Last year my New Year’s Resolution was to stop eating bad hotel bar cheeseburgers. I’d fallen into a boring rut when I traveled. I’d book a flight with a late arrival time. I’d get to the hotel too tired to do anything. I’d drop my bags in my room, schlep myself down to the hotel bar and eat a cheeseburger. Nine times out of ten, it was a really bad cheeseburger.
After I made my resolution, things changed for the better. I found some amazing restaurants in Dallas, Chicago and Nashville, Denver, Cincinnati and Baltimore. Once I started looking it was incredibly easy to find great places which where usually 1/2 to 1/3 the price of that hotel bar.
My first trip of this year was to Austin, via Dallas. Last year’s outings were so successful, I decided to do it again this year.
I arrived in Austin Wednesday evening. I’d done my research and knew exactly where I was having dinner. A “hippy church” taqueria on the south side. It looked great and it wasn’t too far out of my way.
The exterior was about as funky as it gets. From the giant bust of a bikini-ed babe that welcomes you in the parking lot to the tin-roofed conglomeration of sheds that make up the patio, this place is a throw back.
The inside is exactly what you’d expect from the outside. Mis-matched chairs and tables. Battered walls and floor. Crazy stuff, accumulated over decades, on the walls and shelves.
The thing is, this is exactly what you want in a taqueria. A taqueria should be a place serving great food, fast and cheap. If a restaurant is spending all its money on decor, table clothes, wait staff and location, it’s not spending it’s money on the food. You’ll either end up with a nasty, tourist-focused, chain TexMex place or some where that serves decent food, but you pay $12 for a taco.
At Maria’s I got a taco al pastor, a beef barbacoa taco, a pork gordita and a beer for less than $14. Everything was great. Fresh off the flat top. Tasty and topped with a selection of house made salsas.
The beef barbacoa taco was better than my recipe. The taco al pastor was very good but Maria cooked the pineapple in with the pork. I prefer it with chunks of grilled pineapple in the taco. You might argue that a Latina who has been running one of Austin’s favorite taco joints of years knows how to make a more authentic taco al pastor than a middle-aged white guy from Ohio and you’d have a point. What can I say? I like what I like.
The gordita was very good but, like the pollo huaraches at R&R in Baltimore, for the calories and the money I wished I’d gotten another taco instead.
Around 7:00 pm a band started setting up. Live music and tacos are hard to beat, so I had another beer and stuck around. The lead singer was named Ulrich and he called the band his tribe. He described their music as Viking Blues even though he was from Austria. They reminded me of a Phish-style jam band.
They played well, but that style of music isn’t really my thing. Around 8:00 pm I drifted out and headed to my hotel full, fat and happy.
Recommendation – Go. I haven’t eaten at enough Austin area taqueria to be able to compare Maria’s to the rest but I can say they were very, very good.
Thursday night I went to a more up-scale (but certainly not “up-scale”) restaurant on the north side of Austin.
F&D is located in a small building in a residential neighborhood. Their tiny parking lot consists of maybe four spaces. I was the first customer of the evening, so I got one of them. A sign points customers to more parking across the street.
F&D’s show kitchen takes up about 1/3 of the space. I sat at the counter which fronts the kitchen. This gave me a great view of the food cooking and let me ask a few questions about the dishes and the preparation.
I was going to take more pictures of the interior and the food, but the place filled up almost instantly. It went from me alone at the counter to almost capacity in a matter of 15 minutes. It felt rude to be snapping pictures with that many people out on dates or with their familes.
If you want to see what F&D is like, go to the photo page on their web site.
I ordered the pumpkin soup with braeburn apples and brown butter, the black pepper and gruyere popovers and the pork, baby octopus and clam brodo. Everything was top notch. The brown butter topping the pumpkin soup added a creamy richness that complemented the sweetness of the apples. They also finished the soup with thinly sliced jalapenos. The occasional burst of heat from the jalapenos woke up the whole dish.
After the soup, my next course was the popovers. These are a specialty made in house daily. I suspect they are also the reason F&D fills up so quickly. The popovers are a “limited availability” item and they do run out. I’m glad I got mine. They were flaky with the creamy cheese and the kick from the black pepper. Excellent.
The popovers came two to an order, so I saved one of them. That was a disappointment. As impressive as they were fresh, popovers don’t keep well. By the next morning it was chewy and almost gummy. I should have donated it to the couple next to me.
The pork brodo was my last course. I was very tempted by the braised goat, but I had ordered a lot of food and knew I needed something lighter.
The brodo, like everything else, was excellent. They used cheek meat from the hog’s head. That is some of the most flavorful meat on the hog. The broth for the brodo was deep and rich. The octopus, clams and vegetables were perfectly cooked. It was the kind of dish you’d expect as a starter at a $60 a plate steak house. Not for $20 at a corner joint is somebody’s neighborhood.
The chefs working in front of me and my waitress were very friendly. That must be an Austin thing. They knew their menu and their wine list and helped me make some interesting pairs.
F&D wasn’t as cheap as Maria’s but they did deliver some great value. The soup and the popovers were only $8 each. My tab got a little steep only because I’d tried three courses with wine and beer.
Recommendation – Go. If you do go, look for me. Next time I’m in Austin, I’m going back.
On my way to Austin Wednesday I had a short lay over in Dallas. I was hungry and there was a small taqueria next to my gate, so I gave it a try.
Compared to other taco joints I’ve been to, I was disappointed.
Taqueria food should deliver three things. It should be fast, cheap and good.
Taco Bell was two for three.
Oddly, their menu was not traditional Mexican food. Their tacos were served American style on crunchy corn tortillas, not soft flour ones. Everything was covered with shredded cheddar cheese or worse cheese sauce. Some items I didn’t even recognize. What is a chalupa? Aren’t those the nightmare monsters that attack goats?
And they don’t serve beer!
Recommendation – Skip. This seems like some American fast food chain’s idea of what Mexican food should be.