The Great Austin Taco Tasting [SXSW]

An al Pastor (left) and a Barbacoa taco from the winning taqueria, La Playa #2.

I live in Austin. Most of the internet's perception of Austin food is driven by this music festival or something that we have every spring, which seems to spur every single food blog into having this little internet party beforehand, in which they put together a list of recommended places to eat at SXSW based on nothing more than some soggy old memories of one college road trip to Austin, or, um, just pulling shit off Flickr without ever even visiting.

The thing is, the best music showcases in Austin in March are cheap and nowhere near the maddening, drunken crowds around 6th Street. The same goes for the food, and, if we're going to be honest, the good stuff pretty much falls into one of two categories: barbecue and tacos.

Barbecue is a venerable Texas tradition, yet it is one that already has its many acolytes and fanboys. There is advice aplenty on where you should go to get your brisket on. But the Austin taco scene is woefully underacknowledged, and I'd like to focus on it. By "focus" I mean "host a blind taco tasting with quasi-fascist rules judged by my drunkard friends and questionable statistical analysis." Whatever, it's for your benefit.

The Rules

A Green Chile Pulled Pork taco and a Trailer Park taco from Torchy's. Original photograph by That Other Paper

Ten of my friends volunteered to participate. I bribed them with booze (margaritas and Lone Star) and the promise that whoever brought the best tacos would win a prize, The Fearless Critic Austin Restaurant Guide, 2nd Edition (buy at Amazon).

Taquerias were self-assigned by each participant on a first come, first serve basis. Participants were supposed to keep their places to themselves but apparently I wasn't clear on this or else my friends are really bad at keeping secrets because a few people found out who had which place. Not many, though.

Each participant had to acquire 3 tacos from his or her taqueria: one meat, one vegetarian, one fish or seafood. No breakfast tacos*. Participants were allowed to dress the tacos however they desired, ordering extra condiments where they felt necessary; this is what we call "local flavor."

The Tasting

An al Pastor taco from Changos. Photograph by Portal and Friends

There was a half hour period during which participants could bring their tacos. Participants waited in the front yard, and came in one at a time, in the order they arrived. Inside, they were assigned a number, told to write a general descriptor of each taco ("pork," "veggie black bean") on a plastic plate, and put their tacos in the oven, which was set to 250. Then they went into the backyard, where the drinks were.

The tacos were dressed, cut into bite-sized pieces, and sorted onto their appropriate plates, and then the tasting began. The goal was to have everyone have at least one piece of taco from each taqueria, excluding his or her own. Tacos were rated on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best.

The Results

A Carne Asada taco from El Chilito. Photograph by Portal and Friends

I want you to understand right up front that these are the best of the best in Austin taquerias, and that a low score in no way reflects a shitty taqueria. It just means that it wasn't as brain-meltingly good as the other tacos we tried. You should also probably know that the results were not what anyone expected. That is, everyone thought Torchy's would win, since the conventional wisdom is that that if you eat a green chile pork taco at Torchy's, it will own your soul forever. That said, the numbers don't lie.

First Place: La Playa #2 - 7.8
3518 E. 7th St., (512) 386-5013
Al Pastor: 8
Veggie with Pico and Guac: 6.3
Ceviche: 9
Comments: “Phenomenal.” ”OMG” “Super tasty” “Really authentic”

Second Place: Julio's - 7.7
4230 Duval St., (512) 452-1040
Chicken plus avocado: 7.2
Beef Fajita: 9
Veggie: 7
Comments: “Mmm...tastes like a Mexican Philly cheesesteak!” “Great tortilla and seasoning on the chicken” “Super tasty” “compact without being ostentatious” (I'm not sure what that means, either. They we drunk.)

Third Place: Torchy's - 7.3
Multiple locations, check website for details.
Green Chile Pork: 6.8
Baja Shrimp: 7
Fried Avocado: 6.75
Comments: “Too gooey” “you can tell Torchy's immediately” “great with a little squirt of lime” “Good pork straight pork flavor”

Fourth Place: El Chilito - 7.1
Mulitple locations, check website for details.
Cochinita Pibil (pork): 7
Fish: 5.6
Comments: “Fish...blah” “really good for no meat”

Fifth Place: Chango's - 6.9
Multiple locations, check website for details.
Al Pastor: 7.1
Fried Mahi:6.5
Taco del Jardin Deluxe: 7
Comments: “Don't know what that spice was but not my bag” “yummy times” “fish mahi mahi + cabbage spicy + tangy = delish”

Sixth Place: Quack's - 6.7
Multiple locations, check website for details.
Pork: 6.5
Fish: 8
Avocado, potato and soyrizo: 6
Comments: “oh, man” “spicy weird texture”

Seventh Place: Taco Deli - 6.4
Multiple locations, check website for details.
Bison: 6.1
The Heather (Refried Black Beans and Grilled Queso Fresco): 5
Comments: “Bison was nicely seasoned, but guac was overwhelming” “spicy! Delightful!” “ I mean bison, but yeah”

Eighth Place: Nuevo Leon - 6.2
Multiple Locations, check website for details.
Fish: 5.5
Pork: 7.7
Comments: "wowza!!!""spicy good tender""chicken was tender and loved the spice in the seasoning"

Ninth Place: Taqueria Guadlajara - 5.6
Multiple locations, website via Yelp.
Pork: 6.1
Veggie: Not available
Shrimp: 4.3
Comments: “Pork...fuck yeah, simple but great flavor!”

Tenth Place: Taco Express aka Crazy Maria's - 5.6
2529 S. Lamar Blvd., (512) 444-0261
Beef: 5.6
Veggie: 4.3
Pork: 7.5
Comments: “Good flavor but nothing else...veggies, sauce, etc.” “Beef good texture” “needs more spice”

*This rule caused more bitching than any other. I'm sorry, but it doesn't take any genius to scramble an egg, you feel me?

Paula Forbes

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