffee and Beer are both forthcoming. The migas breakfast taco has a deserved rep as one of Austin's best: it's veggie-heavy, with homemade tortilla chips and slightly less egg than one normally sees. The tortillas are also excellent, and the overall effect is more balanced and less heavy.
At lunch on weekends (Friday and Saturday only), the barbacoa is a menu star. Owner Reyna Vasquez credits 12 hours of slow cooking and a spice blend of oregano, garlic, pepper and salt for the taco's success. She also mentions that on other days, the fish taco made with grilled tilapia is the most popular guest order. Regulars also love the Veracruz aqua frescas. Tip: this is the best parking lot in town if your group can't decide between between barbecue and tacos. The taco fiends can hit Veracruz, while the 'cue lovers can visit the adjacent Kerlin BBQ (provided you arrive before about 12:30 pm).
Suggested tacos: Barbacoa, veggie, al pastor, and especially migas
South: Papalote Taco House
South Austin residents were already fans of Sergio Varela's restaurants — his Azul Tequila has been a mainstay of the area for years. When his Papalote concept arrived in late 2010, though, residents got a full menu of great take-out taco and torta options convenient for a quick lunch or a stop on the way home from work. Mr. Varela is pleased with the taco house's strong following.
"Most of the Papalote menu [items] are versions of dishes my mother made as I grew up in Mexico. We wanted to offer something different, and I'm pleased that several recipes have become big successes," he says. While most of the Papalote menu options are winners, three stand out in the crowd. The alambres taco mixes steak, bacon, poblano and onion in a harmonious balance. It's heavy, but a perfect way to satisfy a red meat hankering. Another solid pick is the guajolote en mole, a rare turkey taco in sweet mole with pickled onions, avocado and cabbage. The vegetarian options include tortas di coliflor, a gluttonous guajillo-sauce drenched cauliflower patty topped with cabbage and queso fresco. Varela noted during our talk that our three picks are (perhaps not coincidentally) his best sellers on the menu. Don't miss the house-made salsas — both are quite spicy and worth hoarding.
Suggested tacos: Alambres, tortas di coliflor, guajolote en mole
Far South: La Flor
The best tacos can sometimes be found in odd places, and this is certainly the case here. Nestled in a South Austin Stop and Shop parking lot, the La Flor trailer serves up simple yet excellent tacos on homemade tortillas. The trailer loves onions, and the meats are grilled with them for bold, spicy goodness. The portions aren't huge, but prices are low, so grab an extra. Neighborhood regulars swear by the breakfast tacos, but we prefer the meaty lunch options. The bistec, carnitas and "BF" (beef fajita) are the most popular of the lunch selection.
Suggested tacos: Bistec, carnitas, breakfast