The tacos at yesterday’s Taco Experiment were so good, I wanted to do a round-up post and show them to you!
Thanks to the Austin Food Bloggers Alliance for giving me the opportunity to be the guest blogger judge. It was still a fun afternoon. It’s hard to go wrong with free tacos and beer from Brooklyn Brewery, sponsors of the event (I especially liked the maple porter!).
Enough parentheticals. Let’s go on to the tacos!
I suspect the time change on Saturday night felled a few of our culinary soldiers, as only 13 of the slated 18 entrants showed up. Nevertheless, it was a real adventure, and I had to stop myself from eating whole tacos several times! The presentations ranged from meat and won ton combos in a plastic cup (note: not a taco) to ice cream sandwiches (note: also not a taco) to traditional corn tortillas stuffed with slow-roasted meat and chiles (mmm, tacos). I was particularly impressed with the determination of the “cheftestants” to make as much as possible from scratch, including most of the tortillas we tried, along with various salsas, pickled salads, and other surprises.
They were also clearly enthusiastic about food; most of the fine folks I met went into mouth-watering detail about their ingredient sourcing and cooking technique. Knowing this background about each dish made the tasting that much more meaningful. I cook and research and read and write about food because I love to cook–and to eat. It was clear that all of the cooks at this event, while “amateurs,” were very serious indeed. Many of them are also bloggers; where possible, I’ve linked to their web sites here.
The first entry was one of the most interesting, and one of my personal favorites due to my love of bison. Though not technically a taco, it was a great tasting sample size, featuring a tender chunk of bison braised in box wine, served with a slaw of black radish steeped in watermelon juice, and topped with sprigs of cilantro. A won ton was provided for crunch. The bison was delicious–really expertly done–and was well complemented by sweet and juicy slaw. This won by personal, non-official “most creative” taco award.
Next up was another small bowl sampler, this time with pulled pork. Created by the Jelly Queens, this entry was also an interesting marriage of traditional (pulled pork, chiles) and creative (white bean purée, another won ton). The pork was tender and just spicy enough; combined with the bean purée (and I’m a sucker for white beans) and a sweet green apple slaw, this would’ve been very satisfying as a full taco. I’m also really interested in the Jelly Queens’ line of organic jellies, jams, sauces, rubs. They seemed to have a very professional operation.
The next taco was a traditional entry: smoked pork butt slow cooked overnight in a Dutch oven at a low temperature, using a simple spice rub. Local blogger Sous Me Alchemy really impressed me with her dedication to doing things from scratch: a homemade spinach, jalapeño, and onion tortilla; homemade queso fresca, a roasted corn pico de gallo; and homemade salsa roja (very fiery) and tomatillo salsa verde; all topped with fresh, homemade crema. This was all very impressive, but the tortilla was a bit too thick, smothering the flavors of the meat and fillings; due to its thickness, it was also a bit undercooked in the center. And, while all the ingredients were individually wonderful, the pile-on was a bit much, and tended to overpower the meat. It was just a bit too complicated. I would love to try each of these items on its own.
The next taco was another favorite of mine. From cheftestant No BS BP, it featured braised pork from Richardson Farms and a bright, creamy Gala apple butter (I’m sold!). The tortilla was just crispy enough, and the serrated edges added to the already eye-catching presentation. A jumble of colors and flavors topped it off: pickled shallots and candied jalapeño slaw started sweet and then packed a punch. A sweet and sour taco, this is something I would actually buy (hint, hint–No BS BP should probably start a food trailer). It was also at about this point in the competition that I realized I would probably want all of the contestants to win. Their hard work was so evident, and their tacos were so good!
They say you want to go first or last in competitions like this, so the judges will be more likely to remember you, but there is no way we could’ve forgotten entry number five: Zesty Bean Dog’s pecan smoked duck taco. After cooking the duck in Brooklyn Lager, chef Jen whipped up a decadent duck egg aioli, topped it with pickled serrano slaw, and wrapped it up in a homemade tortilla fried in duck fat. This taco was original and unforgettable. The texture was amazing: rich, succulent duck breast topped with crunchy, fried tortilla strips. The flavors were complex without being confusing, and the serrano slaw added just a little bite without overpowering the meat. Duck is so rich, it doesn’t need much dressing up, and Jen got it just right. She also came armed with printed cards detailing her ingredients (and noting that her tacos were 100% local)–a savvy move. I’m now a devotee of her blog! This taco won the judge’s favorite award, and was the buzz of the afternoon.
Next up was another outlier: the only fish taco in the bunch! The halibut taco from Da Beach Bums was a refreshing change from the unending parade of pork, and was nice and light after the duck. Chef Chris grilled the halibut and added a red and green cabbage slaw soaked in Brooklyn Brewery IPA. Topped off with a small scoop of fresh guacamole and a dash of lime, and served in a tiny tortilla, this taco was another one I could see myself eating regularly. Usually not a fan of fish tacos, I found the halibut to be just fishy enough without being overpowering; it was perfectly grilled, retaining its juiciness and flavor. The guacamole provided a nice balancing kick–I’m not sure what kind of chiles it employed, but they were perfect. This taco was still a bit mild for my tastes, overall. But I would definitely eat it again, and it was memorable, especially as the only seafood entry.
The winner of “most traditional” taco has to be team Talking Tacos, who presented us with a taco of beer-marinated lengua with cascabel and ancho chiles, crunchy chopped onions, a smattering of bright cilantro, and a dash of fresh lime juice. But that’s not even the best part; capitalizing on yet another unannounced trend, the team used a homemade, beer and duck fat corn tortilla. They won my heart by using East Texas’ own Bombshell Blonde ale from Southern Star Brewery, which they used to replace the water in their tortilla recipe. They worked the duck fat into the masa by hand, added a little baking powder, and created a tortilla of genius. The little girl who was on the team was pretty cute, too. She wanted to be a judge!
