Find a Que joint.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

El Come Taco - going where no Dallas Taco joint has gone before.

I typically stick to smoked meat when writing, but sometimes I need to step outside my self-imposed box and broaden my horizons. Why not do so with my second love?

The taco.

A simple yet versatile concoction of cooked meat, diced cilantro and onions snuggled in a corn tortilla, often doubled up for durability. Like barbecue, if the meat is cooked right, sauce is unnecessary -- though it can be great company.

I’m no taco connoisseur like Taco Trail’s author, Jose Ralat, but when he speaks highly of a taco joint, I pay attention. It’s not often – if ever – I make a dedicated trip to a taqueria beside a late night drunken stop the closest one I locate. When Ralat's photo of a taco from El Come Taco appeared on Instagram, my taste buds started talking.

Although the novelty taco can be entertaining and seemingly adventurous, do they serve sesos or tripas or could they pull off a taco filled with chapulines? No. If you do not know what any of those words mean, allow me to translate – veal brains, calf intestines, and grasshoppers. Yes, grasshoppers.

Growing up in Mexico City, brothers Luis and Javier Villalva worked for their family’s taqueria. Later on, older brother Luis found himself managing CafĂ© San Miguel then a little spot over in Ft. Worth known as Revolver Taco Lounge. 

With well over 10 years’ experience between the two and a plan, both combined their love of traditional street food with El Come Taco. The restaurant opened roughly eight weeks ago and has quickly gained fans and ground in the local taco scene. Lucky for us, they chose Dallas for their establishment.

Offering attractive hours for the late night crowd, I decided on going a bit later on a Thursday night. You’ll find El Come Taco situated in a small strip center along Fitzhugh Avenue with only a banner announcing its existence.

On the inside is a brightly colored polished, yet bare restaurant filled with tables, one TV, and a beverage cooler. There is also a dining bar along one wall. Each table has the burnt logo of the restaurant which is the calavera, or a skull -- a symbol mostly associated with the Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos.

According to Luis, the chalkboard menu provides a well representation of traditional street food found in Mexico City. Javier said several customers have asked for the chapulines taco due to Ralat's  photo – the same photo that attracted me.

Luis stated he would like to make it a permanent item at some point. He even hinted at the possibility of the Maguey worm becoming a filling for tacos. The Maguey worm can either be a caterpillar or larva, dependent upon the color distinction. They feed off the agave plant in central Mexico, and this is one reason distribution would be difficult.

I ordered the lengua (tongue), pastor, pollo marinado, tripas, sesos, and campechano, which is a mixture of brisket and chorizo. Beside the lengua, each meat was cooked to a nice crisp texture, thus eliminating any possibility of slimy meat that could harm the integrity of the tortilla. No one likes a soggy tortilla.

The generous amount of cilantro can be overwhelming and may jeopardize the flavor of the meat, so remedy this by removing as much or as little to taste. You have a choice of four sauces and every bottle is meant to be paired with different meats, as evident by the hand-written labels on the lids.

Providing a bit of heat, I found the green avocado sauce to be the most delectable. The other three sauces were a bit less flavorful and mild than one may expect. However, they’re worth trying a few drops with the respected taco pairings.

The menu doesn’t yield to tacos only. You’ll also find tortas, gringas, and even postres. After a quick education on traditional street tacos and listening to the direction the Villalva brothers want to go in, I suspect they will continue moving into a territory that other local taco joints have yet to venture into.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lockhart Smokehouse, Plano, TX - a first look.

Crossing over the DART tracks into downtown Plano, you will quickly notice new construction surrounding the area off 15th Street. With a recent article from the Dallas Morning News of the city's planned mixed development sprawl southward, it’s not far-fetched to say downtown Plano is very similar to Bishop Arts District.

Already there is a healthy mix of shops, restaurants and bars such as Vickery Park, Fillmore Pub, and Kelly’s Eastside. In 2012, Urban Crust spawned a Tex-Mex sister, Urban Rio, and more recently the popular food truck, Cajun Tailgaters, moved into a brick and mortar.

Adding to the downtown diversity was the announcement of Lockhart Smokehouse's second location in the summer of 2013. December was initially the target month for open doors, but unfortunately this did not occur.

Owner Jeff Bergus said of the date being pushed back, “With every business, there will always be hurdles to jump over, but we’re close. I expect us opening within the next couple weeks.”

After an October fire to neighboring restaurant Zanata, the city of Plano tightened the reins on their plans. The pits had to be enclosed within a separate brick structure. Being housed in a building over 100 years old, Lockhart's owners obliged due to the safety factors involved.
Owner Jill Bergus was elated to have found a location with such history, and the preservation of its character played an important part during the renovation. “We just seem to fall into dumb luck," she said. "Between the Bishop Arts location and here, just luck.”

Originally there was a downtown McKinney location mapped out before that deal fell through. Though disappointed, Jill was content saying, “Because of that not working out, it gave us another year of learning and planning. I believe we’re in a much better position now.”

“This location gives us something we didn’t have before -- more space to accommodate our customer’s needs. There will be an upstairs dining area which will have a bar over looking the restaurant, and will also serve as dual purpose for an event space," she said.

Wanting to maintain as much of the building's original appearance as possible, they kept partially exposed brick walls, wooden floors, and an exposed ceiling. During the renovation, an old well was found where the downstairs bar is situated. This dated back to when every building had its own well for precautionary measures in case of a downtown fire.

