Blue Corn Harvest has been delivering a taste of 90s era Southwestern populism to Cedar Park for more than five years. A meal at the restaurant owned by Carlos Manzano and Santos Garcia starts with a warm corn muffin and sweet butter. Leave it to the Z’Tejas veterans to remind diners that the sweetness of a corn muffin and fried tortilla chips served with the mild heat of a pepper-flecked red salsa make for an oddly satisfying trio.
You’ve got three taco options here and the two I tried were both build-your-own endeavors. Shredded chicken arrives in a little cast-iron skillet swimming with three chili salsa, the ancho and guajillo most pronounced in this stew with whispers of mole ($12.99, served with rice and beans). The sloshy dish is topped with melted cheese and pickled jalapenos and red onion desperate for a better developed tang. The sand dollar sized blue corn tortillas with which you wrap your chicken put up a stubborn fight and had little of the signature corn flavor.
Blue Corn doesn’t make their namesake tortillas or the superior flour ones (I was told they came from the excellent Fiesta Tortillas in Southeast Austin), which wrapped blackened tilapia tacos ($12.99 with rice and beans) cut in half and resembling small burritos more than tacos. The blackening spices from Texas Spice Company in Round Rock buzzed the seared fish with cayenne and paprika and a touch too much salt, which was mellowed by a syrupy sweet ginger vinaigrette.
The order: Blackened fish tacos
Note: Blue Corn Harvest serves a gluten-free menu, and for those who live more north than northwest, Blue Corn Harvest opened a Georgetown outpost last October.
Much has changed over the years on South First Street. But one thing that has remained consistent on the South Austin artery for the past 13 years is the consistently great service and tacos coming from the tiny El Primo trailer that sits at the edge of a parking lot in front of Once Over Coffee, Sekret October and Pecan Food Mart.
If you’ve visited once, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the affable man many simply call “Primo,” though his given name is Humberto Reyes. The Michoacán native works quickly and with a deft touch, scraping and flipping the eggs for his migas taco just as they begin to toast and the cheese starts to melt into the middle of the pile. Reyes does fast work at the grill, turning out breakfast tacos (all $2.25) and meatier lunch tacos ($2.50 on corn and $2.75 on flour) for devoted regulars of the cash-only trailer. When he’s not manning the grill, it’s his brother-in-law and fellow Michoacán native Jose Luis Perez. These guys get the glory, and Perez’s sister Guadalupe gets some recognition working the register, but it’s the rarely seen Anna Reyes, wife of Humberto and sister of Jose Luis, who makes this operation hum.
She works at a commissary kitchen cooking pastor finely chopped so that you can’t differentiate the fatty pieces from the lean; finding balance in shredded barbacoa; and grilling salty nibs of carne asada for one of the best valued beef tacos in town.
Reyes and Perez prefer to serve their tacos on corn (though not the artisanal black corn tortillas they recently brought back from Mexico that are kept hidden out of site from customers). But they do serve one of the best migas tacos in town, studded with smoky deli ham, in flour. The corn and flour tortillas come from a local tortilla company (they might tell you if you ask, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy) and are some of the best bagged versions I’ve ever tasted. The tender corn ones are imbued with a mellow sweetness, and the flour are tossed on the flattop and billow as they toast. Anna Reyes also makes the two salsas, a tomatillo that is more floral that fire and a rust-colored chile de arbol packed with dusky sting.
With amazing value, great people and a tenure that would be the envy of almost any restaurateur, El Primo is one of the true gems of South Austin.
The order: migas on flour ($2.25), pastor on corn ($2.50) and carne asada on flour ($2.75).
El Primo. 2001 S. First St. 512-227-5060, Facebook
Patrick Terry helped revolutionize the way Austinites think about fast food when he opened P. Terry’s on South Lamar Boulevard in 2004. He took aim at a type of food that had rightfully earned a reputation as unhealthy, and in some cases entirely suspect, and made it healthier and cleaner while maintaining value and increasing customer service standards.
Hormone-free, antibiotic-free and vegetarian-fed all-natural Angus beef was used to make burgers; organic eggs made their way onto breakfast sandwiches; freshly squeezed orange juice was served; and antibiotic-free chicken was ground in-house for the chicken burgers. And it all tasted great.
So, when he opened Taco Ranch earlier this year, some wondered: Could he replicate the winning formula with Tex-Mex, or would he be wise to stay in his lane and watch his P. Terry’s burger empire grow? Prior success in one endeavor doesn’t necessarily predict future success in a different arena. Just ask the Birmingham Barons’ Michael Jordan, or take a look at the reviews when David Chang originally mashed up Korean and Italian at Momofuku Nishi.
After visiting a couple of times, I will admit that Taco Ranch doesn’t hold the same appeal for me as P. Terry’s. It’s not a failure, and there are a few things to recommend it, but it doesn’t feel like the revolutionary act P. Terry’s was. But maybe that’s because a conscientious alternative to fast food burgers is much more appealing to me than a similar antidote to Taco Bueno. I still generally want my tacos more on the Mexican side of things and less on the Tex-Mex side (though I’ve been known to hit Chuy’s a couple of times a year).
