Dispatch from Austin: I Accept a Chain Restaurant. Because, Tacos.

When is eating at a chain restaurant OK? When that chain started as a food truck in Austin, grew to a brick and mortar restaurant because of customer demand, and then spread, gradually and locally. Torchy's Tacos is both quintesstially Austinian (an oddly charming mix of hipster staff, biker badass, Tex-Mex cuisine, and southern charm) and damn good. Just read the sign:

My trip to Austin this time, planned as a rather exciting work event, was rendered a mess by violent thunderstorms that cancelled flights and plans. I didn't get downtown at all, and to neither of the more high profile restaurants I had been wanting to hit up this time. But a Torchy's location was near my hotel, so my colleague Paula and I stopped there for lunch, after hearing from another colleague that it was important that we order queso.

This was no ordinary, Velveeta and Ro-tel microwave queso, friends. This was queso fresco, Monterey Jack and maybe cheddar cheeses, green chiles, cumin, cilantro, guacamole and hot sauce, combined to stunning effect. It was richer than most restaurant quesos, and the wonderful green chiles added a piquant heat that was comfortably spicy but also pleasantly acidic. The chips? Fried in-house, of course. I had trouble stopping the continual shoveling of this stuff into my gaping maw, and finally had to beg a server to take it away from me before it could inflict further damage.

I chose the pork and green chile and barbacoa with avocado tacos for my entree, on small double-stacked corn tortillas. The pork and green chile was my favorite, the carnitas in this case expertly rendered, luscious and juicy but not overtly fatty, the citrusy, tart chiles helping to cut through the richness, along with sharp, raw, diced white onion and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Shredded queso fresco along top added a very light, milky creaminess, and a flurry of chopped cilantro finished this masterpiece with a verdant, herbaceous, grassy flavor.

The barbacoa taco was more mellow, not quite as lively with bright, popping flavors as the pork. The beef was slow cooked with spices similar to BBQ beef, so there was a depth and richness to the generous portion of pulled meat. A thick slice of avocado provided creaminess to this one, but there was no heat from chiles, and that may have been what I was missing. Despite not quite showing up the pork, it was still utterly delicious.

A side order of Mexican street corn was a little much, I thought. The classic iteration of this dish is a roasted cob of corn, slathered in Mexican crema (a less-tart sour cream) and then coated in chile powder and squeezed with lime juice. Sometimes it gets some queso asadero, or another of the harder Mexican cheeses. It should be sweet and spicy and creamy and bright. This version was off the cob, a bowlful of deeply roasted corn kernels, drizzled with a heavy handed amount of mayonnaise flavored with ancho chiles (also roasted), then smothered with quite a bit of queso fresco. A squeeze of lime and some fresh cilantro, in this case, weren't enough to bring this sweet, rich dish up out of its heavy depths. The roasted flavor of both the corn and ancho chiles was really overwhelming, for me.

My colleague, Paula, went for full blasphemed taco corruption with a fried chicken taco and a jalapeƱo sausage taco. Both came topped with a whallop of shredded cheese (this stuff had some yellow to it, so I suspect it was cheddar-jack) and while I didn't try either one, Paula was happy, and they looked decadently naughty and fabulous:

This was my first time at Torchy's, but I have a good feeling that no meal there is quite complete without a Lil Nookie. Come again, you say? These are balls of chocolate chip cookie dough, rolled in crushed cereal and deep fried, then garnished with maraschino cherries. Talk about rich! Like the corn, these were over the top, flavor-wise for me. Sweet and rich, and desperately crying out for a cold glass of skim milk to break up the intense, sugary, chocolately gooeiness. I'm not sure the intent or purpose of the cherries, exactly. Fresh cherries would a better choice, to add some tartness in the mix.

There were some balance issues with a couple of the dishes at Torchy's, but it must be said that despite these nitpicks, the food was really good. I would give this (gasp) chain a seven on the BHS scale.

Torchy's Tacos Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I've got two big events coming up this week that I'm judging, and I hope to see you there. I attended Watertown's Taste of the Twon last year, as evidenced from this photo I found on the event's Facebook page this week:

Where's Hungry?

I'm going again this year, but I get to judge the thing this time! I can't wait to sample all the treats our local restaurants have devised, and I think we're all familiar with how much I like to pass judgement...so this should be fun. I especially love that this event helps out the Victims Assistance Center but also gives family-owned restaurants exposure to lots of new people. Here are the details - I hope to see you there!

Next week, I'm carbo loading at the first ever Mac and Cheese Fest, in Binghamton, which benefits the Binghamton Philharmonic. This event, at the Holiday Inn in Binghamton, is sold out, but hopefully a few of my foodie friends got their tickets. I'm so honored to serve as a judge at the inaugural event, and I'm looking forward to judging macaroni and cheese entries from my friends at Social on State, Food & Fire, Zona's, and more! 

Stay tuned for next week's post for the scoop on Taste of the Town's big winners! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

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