South By Southwest and Taco Obsession, an Insider’s Guide

I’ve lived in Austin for 18 years. I’ve learned to control it, the urge to make a diet out of tacos.  But I’ve seen  too many of my friends – Texans in Exile especially- go Taco Crazy to pretend it doesn’t happen.

This is supposed to be a tech blog.  Or a blog that addresses tech trends and strategy.  So I’ll loop that in by saying that after 18 years of departing Austin the day that SXSW starts and coming back the the day it ends, this year I’m headed to the party.   My primary objective is going to be chatting with IBM’s existing and prospective clients about IBM Service Engage.  But my secondary objective is to learn more about three things.

1) Marketing Strategy
2) Social Media
3) Millennials, even though I’ve already well placed a stake in the ground with this post.

I’ve built my agenda accordingly.  My walking shoes, still packed from Pulse, will be making a reappearance.  So I’m set.  I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the SXSW Interactive crew loves three things themselves this year.

1) Wearable Tech
2) Milliennials (What a stroke of luck!)
3) Tacos.

Damn, everything is about the tacos.  The secret menu tacos.  The breakfast tacos that coat your stomach with redemption after a night of mistakes.  The haute taco based on interior Mexican cuisine.  The bas tacos that pull in southern cooking.  Tacos with breakfast cereal BAKED RIGHT IN, people. It’s everywhere.

So I’m going to help you out and contribute my expertise.

Call it my way in to the narrative, so to speak.

Here’s how you Taco, Austin-local style.

Breakfast

On a normal day, in the normal way, breakfast tacos of average excellence  are not going to be hard to find.  Austin Java does a fine job, for instance.  Pretty much any place that serves breakfast is going to feature a taco-building option, and I find just as a general guideline, adding avocado to any taco is going to take it to the next level.  Even so, we’re here for the insider dish, so I’m going to point out three outliers, both good and bad.

1) My personal morning-after-the-night-before favorite isn’t a taco at all.   After about three ingredients, it’s time to stop with the pretense and just go whole burrito on the situation.  Everything you secretly want on one taco but can’t wedge in there.  Enter the Burnet Road Burrito from Taco Shack. Taco Shack overall is a breakfast revelation, pretty much as good as you can get breakfast wise without stumbling towards advanced levels.  Especially important is the application of their sauce- don’t leave without at least one ounce of the stuff in your bag or you’ve missed the point.

2) Advanced levels. Secret society level stuff…Torchy’s tacos Taco-of-The-Month this month is the Roscoe. It’s hard to explain the Roscoe without weeping or using religious terminology.  Flour Tortilla, Fresh Waffle, Fried Chicken, Bacon, Maple Syrup.  You’ll be back for another one. I don’t recommend this one for the morning after…let your stomach warm up and make this one a lunch or dinner experience if you’re suffering.

3) From the Meh Files:  Rudy’s BBQ breakfast tacos and Taco Deli in the Morning.  Trust me we will revisit Taco Deli later.  But Rudy’s tacos are available for resale Austin wide, making the otherwise improbable downtown encounter with them possible.  It’s wholly personal opinion, but there’s something added to the eggs, some ? spice that I can’t get into.  They make up for it by delivering the best possible BBQ options with your taco, including brisket and sausage, but still.  The eggs.  I can’t quite make it happen.

Taco Deli in the morning swings close but has potato issues.  They’re mashed.  I think this is because the focus here is on authentic Mexican cuisine, which shines in other areas, but not in the morning with the mashed potatoes.  Just no.

Bonus round: The Airport.  Beware here because there are some vendors who think that American cheese in a breakfast taco is something people should be paying money for in this the year 2014.  Hell No.  Ask before you buy.  Especially important because the airport is either going to be your first or last taco experience of the fest.

Non-Breakfast

I divide the taco world into two sections, which I mentioned before.  One is going to be Tacos the way Mexico intended them, the second one is going to be Texan-Southern.  I love both.  But make sure you walk on both sides of the street before you declare yourself a convert either way.

1) Best -in-Class, Interior style: Taco Deli.  Oh Taco Deli.  I was an Original Taco Gangsta at the one near the IBM office.  At one point in my reign I was one of the people consulted about whether or not they should close early on holidays. Even more extreme, the counter help were consistently polite to me.

Once you leave the breakfast menu behind, there are no missteps here.  But if you want to get it done right, go on Thursdays.  Why? Because of the Scallops (grilled scallops tossed with roasted red and poblano peppers, grilled corn and a garlic lime mojo sauce.)  You might also find the Taco Lomo (pork loin with red cabbage) on Thursdays, but I haven’t seen that in a while so try to manage your expectations.

2) Best in Class, Southern Style: Torchy’s.  There are those who believe that you’re either a Deli or a Torchy but I disagree with this level of divisiveness.  The key here is to go slow, trying a crazy one and a conservative each visit.  And beware that the odds of falling down a Torchy’s Tacos K-Hole, where it’s the only thing you eat the entire time you’re in Austin, are high.  My typical order, when Roscoe isn’t in town, is the Green Chili Pork on Corn and the Baja Shrimp on Wheat.   But again, it’s hard to go wrong here if you’re willing to be bold.  Be sure to buy some of the Elote as well.

Honorable Mentions

1) Fresca’s Chicken– This is the place where I finally found out what a corn tortilla is supposed to taste like and why they exist.  Much like Torchy’s, there’s no such thing as just one visit here.  I usually get a Anchote & Citrus chicken meal.

2) The Mighty Cone – This is basically a taco served in a paper cone and termed the Hot and Crunchy Cone. They’ve relcoated from their original stand on Congress to Rio Grande.  For my own dietary protection I  only let myself eat them during ACL festival.  They come in Avocado, Chicken, and Shrimp. I’ve had all three, I generally get the chicken when I indulge.

3) Maria’s Taco Express – I only vouch for this place on Sunday mornings, and even then it’s more cultural experience than a taco.  They have a gospel brunch that’s worth sitting through, even if the counter staff are notoriously rude.

Be aware that like anything that inflames passions, Taco recommendations and opinions are going to be varied and heated.  There are people who will disagree with everything I’ve said here, and they’re welcome to it.

Looking forward to seeing everyone and their tin foil wrappers at SXSW!