Bang for your TACO buck: 4 Austin taco spots

April 6, 2017

Ask someone about Texas BBQ and they will respond with something to the effect of “it’s all about the beef“. True, but also true is the Bovine Supremacy of the Tejano Taquero. The best beef tacos I have ever had, have been in Texas, and as of now that means Austin, Texas. And I ain’t just talking fajita platters and skirt steak tacos either. My time in Austin has been a revelation in what can be accomplished with a $2+ taco in the categories of fajita(skirt steak), lengua(beef tongue) and barbacoa(beef cheeks braised slowly, referred to as cabeza outside of Texas). But beef isn’t the only pick in this list. Tejanos love goat as much as folks down in Guadalajara and I threw in one elusive goat barbacoa joint that you will have to set your alarm clocks for, because she runs out usually before noon. As always the bucks are accounted, for so feel free to hit up more than on, grab some napkins and let’s get our taco on.

The Vitals:
the spot: El Chilito multiple locations in Austin
the eats:  barbacoa taco, barbacoa soup(small)
the bucks: $3.75, $4 respectively
the full nelson:  a bourgeois barbacoa outlet that justifies a pricy taco with craft beer, good coffee and the soup is a steal

Austinites love El Chilito. Tejanos? They might be more skeptical as these tacos aren’t exactly cheap. But when it comes to barbaoca(or the carne guisada) they just don’t skimp when it comes to the overall quality in the beef and the tortilla. The lines at an El Chilito means they are doing something right and considering the fact that I can walk to one and they serve Austin Beerworks, well, the universe does have some semblance of balance. Still, the idea of me dropping $15 for two tacos and a beer is tad tough to swallow which is why I reach for the barbacoa soup. At $4 for a small, it is a true meal(comes with their fantastic tortillas) and delivers a more satisfying barbacoa experience than two tacos for double the price. The lesson learned here is this: the broth is instrumental in the barbacoa experience. And when it comes to bang for your taco buck, make do with a do it yourself taco build by scooping up some of the rich beef cheek with a tortilla that you can then dunk in the broth, French Dip style. Ooh la la – does that make this some kind of French Dip/Taco fusion? The jury is still out but definitely grab a few more napkins.

The Vitals:
the spot: Taqueria La Canaria 806 E. 51st street Austin Texas 78751
the eats:  barbacoa taco, lengua taco, fajita taco
the bucks: $2.50 
the full nelson:  late night taco authenticity served up during the daytime 

A fair share of true blue taco joints in Austin serve up their wares late at night. La Canaria shutters by 10pm, making this little yellow taco trailer prime for an afternoon visit. This was my first go to taco spot when I moved to Austin so it will always hold a special place in my stomach and heart. La Canaria was also my first experience in discovering the Tejano Taqueria’s proficiency in the Holy Taco trinity of fajita, lengua and barbacoa. All three are represented well here, though the lengua seems to just edge out the other two. Once one of the most off putting foods I have ever put in my mouth, no taco makes me feel more “at home” in Texas than a beef tongue taco, graced with dousing of lime juice and a drizzle of smokey salsa roja. The Bang for your Taco Buck move here is to make this a two taco late afternoon pit stop. $5 later you will have satisfied a taco craving while making sure you have something left in the tank to power through dinner.

The Vitals:
the spot: Barbacoa de Chivo 5313 Manor road Austin Texas 78723(in the parking lot of S-H donuts)
the eats: barbacoa de chivo
the bucks: $2 
the full nelson:  as authentic a homemade barbacoa experience gets unless your inside the home 

It was nothing short of a fox hunt for me to sample the goods at this practically anonymous taco trailer in North East Austin. The chase began at El Mana Taqueria y Fruteria where I would show up just a little too late in the day and end up missing out on their goat barbacoa special. Apparently their chivo is made in small batches by a mom of the staff who told me that she also sets up at the parking lot of S-H donuts on the weekends. She also warned me to get their early because even though the signs says they shudder at 1pm, they will run out of that good goat as early as 11. I got there at 9:30am, which meant barbacoa for brunch. The sight of a busy taco trailer during church going hours might be new to some, but believe me when I tell you that tacos feed the soul at any hour of the day. One could say the taste of goat is one that must be acquired but I think it is more a matter of getting over any personal aversions you may have and trying a dish that counters the tough texture and gaminess with a well spiced slow cook. I have had plenty of birría, goat cooked in broth spiked with chiles, yet somehow barbacoa de chivo wins me over even more. I think the subtleties of cooking meat in the ground with smoke in play adds a depth of flavor that birría doesn’t quite match. Tejano salsas like the ubiquitous creamy green one shown above don’t hurt the cause either. Upon my arrival to Texas, I was told that the goats raised here are among the finest in the land. I have a few more goat meals ahead of me before I can make that claim but I will say this: there is a reason why the Barbacoa de Chivo lady runs out. So run yourself on over there.

The Vitals:
the spot: Taqueria mi Trailita 5301 Manor road Austin Texas 78723
the eats: barbacoa, fajita, lengua, tripa, chicharron
the bucks: $2 
the full nelson:  my favorite late night taco in Austin 

Taquería Mi Trailita is indeed my favorite late night taco in Austin. Like La Canaria, it was a welcoming venue for a Los Angeleno transplant looking for a taste of home during the wee hours. I supposed we should clarify that Taquería Mi Trailita isn’t open that late. They shudder at 12am most nights, 1am on Saturday and 3pm on Sunday. Still it fits the bill of being centrally located in Austin, cheap and damn tasty. Like most taqueros on this list, the salsa here packs a punch, particularly the creamy green and pairs so well with the rich offerings the Texas Taco trinity of barbacoa, lengua and fajita brings. Beyond the big three I would certainly give the tripa a shot as well. The fried beef intestines are crisp yet still retain the chew that tripe is renowned for. What’s more is that these tacos travel well. I suspect that the made to order tortilla is a prime suspect for this phenomenon but overall you get the feeling that these guys are bringing something closer to homemade Mexican authentic delivered in a familiar vessel of late night street taco. Speaking of phenomenon, there is a dangerous one that can happen here at Taquería Mi Trailita: over ordering. For one, the tacos aren’t the biggest and they are just that good so you can easily find yourself ordering say like 5. Then you see the sign that says Menudo is a special. Now you are down another $10($5 if you are smart and order the small). All of a sudden you dropped $20. Thankfully Taquería Mi Trailita takes plastic. And you also score breakfast for tomorrow. Maybe over ordering isn’t such a bad thing.

And this is just a small smattering of tacos to come. A sea of anonymous and semi famous taquerias await. So until next time – happy taco spotting!

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