Saturday 24 October 2015

Tacos vs Burgers and other Austin Adventures

Mmm. Tacos.
I caught a headline recently that the taco is about to overtake the burgers as America's favourite fast food.

Can this be true?

Austin seemed the perfect place to investigate. After all, Texas is the home of all-American beef - and also shares a 1,241 mile border with Mexico, spiritual home of the taco.

Burgers and tacos sit cheek by jowl in the trendy food areas of Soco, South 1st and South Lamar - and given we had a month ahead of us in our off-Soco house, we thought we'd investigate further (the things we do for you!).

Now, tacos haven't really hit the UK yet. There are nearly 6,000 branches of the ubiquitous Taco Bell in the US, yet just 4 here. You'd be hard pushed to find one at all outside of the trendy Hoxton/Shoreditch triangle. If I were a betting man, I'd say these could be the next big thing.

Mmm. More Tacos.
In Austin, they're already big news, and none bigger than Torchy's - a rags to riches, trailer to mini-chain story that spans just 10 years. As I speak, they should soon be opening their latest store right on Soco. They seemed the perfect place to taste test the taco, and oh boy, if all tacos were like this they deserve to win.

Between us we had a 'Republican' (jalapeno sausage), a shrimp, a fajita and the most awesome green chili queso. It was everything you'd hope for from Mexican food - bright, zingy flavours, just the right amounts of heat, crunch and chewiness. Flavour explosions and all those other food review cliches.

By comparison, we went to the bright star of Soco burgers and marveled at the seven mile queue for Hopdoddy's. There's always a queue, regardless of the hour - even in the 100F heat of Austin's summer.

In the UK we'd call this a gourmet burger, with all the toppings you might expect - feta cheese, smoked cheddar, field mushrooms, brie, truffle aioli, fritos, sprouts - combined with beef, bison, turkey or tuna - to make fourteen(ish) different burgers such as 'Greek', 'Buffalo Bill' and 'El Diablo'.

Indifferent picture of an indifferent burger.
If you've been to Byrons, GBK or one of the other countless up-market UK burger chains, you'd know what to expect - but this concept is still quite new in the US, which I guess explains the popularity.

Well, of course, I had to be awkward and order a 'Classic' (a simple bacon cheese) - and here's the problem. It wasn't very good. If I'd queued for an afternoon in the heat I would have been seriously upset.

Maybe if I'd slathered it in goats cheese and six different varieties of hand-picked lettuce, I might not have noticed. But simplified down - by their standards - it exposed that under it all was simply an indifferent burger. And I don't think that's just me being picky - Serious Eats weren't impressed either. And I'm sorry, I think they purposefully over complicate their ordering system to ensure there's always an epic queue.

So at this stage, the taco's definitely winning - but it's never that simple. Next stop, Wahoo's Fish Tacos, also on Soco. Where it was surprisingly difficult to actually find the eponymous taco on their menu - snuck down at the bottom, and made with the same degree of indifference. It was basic, bland and unimpressive.

Wholly Cow!
Then it was time for the burger to redeem itself. Wholly Cow on South Lamar was quite simply one of the best burgers I've ever had in the US. This part convenience store, part burger joint was doing simple, tasty, meaty burgers. No goats cheese and arugula nonsense here - just good burgers, clean and simple. And no queue round the block either!

So what's my conclusion? There's no doubt that Tacos are on the ascendancy - but there's always going to be room a simple, delicious, classic burger. I also give an honourable mention to Caminos on 6th - the location and the 'Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives' hype had made me a little nervous, but the burgers were up there in the top five. And also to Guero's on Soco. It's not the best Mexican in Austin, but they do a tacos el pastor that's to die for.

Austin, thank you for a great month! See ya'll again soon.

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