Top

dining

Stories

 

Tepid Torchy's

A beloved Austin food truck goes corporate, and while much of the charm is lost, the breakfast tacos still deliver.

 See more behind-the-scenes photos from Torchy's busy kitchen in our slideshow.

It took five trips to Torchy's Tacos for me to get a taco that was actually hot. My first four trips had netted tacos varying in temperature range from "refrigerator door cold" to "warmer than tepid but still confusingly not hot." What gives? When I buy a 99-cent chicharrón-stuffed taco from Tacos Arcelia on Long Point, the thing nearly scorches my palm as I unwrap the foil square holding it together.

Granted, you're not going to find chicharrones on the menu at whitebread Torchy's Tacos, but that's the entire point of the place: cheeky, Texan-ized tacos like the Trailer Park, which comes filled with fried chicken and green chiles. You can make your Trailer Park "trashy" by adding queso — which I do suggest — but I also suggest that you request Torchy's make you a hot taco. If Tacos Arcelia can do it for 99 cents, I'm pretty sure Torchy's can do the same for $3.50 a taco.

The breakfast tacos, served all day long, are the thing to get.
Troy Fields
The breakfast tacos, served all day long, are the thing to get.

Location Info

Map

Torchy's Tacos

2411 S. Shepherd Drive
Houston, TX 77019

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: River Oaks

Details

Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Chorizo taco: $2.25
Migas taco: $2.75
Ranch Hand: $3.50
The Independent: $3.50
Trailer Park: $3.50
Chips and salsa: $3.50

READ MORE
SLIDESHOW: Torchy's Tacos Brings Tepid Tacos to Town
BLOG POST: Torchy's Tacos Brings Tepid Tacos (and a Cold Dining Room) to Town

And the random assortment of tepid tacos I've received on multiple visits is just one of the things that confound me about the Austin import's new Houston location — a location that I awaited as breathlessly as anyone else when it was first announced late last year.

I first fell in love with Torchy's Tacos during the 2012 South by Southwest festival, where I demolished two tacos under the shade of some oak trees in the South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery, an outdoor food court ringed by a circus caravan of food trucks. Here is where I first encountered Torchy's green chile-brightened queso, its silky fried avocado under a crackling crust that soaks up a spicy and creamy poblano sauce. And it's here, fittingly, that I had my first Trailer Park taco.

The Trailer Park tacos at the Houston incarnation of Torchy's just make me sad. My wistful spring memories of tacos under trees and a glorious blue sky are dampened by the drudgery of a million tiny things that seem to go wrong with every visit: lukewarm ingredients, excessively salty batter, greasy brisket, listless tortillas, overly carbonated fountain drinks, odd music that ranges from Slayer's entire catalog to annoying pop hits, and toppings piled so high you have to scrape them out of the flour or corn tortillas before you can come close to fitting the taco in your mouth.

At a recent panel during the Association of Food Journalists conference in Washington, D.C., Village Voice food critic Robert Sietsema bemoaned this trend: "A sandwich that's three feet high? Great. How am I supposed to eat that?" Sietsema argued that the more-is-more approach to dining is not only tiresome but speaks to the idea that many chefs and cooks don't try to actually eat their own food before it's served.

I ask of the good Torchy's people: Eat the enormous Independent taco that your kitchen is putting together here in Houston. There is an entire quarter of an avocado on top of it, for Pete's sake. If you could just halve that one thing, the taco would instantly be more manageable without sacrificing any of the excellent flavor from the beefy strips of fried portobello mushrooms or the sweetly pickled escabeche carrots — and your food costs in avocados alone would go down.
_____________________

There are more things I don't quite understand about the Houston Torchy's, which is — to me — the bad side of what happens when food trucks go corporate. The same tacos are still there on the menu, of course. And the Torchy's logo is prevalent in the brick-and-mortar space. But much of the charm is lost.

A visit to the original Torchy's meant getting excited about the different housemade salsas — picking a taco based partly on its ingredients, but also partly on the sauce that was used. But these days at the Houston location, even that thrill diminishes when you realize that the toppings are so glutted onto each tortilla that you can't taste the sauce anyway. Better to order it on the side with chips and salsa, which will net you a huge plastic molcajete full of the stuff.

Worse, the atmosphere is gone. Granted, you can always sit outside on Torchy's broad front porch that faces Shepherd and try to replicate the taco-truck experience. And I usually do, if it's nice outside. But the interior has all the charm of a bomb shelter combined with a Planned Parenthood waiting room. The beautiful tin tiles across the ceiling (put there when the space was occupied by the short-lived Gratefull Taco) have been painted Institution White, as have most of the walls. The glossy concrete on the floors is pretty, but slick to walk on — I've almost slipped countless times — and bounces sound around to deafening levels.