As with P. Terry’s, Taco Ranch is concerned with sourcing, though it can be tough to discern the nuance when you’re just talking salty ground beef and chopped up grilled chicken. But those tomatoes are certainly brighter and juicier than anything you’ll find at a standard-issue drive-thru.
The menu is separated by breakfast tacos (served until 11 a.m. daily) and lunch and dinner tacos. The beef, chicken, veggie and bean tacos you’d be inclined to order at lunch all cost $2.50, while the breakfast taco pricing depends on the number of fillings — $2.25 for two, $.275 for three and $3.25 for four.
Taco Ranch uses a machine to make their own corn tortillas in-house, and while the effort is appreciated, the double layered tortillas I had at both dinner and breakfast (but more so at dinner) had the smooth texture and elasticity of deflated balloons. You can order the corn tortillas fried, which is an improvement, though the texture and crackle seemed more like they were baked. Those shells make for the best delivery mechanism when filled with ground beef.
With that said, I’d stick to the flour tortillas. They are made off-site using a Taco Ranch recipe and have a good chew and buttery soul. Whether you find nice toasty spots from the grill depends on when you get them. My favorite evening taco was the grilled chicken. While the meat ran a little dry, it was nicely seasoned with a touch of char. Wrap that in a flour tortilla filled with crunchy iceberg lettuce, fire-engine red tomatoes and shredded cheese and add sour cream and jalapenos for 50 cents each and you get closest to the P. Terry’s model: a cleaner version of fast food that’s not trying to do anything too fancy. Add some of the spicy salsa, a roasted blend of tomato, jalapeno and serrano that’s probably only about a 6 on a heat scale of 1-10, and you’ve got yourself a solid taco.
While I appreciate the veggie crumble taco, a packed blend of beans and grains that looks and tastes like a broken up veggie burger, if you’re looking for a vegetarian option, go with a bean taco, but maybe not with the buttery and rich fried flour tortilla I chose. The cumin-flavored beans, fattened up with soybean oil, not lard, are best with cheese on a simple breakfast taco rolled in a flour tortilla.
The organic eggs didn’t ever hit the toasty or creamy points you would hope for from a morning scramble, leaving my bacon, egg and cheese taco lifeless and unappealing before a generous splash of salsa. And breakfast sausage has never been my thing, so the pale pile of sausage and eggs didn’t do anything for me. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the chorizo. The fine and fragrant meat, which could maybe use a touch more heat, didn’t leave a greasy pool on my flour tortilla, or maybe it was just soaked up by the bits of potato, wisely cut to small pieces, allowing them a nice balance that leaned more toward crunch than flesh. Drizzle some of the green salsa, piquant with fresh and roasted garlic and brightened by cilantro, and you have a definite winner.
As with P. Terry’s, the design, here an adobe style that hearkened to old Taco Bells and Taco Buenos, delivered a tingle of upmarket nostalgia, and the friendly service (right down to the taco-wrap stickers asking for feedback and offering a phone number for said) was sincere and on point. That alone makes Taco Ranch a standout among competitors and some restaurants with much higher aspirations.
The more time I spent in Taco Ranch — one night watching as customers of all ages and families of four were fed for likely well less than $10 a person — the more I began to understand it. If you think of the nascent chain — there’s one coming to MLK Boulevard near the University of Texas this summer — as an alternative for your favorite trailers serving migas tacos or Mexican street tacos or as a competitor for more expensive places putting a modernist spin on the taco game, you will be disappointed. But if you’ve been looking for a replacement for your guilty pleasure Tex-Mex fast food spot, you will likely greet Taco Ranch as a refreshing (and local) alternative.
Recommended: Chicken on soft flour (add sour cream and jalapenos), ground beef on crispy corn, and chorizo and potato breakfast taco on soft flour.
Non-taco side note: Taco Ranch earns high marks for his citrusy housemade guacamole studded with tomatoes and a creamy, pepper-flecked queso that doesn’t rely on Velveeta.
One of many reasons I still love changing Austin: I can still easily discover a great taco truck that’s been hiding in plain sight for years. Mi Trailita is located on the part of Manor Road just north of 51st Street that serves more as a getting-to-somewhere road or shortcut than a destination for me. This trailer changes that.
The truck operated since 2011 by David Salina and his mother, Maria, a native of Guerrero, serves a slew of tacos for right around $2, which makes them some of the best values in town.
The Salinas use two types of soda in preparing their carnitas ($1.85), which are a jumble of fat and crunch. Get those on flour tortillas cooked in the trailer from pre-made dough. The tortillas are puffed and pliant with bubbles marks from the grill. The lunch tacos, like the sunburn glow of pastor ($1.85), come on tortillas slightly larger than the small and lithe flour tortillas used for breakfast tacos like a migas ($1.85) full of toasty eggs, tortilla chip crunch and a generous shower of cheese. The corn tortillas, which find a balance of sweetness and earth, are made by hand in the trailer.
