I was halfway through my Holy Diver taco at Torchy’s, the sacred Austin joint transplanted to South Shepherd, when a young floor manager approached me. He stared meaningfully at the laminated menu lying on my table amid stray squiggles of queso fresco and escaped squares of mango.
“Are you through with that?” he asked.
“No, I’d like to keep it,” I told him. He didn’t look happy about that, but I was going to order another taco up at the counter, and besides, I wanted to check out the offerings and see what was new, and how the lineup compared to what I remembered fondly from my visit to the iconic Trailer Park edition of Torchy’s in Austin.
I was a few bites into my next taco, a guajillo-seared ahi tuna extravaganza known as Mr. Pink, when the manager guy appeared again.
“Can I take that now?” he asked, emphasizing the last word in a way that sounded, well, highly judgmental.
I had had enough. “You really want that menu, don’t you?” I said, trying to keep my tone light. “It’s a pet peeve of mine,” he replied.
“A peeve?” I exclaimed. “Really? What on earth is wrong with me sitting here looking at your menu?”
“I’m supposed to keep everything in order,” he told me. “And that,” he said, indicating the menu, “is out of order.”
I ate a few more bites and left without finishing. I might have written off the bizarre experience as a fluke had my dining companion not reported a similar incident in front of the soda machine on another visit.
As people clustered around trying to get their drinks, she heard a staffer shoo them off the rubber mat with a pointed, “People! I’m trying to clean up here!”
All I can conclude is that Torchy’s has a peculiar employee training program, directed mostly at keeping the place tidy and not so much at making the paying customers feel comfortable and welcome.
And that’s not the only problem afflicting the expanding company’s first Houston outpost. The rather grim industrial dining room, with its hard surfaces and downbeat colors, is about as welcoming as a day room in a low-security Club Fed.
When it’s full, as it often is, with young families and 20-somethings in surfer shorts, the human din combines with the thump of bass over the sound system in a way that’s fairly hellish, especially when someone drags a metal chair heavily over the distressed concrete flooring, producing a noise like an enraged elephant.
I could forgive all these shortcomings if the food lived up to my idyllic memories of the Torchy’s Trailer Park mothership. It doesn’t.
Certain items are terrific: the fresh guacamole with its just-so balance of creaminess and chunks is one of them. So is the unusually spirited queso, loaded with roasted green chile and bite, that’s one of the best in town. I could drink the basic salsa roja, with its distinctive herbal tinge, as if it were soup. (Except for the fact that I’d have to stop frequently to cope with the heat buildup.)
It’s the tacos that disappointed me. I’m not sure anything could have lived up to my first taco from Torchy’s in Austin, consumed at a picnic table under the oak trees surrounding a raffish cluster of food trailers on South First Street. In 2010, I wrote that the Dirty Sanchez (the raunchiest of Torchy’s jokey taco names) might have been the best taco I ever ate, and I meant it.
I loved its frizzly thin omelet layer, the dark vegetal tone of poblano chile fried in a filmy batter, the rich softness of grated cheese and guacamole against the sharp tingle of pickled carrot shreds. No salsa was required to make this taco taste great.
Lightning didn’t strike twice when I ordered the Dirty Sanchez in Houston. The flavors were a washed-out shadow of what I remembered, the guac and cheese seemed chilly rather than voluptuous, and the egg texture was listless, with no beguiling frizzle. I wished desperately for some salsa to wake things up — just not the unsuitable cuplet of ranchy poblano/mayo salsa that came alongside.
And I deplored the characterless flour tortilla that cradled all this. If you’re going to serve commercial tortillas, at least pick good ones. These have all the verve of clammy plastic. Corn is the way to go — so be sure to specify corn tortillas when you go through the service line, as each of the tacos has its own designated tortilla type.
It’s not that you can’t get a decent taco here. Torchy’s has a talent for ingredient combinations that add up to more than the sum of the taco parts. Had it not been for those miserable flour tortillas, I would have loved my Holy Diver taco — the special of the month, with a $5 price tag — with its nicely cooked achiote-grilled shrimp in a spirited dialogue with pickled onions and jalapeños, cabbage, chopped mango, cilantro and a snowstorm of queso fresco. A jalapeño tartar sauce made the effect even brighter.
The chile-seared tuna in the Mr. Pink taco was a little too cooked for me, but I admired the way it went with its crunchy garnishes and chipotle salsa, and the corn tortilla saved it.
A Crossroads taco of beef brisket was smokier than I expected, the beef hacked into chunks and baptized with a seriously good tomatillo sauce that had deeply roasted tones unusual in a green salsa. Nothing really wrong with the so-called Democrat taco of soft-shredded barbacoa with avocado, cilantro and onions except its too-aggressive bloom of fatty beef grease taste — and the fact that at $3.75, it is priced so much higher than other worthy versions around town, many of them at Mexican taco trucks or taquerias.
There’s no getting around the fact that Torchy’s serves gringo tacos.
Nothing wrong with that, either, when it’s done with style and wit enough to justify the gringo prices. But the appeal of Torchy’s famous Trailer Park taco — which involves fried chicken and pico de gallo under a thicket of iceberg lettuce and tomato — was lost on me here. The white-meat chicken was cut thin, and it was neither juicy nor particularly well seasoned. Maybe the combo would have worked for me if I had ordered the taco “trashy style,” which subtracts the lettuce and adds some of that excellent queso.
But I’ll probably never know, because I just didn’t care enough for the food or the experience here to return. It gives me no pleasure to report that. I still have vivid memories of that perfect Torchy’s lunch under the oaks in Austin, as the summer heat hinted that it might soon unclench and give way to fall.
It’s hard to replicate an idyllic interlude like that. An unlovely, hard-edged restaurant rehab (the Houston Torchy’s has housed everything from two Italian places to a taco joint to a Scandinavian spot) can’t soften the edges of any mistakes or service irritations the way the shade of ancient trees and the soothing chirr of cicadas can.
Even Torchy’s chipper ingredient magic seems to have flagged in the face of rapid expansion. There are eight locations in Austin now, along with two in Dallas and the one in Houston. I found myself wishing the Torchy’s brain trust would slow down and focus lest they lose their celebrated mojo.
I may be a voice crying in the wilderness, though. The Houston place is doing land-office business. There’s a line out the door at peak hours, the tricky parking lot is a clogged nightmare, and you’ll be lucky to snag a seat on the patio overlooking the Shepherd Drive traffic. It feels ever so far from South First Street.
2411 S. Shepherd
Ω a good restaurant that we recommend.
ΩΩ very good; one of the best restaurants of its kind.
ΩΩΩ excellent; one of the best restaurants in the city.
ΩΩΩΩ superlative; can hold its own on a national stage.