Team Temple’s pork belly with apple purée seemed to catch the unspoken theme of the day: pork and apples! I’m not complaining, though, because this is a standard combination for a reason. It’s delicious. In fact, this was my favorite apple sauce of the day. It was very creamy–at first, I thought it was cheese! This taco also gets extra points from me for presentation; the crispy mini shell held together with a toothpick made it both easier to eat and adorable. Team Temple used tender, slow roasted pork belly, flash fried and topped with homemade apple purée, kim chi, and cilantro, nestled inside this delicious, homemade shell–original and memorable. There was a lot of fried stuff going on here–so, obviously, I loved it.
The next taco was from the loudest competitor: the Holy Smokers, aka Taco Jesus. This was definitely the most far out entry, in terms of ingredients and showmanship. Throughout the day, Taco Jesus blew a gigantic four-foot shofar and admonished the crowd with “Hallelujah!” This taco was a great fusion dish (and another good idea for a food trailer), featuring a slice of pita topped with homemade habanero hummus and three Spanish-style gyro meats: beef, lamb, and pork. On top of that was a drizzle of to-die-for jalapeño tzatziki (I’m totally going to make this!) and the Holy Smokers’ “Greco de gallo,” a chunky salsa with mint, dill, cucumber, red onion, corn, and tomato. For me, this one was a little too far from traditional to merit a win, but it was definitely delicious and well executed. Taco Jesus’s shofar blowing did make me feel a little like I was at a Yom Kippur rave, too, which was a bit… weird. But, hey, that’s what Austin’s all about.
And things just kept getting weirder. Or, at least, hotter. Outer Spice’s Jamaican-inspired jerk pork shoulder taco was very far out indeed. Including authentic Jamaican ingredients like smoked pimento leaves and mango salsa, as well as Outer Spice’s innovative and addictive raspberry syrup, as well as whole raspberries and lime wedges, this taco started out pretty standard, hitting you with a rich mouthful of tender pulled pork. However, just as you began to enjoy the interesting mix of flavors, the seasoning knocked you out into space. The chef laced the thing with Scotch bonnet spice! Don’t get me wrong; I love spicy foods, and the pepper packs the right kind of punch, a little sweeter than a habanero. But this was just too spicy for me. After the first bite, it got hotter and hotter for at least five minutes. I braved a second bite, but, without any water (did I mention this event wasn’t expertly organized?), I was too afraid to go further. I think this would’ve been better with a Scotch bonnet-based salsa on the side, so that the diner could try it without adulterating the entire taco with heat. The pork was wonderful, but, after the first bite, I couldn’t taste it. My mom probably would’ve loved this, though.
Next up: a sweet taco from a sweet chef, El Alto’s lager-steeped pork carnitas. What this taco was lacking in presentation (it was a bit plain, and a little too juicy), it just about made up with in flavor. The pork was lovely, the corn tortilla was perfect (I’m a sucker for a good corn tortilla, and am partial to them over flour), and the spicy green onion and almond sauce was a revelation. Y’all know I love me some creamy green salsa. El Alto has created a fresh, smoky green sauce that I would love to see bottled and on sale at Wheatsville! Get on it!
The final savory taco was the only beef entry, which I find hard to believe! I figured most of the cheftestants would go the pulled pork route, but this had the unexpected result of making it harder for this judge to remember specific differences, and also made it more necessary to judge the entries by the quality of their pork, its tenderness, flavor, etc. So I was excited to try Ender’s Tacos’ spicy pulled beef taco. Another entry in a tasting bowl, this time with a triangular tortilla added, the beef was slow roasted and very tender. Topped with a bright and intriguing slaw consisting of red cabbage, serranos, and jalapeños, and doused with a refreshing spritz of lime, the taco was almost salad-like. The hot slaw, while one of many presented, was creative and spicy, providing a late kick to an otherwise traditional beef taco flavor palate. This was another one that I would like to try full-size, on an empty stomach!
The final entry was a dessert “taco.” To be honest, I’d expected at least one choco-taco, and was grateful not to have been presented with any eel, sashimi, or raw vegan tacos. I am really surprised there was no bacon, though. I guess all the bacon aficionados were over at the Bacon Takedown. Anyway, the ice cream was a welcome addition after the quick-building heat of the Jamaican jerk pork and serrano-dappled cabbage. Winner of the organizer’s award for creativity, blogger Mary Makes Dinner presented us with a roast tomatillo buttermilk ice cream with a thin later of avocado frosting, topped with a single slice of candied jalapeño. Unfortunately, the cute, scalloped flat shells holding each bite-size sandwich together were a little too hard and chewy to eat easily. However, I just ate around it, and all was forgotten! The ice cream was delectable: rich and creamy with just the slightest hint of tangy tomatillo. Once again, I wish I had gotten a larger sample! If Mary isn’t selling this stuff, she should be!
Congratulations to the winners!
Theo Prize For Experimentation: Mary Makes Dinner / Frío Tillo Taco
All in all, it was a great day with a great crowd. We were even treated to an impromptu folklorico performance by a tiny relative of one of the contestants! Thanks to everyone who came out, and to all the “cheftestants” who worked so hard to create these delicious and innovative tacos and taco-based dishes! Unsurprisingly, judging this event didn’t dull my appetite for tacos at all. I think I’ll go have some for lunch!