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Restaurants / Openings

Austin’s Most Unique Taco Empire Makes a Major Houston Splash

But You’d Better Get There Early

BY // 04.13.17

When meticulously executed, the humble street taco delivers a radical culinary experience. You’ll find the winning formula is often achieved through a methodical balancing act — the expert pairing of deliberate simplicity with bold, quality ingredients.

It’s a blueprint Mexico City-native Roberto Espinosa tapped when he opened his now revered Austin-based taqueria Tacodeli nearly 20 years ago, bringing Mexico’s signature street food to Texas’ capital city. Now, Houstonians will finally get the chance to savor Tacodeli’s signature tacos.

Tacodeli’s first Houston location opened this week at 1902 Washington Avenue, neighboring B&B Butchers and Platypus Brewing. But the original vision remains.

“Back in 99′, the bottom line was that I couldn’t find food that I really wanted to eat. I’m from Mexico City, and I moved to Austin when I was 10. So the whole Mexico connection is a big part of why we started this,” Espinosa says. “Our mantra for the food is always to have a level of authenticity or a level of connection to the cuisine of Mexico, and it’s evolved with that in mind.

“Of course, we’ve added some creativity and fusion to that, but none of the tacos are just completely off the wall where there’s no connection.”

With the help of co-owner Eric Wilkerson, Tacodeli has evolved from 11 to 12 Mexico City-style street tacos to the diverse menu of more than 40 breakfast and lunch renditions spanning beef, chicken, pork, seafood, vegetarian, and breakfast options that Houstonians will see. Did we mention everything is made from scratch including the tortillas and chips? (Don’t let the chips’ plastic bag fool you. They’re simply packaged in a way that preserves freshness.)

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While tacos are often revered as late-night eats, Tacodeli is only open for breakfast and lunch. That’s right, you can’t get these tacos past 3 pm.

The bulk of the ingredients are also primarily organic or locally sourced. If you’re a fan of beef, you can’t go wrong with the classic carne asada or Tacodeli’s best-selling Cowboy Taco made with a coffee-rubbed beef tenderloin, grilled corn, caramelized onions, roasted peppers, guacamole, and queso fresco. (The taco is a repeat offender on Texas Monthly’s “120 Tacos to Eat Before You Die” list.) Feeling adventurous? Opt for the El Picosito, which combines grilled beef tenderloin, chipotle sesame sauce, avocado, and queso fresco.

Chicken lovers flock to the Pollo Fantastico, a taco loaded with shredded chicken, roasted green chile sauce, crema mexicana, and green onions. Craving pork? Try the El Conquistador, a mash-up of roasted organic pork shoulder, chile pasilla sauce, avocado, cilantro, and onion.

Vegetarians indulge in The Heather, which stars grilled queso fresco, organic refried black beans and guacamole. Or go for the Papadulce, a flavor-packed standout crafted with roasted sweet potatoes, grilled corn, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, toasted pepitas, chipotle camote sauce.

Breakfast tacos round out the menu with options like house favorite The Otto made organic refried black beans, bacon, avocado, and Monterrey Jack cheese; and the Vaquero, a breakfast rendition of the popular Cowboy Taco.

As for the bosses’ favorite varieties? “That’s tough because it kind of depends. For me, right now it’s the barbacoa. It’s one of our newest specials, and we do it just on Sundays. It’s a very traditional taco. It’s phenomenal,” Wilkerson says.

Espinosa on the other hand can’t choose just one. “They’re all my babies,” he says. “It’s like trying to choose your favorite child. But my go-to tacos — I’ve got one in each category —  are the Carne Asada, the Picasito, the Mojo, the Conquistador, the Fortino, and The Heather.”

The brand isn’t just introducing Houston to its fleet of tacos. It’s also bringing its unique restaurant hours with it.

While tacos are often revered as late-night eats, Tacodeli is only open for breakfast and lunch. That’s right, you can’t get these tacos past 3 pm.

“When we opened up our first location in Austin, about 300,000 square-feet of office space was constructed in walking distance of the restaurant, and so we had this heavy breakfast and lunch presence all year long. We tried to do dinner for a while, and it was just the wrong location and the wrong time,” Wilkerson says. “Now it’s evolved into a critical part of our company culture.

“We find we have a lot less turnover, and the average age of our employer has gone up just a bit. I kind of joke that most people age out of the restaurant business especially if you have a family, are going to school, or you have a second job.

“But we have a ton of musicians and parents that work for us that can use their nights how they see fit. And as people continue to eat out more and more, it won’t be uncommon for people to spend their days with us.”

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