As far as the menu goes, it will remain the same as the Bishop Arts location with a robust local craft beer selection. The service line will be more fluid from entrance to chopping block. One thing the Bergus' didn’t want to do was separate their customers from the quintessential barbecue experience and not allow them the opportunity to view the cutting of the meat.

With the first annual Suburbia Fest being announced earlier this month, there’s no denying Plano is becoming an eclectic place to live and play. If there was anything missing to the downtown's puzzle, Lockhart Smokehouse aims to put that piece in place.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Barbecue without a wait - Austin, Texas.

Spring is around the corner and many folk will find themselves making a pilgrimage to Austin or at least a pit stop on their way to one of the state’s many natural water sources. Regardless of why you want to go down south and get weird, nobody has time to spare while on vacation – especially in lines.

When it comes to lines, we scoff; cursing those ahead of us for taking too long, since it’s their fault they arrived earlier than us. Our choices are to leave or continue practicing half-assed patience.

Admittedly, there’s a certain sense of entitlement married with accomplishment when we are the ones everyone else is waiting for. You always know that everyone else is now cursing you but you pretend to not notice. You’ve waited your turn and couldn't care less if anyone else gets theirs.

This may not seem as big of a deal when it comes to gas station lines or the drive-thru at Starbucks because luckily for every American, there’s another gas station down the road and three Starbucks before that. However, when it comes to getting your smoked meat fix, a line often determines our perception. Although great taste and long lines can be synonymous, remember kids – looks can be deceiving.
Bragging about how you braved a line for hours just to eat somewhere doesn’t gain you any life points and in fact, makes you seem as awesome as a Galveston postcard from the 80’s. How about trying somewhere new and getting your fix – without a wait. With that being said, here’s a short list for your convenience.

Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ – 600 W. 6th St. (Behind Star Bar). Open 5 pm Mon & Tues, Lunch/Dinner only Wed through Fri and all day Sat and Sun.
When coming to this food trailer, toss any stereotypes of how Texas barbecue should be served out the window. While the meat is smoked in the traditional manner, the Tex Mex angle comes from how the food is served. The simple menu is divided into two sections; Tex and Mex. Under the Tex you have sandwiches loaded with your meat of choice while under the Mex, you will find the same meat, though snuggled in a tortilla, handmade onsite. Order the smoked brisket taco with guacamole and tomato Serrano salsa and the smoked carnitas taco that includes caramelized onions, cilantro and a tomatillo habanero salsa, which is quite mild. At this point, you’ll forever forget those barbecue stereotypes.

Micklethwait Craft Meats – 1309 Rosewood Ave. (East Austin). Open Wed through Sat, 11 am - 3pm & 4:30 - 8pm. Sun 11 am – 3 pm.
Smartly located down the street from Franklin Barbecue, this canvas of a trailer has emerged from the shadow of the aforementioned top barbecue joint of the world. Here you will not only find a near perfect plate of smoked meat but some of the best sides to accompany a barbecue joint. Owner/Pit Master Tom Micklethwait is also crafty in the world of handmade sausage. One day he may concoct pork belly Andouille and the next, Thai sausage. His sausages are true to the word artisanal. Order the three meat plate for $14 and allow Tom’s meat to surprise you.

La Barbecue – 1200 E. 6th St. (East Austin). Open Wed – Sun, 11 am until sold out.

If you must deal with any line, here’s a place worth waiting for. Having recently moved from their location on South 1st, the line isn’t a nightmare though it can be a consistently long at times. No fear – with live music on the weekends and free beer, this wait is the most tolerable of them all. My recommendation here is to purchase a handmade link of Pit Master John Lewis’s all beef sausage, along with the well seasoned pork ribs and a thick slice of fatty brisket. If you're wise, order one succulent beef rib and take it to go. Big Red is an encouraged liquid partner to your meal.

Pro-tip: Call ahead the day before or day of, walk past the line while getting cursed and pick up your order. That’s something worth bragging about.
Kerlin BBQ – 1700 E. Cesar Chavez (East Austin). Open Wed through Sun, 11 am through 3 pm or sold out.

Recently opened Kerlin BBQ has made a ripple in the Austin barbecue scene. Of course they have the whole no line thing but once you try Bill Kerlin’s brisket and ribs, you’ll be scratching your head as to why there isn’t a line. Being in close proximity to other barbecue joints with a hellish DMV style line, Kerlin BBQ is smoking superb meat worth skipping a line for. Try one slice of lean and one slice of moist with the ribs. Ask for extra pickles to dip  in the BBQ sauce and hum along with the music of Waylon Jennings.
Freedmen’s Bar – 2402 San Gabriel St. (West Campus). Open Tues through Sat, 11 am – 12 am. Brunch starting at 11 am on Sunday.

Evan LeRoy has seemingly mastered the craft of not only smoked meat but smoked food overall. After tasting his barbecue, one may think that a pit master, decades older, is cooking but he has accomplished this level of prowess while only in his mid-20’s. Although open for lunch with great specials, the historic building which houses the restaurant, truly comes to life upon dusk. Order the Holy Trinity with smoked beats and grilled cabbage slaw while sitting in the patio under strands of party bulbs. After tossing back a cocktail of your choosing, finish the night off with smoked banana pudding. All this and no line.