I think my favorite tacos were the beef versions. The barbacoa blended fibrous cheek meat with the preparation’s trademark unctuousness ($2.18), and was as good as any I have had in town; and the nibs of salty and juicy fajita meat ($2.18) bristled with caramelized sweetness at the edges. In addition to the tacos, you can also order quesadillas, which Mi Trailita makes by cooking the cheese on the grill for a toasty crackling finish that is smoothed our by hunks of avocado.
I’m sure over the years I have naively driven by the trailer in Northeast Austin and just not recognized it. That won’t happen again.
Cords of wood serve as a rustic wainscoting (woodscoting?) on the walls that ring this otherwise sleek spot in the Northcross Mall complex. They’re actually not full logs, but the message is clear: They grill meat over burning wood at Dos Batos.
And that smoke (and generous salt seasoning) is very prevalent in the pirata, a simple beef taco with a gooey layer of melted Jack cheese and a ridge of fresh avocado as bright as a parakeet. The pirata ($5.25), a name and format popular in Laredo, can be dressed up with a runny tomato soup salsa with a sneaky backbite, but I was left wishing Dos Batos had the kind of salsa and condiment bar you find at Taco Palenque in Laredo (and elsewhere). The flour tortilla was fatty and spotted by the grill and tender enough to pull apart with ease. Maybe the wall should be lined with flour tortillas.
There are two other tacos choices, a grilled chicken pirata and an Ostin taco (think “Austin” pronounced with a Mexican accent), which incorporates red and green peppers, red onions and mushrooms from that same smoky grill. All tacos cost $5.25, but you can order two for $9.90 or three for $14.55. You can get the steak or chicken as a hybrid, which weds the pirata with the veggies, thus negating my condiment quibble a little. The chicken hybrid was the superior taco here, thanks to juicier meat with a citrus and garlic glow and the snap, crunch and vegetal twang of the smoky peppers. The corn tortillas had almost as much heat as the flour, with firm toasty edges. Another tortilla winner from this fast-casual concept that has endured for almost a decade in North Austin thanks to simplicity, service and wood.
Dos Batos. 2525 W. Anderson Lane. #175. 512-452-0001, dosbatos.com
La Posada in South Austin reminded me of my recent trip to San Antonio. It wasn’t just the homemade flour and corn tortillas, the Spanish-language musical soundtrack or the terracotta-colored banquettes. It’s direct, simple and really good.
Shredded strands of barbacoa in one taco ($2.49) cling together, bound by fat more notable for its flavor than grease, and tender strips of lengua ($2.59) are tempered by the sweetness of stewed tomatoes and green peppers. The beef fajita ($2.49) was cooked a few seconds longer than I’d prefer but was still juicy and caramelized, with lightly grilled green peppers and onions lending vegetal snap and not much heat. I recommend spooning the sweet table salsa, a soupy tomato base with flecks of serrano, onion and black pepper.
La Posada makes both flour and corn tortillas, the former gentle and buttery, the latter springy and milky like baked corn custard.
And I didn’t have to get on I-35 to enjoy them.
6800 West Gate Blvd. 512-444-2631, laposadasouth.com
I admit that over the past year when I would drive past Trippy Tacos (4205 Mancahaca Road), with its mildly psychedelic cartoon logo, I always assumed the small taco truck outside of a convenience store was operated by a South Austin hippie with dreads. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s actually run by a mother-daughter team from Guanajuato, Mexico. The moniker and logo was actually devised by the owner’s teenage son.
As the name somewhat implies, there are some gringo tacos here, but I ain’t mad at it. Anyone who has been to Torchy’s probably loves the Trailer Park (and, unless they’re mad, gets it ‘trashy’ with queso). Trippy does Torchy’s one better with its namesake taco. The Trippy Taco ($4) features a long twirl of fried chicken wrapped in crispy fried bacon and dotted with mango salsa. I’m usually not a fan of mango in my tacos, but it works well here as a sweet balance to the salty and savory components. There is a light sprinkle of shredded cheese, which gives a tough of tang without drowning the thing in queso like the one down the street.
The name and trademark taco may be newfangled, but there are more classic Mexican stylings, as well, like the steak a la Mexicana ($3.25) studded with potatoes, onions, and serranos under a shower of Jack cheese. That taco is a meal almost unto itself. Kick it up a few notches with one of five homemade salsas. On the mild end I like the tomatillo; while the creamy green salsa called the Monster will hit you right in the sinuses.
The spicy shrimp ($4) needs no salsa assist for its sting. The small shrimp are dusted with cayenne and grilled on the plancha and served with vinegary pickled onions, a generous portion of avocado and more of that mango salad. Get the shrimp on the homemade corn tortillas (the flour are a fairly measly bagged variety), which are a little tough but packed with corn flavor.
Trippy Tacos is open Monday-Saturday from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.