And while I love the fact that Torchy's serves Maine Root sodas from its fountain, I hate the fact that they're always overcarbonated to the point that I can't taste the sweet Black Cherry or the smooth Vanilla Creme. A friend tells me that the fountain is actually better these days than it used to be, sadly. It's best to stick with a Topo Chico from the case behind the ordering counter. (And the beer selection is so bad it's barely worth a mention.)

More annoying still are the food runners who burst out of the kitchen every few seconds, roughly shoving aside any customers unlucky enough to be filling a cup with soda or grabbing a few plastic utensils. Having the soda/napkin/utensil station directly in front of the kitchen doors was terrible planning, and continues to drive me crazy with every visit.

But I keep going to Torchy's. Why? It's not the Love Puppies, deep-fried chocolate chip cookies which taste suspiciously like they've been fried in the same oil as the Trailer Park chicken.

It's the breakfast tacos.
_____________________

I ordered three breakfast tacos on that fifth fateful visit to Torchy's, the visit that netted me something hot and delicious. I've learned that breakfast tacos are the key to rekindling my love affair with Torchy's.

As with the rest of the Torchy's menu, the tacos on the breakfast side are helpfully denoted with a little green "V" if they are vegetarian — one of many touches that endear Torchy's despite its many missteps. And because most of the protein I've had at Torchy's ranges from fat-drenched to freezing, I usually stick with the vegetarian options: a migas taco with crispy tortilla strips and pico de gallo, or a simple potato, egg and cheese ordered with a side of smoky, buttery chipotle sauce.

The Ranch Hand is also a good bet, as the beef fajitas at Torchy's remain one of the items that have been good since the very beginning. The skirt steak is tender and well-marinated with punches of garlic and lime, and is equally adaptable to a blanket of eggs as it is to the regular old Beef Fajita taco on the lunch menu. The chorizo is also flavorful, although it has that typical pork sausage tendency to ooze bright orange grease from one end of your breakfast taco.

The breakfast tacos are served all day long, another big point in my book. I'm a huge fan of both breakfast tacos and all-day breakfasts, so Torchy's secures a place for itself on my good side for these two reasons alone.

Sometimes, when I drive past Torchy's and see its congested parking lot packed as always, I wonder: Are the people inside eating breakfast tacos, too? Seems like they must be. No other reason could explain why Torchy's is always so busy, unless I've underestimated the market for tepid, overstuffed tacos.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
28 comments
entroposloc
entroposloc

Why is it busy? Because stupid Houstonites eat up anything with that shitty Austin vibe. Look at Freebirds - bullshit faux-cool shit on the walls and a bunch of listless ingredients with Austin pasted all over it and they're packed too. 

MadMac
MadMac topcommenter

I hit this joint in Austin last year--filthy as a 20-year-old KFC store and almost as tasty--and immediate realized what I needed to enjoy these, ahem, tacos: to be s4it faced drunk, at 02:00 and nowhere other options without courting a DUI. There are too, TOO many independent taquerias offering better products at better prices without the pretense. Good review, KS.

MustacheRide
MustacheRide

Like Kyle said, this is the part where Torchy's marketing team craps all over your points and attempts to turn it into a marketing scheme. 

John580
John580

This review describes my one visit to Torchy's exactly. Awful. Haven't been back and don't plan too. So many people keep referencing the lines to get in as evidence of this place's greatness. Seriously? There are lines at McDonald's all around the world. There were lines to buy Cabbage Patch dolls. Britney Spears is popular. Geez.

foodexpert
foodexpert

Corporate? Torchy's is a partnership not a corporation. What is with the comparison to a failed Grateful Taco? Shilcutt should continue to work on her palate as she seems to favor the flavor failure.

nomadsheart
nomadsheart

Houston is a tough taco town.  There are so very many good tacos here that discussion over what constitutes a great taco and who makes it can be as contentious as where the best barbeque is to be found.  I appreciate that we have everything in Houston from the very traditional, to the "whitebread" as Ms. Shilcutt mentions, to the more avante garde of Korean barbecue wrapped in tortillas.  Whatever your definition, there is definitely a taco for you.  At times, Torchy's has hit that spot for me for something casual, fun, different and relatively inexpensive (really, is $7 for 2 tacos highway robbery?).

 

My comment, however, is Ms. Shilcutt's casual reference to Torchy's restauraunt having "all the charm of a bomb shelter combined with a Planned Parenthood waiting room."  Glib and meant to convey a grim and humorless space, I would suggest that Ms. Shilcutt choose another less charged - and more accurate - metaphore.  Planned Parenthood, in addition to providing women's health services and reproductive services for all who request, provides bright, cheerful and welcoming facilities. Dining at a  Home Depot, Chik-fil-A,  or Domino's Pizza present a more depressing idea, even if not as expedient to deliver her point; unfortunately, this stereotype has outlived the fact.  Time to update!

Kelli
Kelli

I was heartbroken when I walked in on opening day to see all the warm wood stripped and replaced with that crappy concrete. It was so fun and inviting and they ruined it. And I do agree that the quality has gone down. I LOVED Torchy's in Austin and was giddy to see a local location but I have been a total of 3 times and refuse to frequent it any more until a full on redo is done. Disappointing.

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

Countdown to the free taco promotion for bearers of this article...

BobbyFreshpants
BobbyFreshpants topcommenter

I've never had a bad experience at Torchy's although I have driven away several times because of the line. I really enjoy the tacos and have never had an issue with temperature.

asdfghjkl2
asdfghjkl2

"The Ranch Hand is also a good bet, as the beef fajitas at Torchy's remain one of the items that have been good since the very beginning." "There are more things I don't quite understand about the Houston Torchy's, which is — to me — the bad side of what happens when food trucks go corporate. " "I first fell in love with Torchy's Tacos during the 2012 South by Southwest festival..." I'm sorry, but these three quotes explain why this article is a joke. The author doesn't know what's been good since the beginning, or how Torchy's has changed over time, since the first time she had it was in March of this year! When I moved out of Austin two years ago, Torchy's was already a chain with locations all over the city. My question to the author is why did she feel the need to create this narrative that she didn't even experience? If you don't like Torchy's, then write an article about the ways it disappointed you, don't write a fictional "used to be cool but now it isn't " story.

broylesa
broylesa

@EatingOurWords That's crazy that the HOU Torchy's hasn't lived up to the hype. Never gotten a cold taco here, but they are too big, tho.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

my experiences have been a total 180 from hers though, even on a busy Saturday afternoon.. A little messy, but delicious, served hot. Sorry your experiences have not been up to par, and agreed with FFB below their tortillas are a little thin so much so that I've been given 2 at a time several times which I found odd.

FattyFatBastard
FattyFatBastard topcommenter

Spot on review.  The only thing worth having here is a plain fajita taco.  I haven't had the breakfast tacos yet, but I'll be sure to put this one on the list of places to try.  Are they still using those store-bought bargain basement tortillas?

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @foodexpert "Gone corporate" is a pretty common expression used to indicate that a business has started focusing more on pure profit than on its actual product, which I believe Torchy's has. It's not used in this context to denote that Torchy's is an out-and-out corporation.

jrstar96
jrstar96

 @nomadsheart  Home Depot?  I would find that depressing, considering Home Depot does not serve food.  And I think Ms. Shilcutt's reference is fine in the idea that any doctor of medical office is depressing, especially one that provides abortions.

J.A.Justice
J.A.Justice

 To clarify, 2012 is a typo.  It should read 2010 I believe.

EatingOurWords
EatingOurWords

@broylesa I'm really surprised too. They've certainly had a receptive and forgiving audience so far, so there's time to improve.

HTownChowDown
HTownChowDown

 @gossamersixteen The big problem with Torchy's tortillas is that they're out of a package.  If you're a taqueria and can't be bothered to make your own tortillas, you simply don't care very much about the finished product.

kshilcutt
kshilcutt moderator editor

 @gossamersixteen Two corn tortillas is pretty standard across the taco board. Or was it two flour tortillas? Now that would be weird.

J.A.Justice
J.A.Justice

 @gossamersixteen Two tortillas is odd?  Are you from New Hampshire?  Almost ALL corn tortillas tacos come on double tortillas in Texas.  

nomadsheart
nomadsheart

Again, @jrstar96, my point is why mix politics with food?  Clearly you and I don't agree on the issue since less than 3% of what Planned Parenthood does is abortions, and the majority of their work is for the health of women, pre-natal care for healthy babies and sexual awareness and education that is not provided anywhere else - yet is desparately needed when "just say no" has only led to an increase in teenage pregnancy.  Rather than debate social policy in a food review, perhaps it is best to simply focus on the food - whether you like it or not.

gossamersixteen
gossamersixteen topcommenter

 @PM..  I did clarify that, they're so thin that they give you two which is odd. There however is nothing odd about tortillas at all, maybe glasses are in order?

Kylejack
Kylejack topcommenter

 @gossamersixteen  @PM.. Two corn tortillas is standard method of serving a good street taco. Unfortunately, the tortillas at Torchy's suck.

 
Loading...