I was in Austin, Texas this past weekend for a friend’s wedding. After the wedding and before my flight back to New York, I had a little time to explore the city. I visited the LBJ Library and Museum and then had lunch at El Chile Cafe & Cantina, which was recommended to me by my friend.
I didn’t have high hopes for vegetarian food in Texas, and I hadn’t checked El Chile’s menu ahead of time. (I just knew it was between the LBJ Library and the airport.) I was pleasantly surprised.
The meal started with the obligatory chips and salsa. The chips were sort of thin, okay with salsa, but I was curious how they would hold up to nachos. The salsa was interesting, made with roasted tomatoes, but I was a little underwhelmed. The roasted tomatoes gave the salsa an earthy undertone, but I wanted some more kick. (Apparently, you can buy the salsa in stores around Austin or online.) In fact, that is my main quibble with the entire experience: the food was very good, but could have used more spice.
I did have the “Chilango”, a “spicy organge infused frozen margarita”, which did not disappoint. The spicy orange flavor came through nicely, and the contrast of a cold but spicy drink was unusual and interesting.
I got a half-order of the nachos, with black beans. The waiter, who was extremely helpful, explained that the refried beans were not vegetarian, so he had the nachos made with black beans instead. I liked that the nachos were not overwhelming — an enormous heap of chips piled with cheese often can be more repulsive than appetizing. It turns out that the nachos are made with a “tostada chip” that has more heft than the chips served at the outset with salsa, so this addressed my earlier concern. The tostada chips held up nicely and had a satisfying crunch even when topped with beans and cheese.
For my entree, I ordered the “puffy tacos”. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve had huaraches before, from the hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants on 10th Avenue here in New York, so that’s what I had in mind, but the tortilla here was much different. The puffy tacos’ tortilla is made with masa, essentially a cornmeal dough, that is flattened and deep-fried. The frying puffs up the tortilla, hence the name. The end result is a tortilla that is a little bit crispy but still pliable. It is thicker than the hard (corn) or soft (flour) tortillas usually found at Mexican restaurants, but it is thinner than the huaraches, which I usually have to eat with a fork and knife, although both are made with masa. Here’s a close-up:
The tacos were good, though as I mentioned before, I would have liked more spice. They were also a little hard to manage: trying to eat them with my hands meant the filling fell out, and then the tacos were left with too much tortilla and not enough filling. It also tasted a little dry; I had to add quite a bit of salsa. But with the proportions worked out and salsa added, they were great. I recommend them, though I might ask for some hot sauce on the side.
All in all, El Chile was a good experience. I had some very good Mexican food that is not the usual taco/burrito/enchilada fare, and my choice was tasty even when prepared vegetarian style. In fact, lots of things on El Chile’s menu either are already vegetarian or can be made vegetarian. (The puffy tacos are in the latter category.) A couple of shots of the menu are at the bottom of this post; a single star means the item is vegetarian and a double star means that it can be modified to be vegetarian. I highly recommend El Chile and would definitely go back if I were back in Austin. (El Chile also has a relative, the take-out El Chilito just down the street, which has many of the same things on the menu, including the puffy tacos).
A note: I won’t be giving star ratings to casual restaurants, because they’re judged on a much different scale from high end restaurants. This was a much better than average experience for having interesting, good Mexican food, but I’d never give it 4 stars and imply that it’s comparable to Jean-Georges. Conversely, I also wouldn’t give it a low rating and imply that the food or service is somehow lacking. So I will just give casual restaurants are more qualitative evaluation; don’t take that as a sign that there was something amiss.
Here are a shots of the main sections of the menu: