Take a peek at Greatfull Taco's colorful interior and equally colorful food in our slideshow.
I had just polished off three tacos at Greatfull Taco and noticed that my dining companion across the table was strangely silent. And then I realized: He's too wrapped up in his tacos to talk. He was finishing off a China Cat Sunshine, tender strips of medium-rare beef topped with Napa cabbage, carrots, toasted black sesame seeds and a spicy sesame dressing. His Pigpen taco — slow-roasted pork with honey-chipotle sauce — was long gone.
He wiped his lips and sat for a second, looking at his empty trays.
"You're right," he finally said. "Those were fucking awesome."
As with nearly every person I've taken to Greatfull Taco since it opened earlier this year, every assessment of the pseudo-gourmet tacos after the style of Austin-based Torchy's Tacos has ended with a similarly glowing, expletive-laced statement. Tacos that bring people to profanity. That's what I call good.
They love the brisket taco with its smoky meat that would do any smokehouse proud, topped with crispy jalapeños, onions and an avocado slice. They love the Mexicali Bird that tastes as if someone took the legendary tortilla soup at Cafe Annie's and condensed it into a taco. They love the chicken mole with its dark, lush, cinnamon-laced mole sauce topped with crunchy almonds. And so do I. In fact, I've yet to find a taco on the menu I don't love, even if I'm not 100 percent behind the corn tortillas that can sometimes be a little too dry, a little too insubstantial to stand up to the tacos' contents. You can ask for flour tortillas, but I wouldn't recommend it — they're even more lackluster.
There is a lot to love about Greatfull Taco: Its broad, greenery-dotted, shaded patio with a view onto the manicured grounds at Saint Anne's Catholic Church across the street. The exuberant interior with a tropical feel that calls to mind Playa del Carmen by way of a very pricey interior decorator. The easy, laid-back counter service and ordering system that gives you the name of a famous musician in lieu of a number. The nonstop playlist of deep David Bowie cuts and Heart's greatest hits. The playfulness of not only the menu but the staff and its idiosyncratic routines: Fridays are Funky Fridays, when you're encouraged to come in your finest 1970s attire.
But there is a frustrating side to Greatfull Taco that stymies me on a daily basis.
The first thing you might notice at Greatfull Taco is the names of the tacos themselves: China Cat Sunshine. Red Rooster Jerk. Pigpen. The Wharf. As the name of the restaurant suggests, these are all subtle homages to the Grateful Dead, referencing songs like "Little Red Rooster" and founding member Ron "Pigpen" McKernan.
And yet owner Paul West professes not to be that big of a Deadhead. That's the second thing you might notice about Greatfull Taco. West is a constant fixture at his restaurant, and it's clear the place is like a child to him. He's taken the utmost care to hire an extraordinary chef — Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio, whom some may recognize as the chef from Sabetta, the restaurant which previously occupied this space at 2411 South Shepherd. He has decorated the space in bright and enchanting colors, and crafted a menu that not only includes A-plus tacos but a surprisingly thorough wine and beer selection.
Yet despite all of these promising qualities, Greatfull Taco comes very close to being overshadowed by West's larger-than-life and sometimes exasperating personality. After all, it's hard to sell people on what are truly great tacos when the owner has recently taken to Twitter and made statements like, "It was sooooo hottt today, that no illegals came in and tried to get a job!"
It was a sentiment that echoed an equally bizarre press release from March, which I interviewed West about in an article called "Self-Described 'Elitist' 'Asshole' Opening a Restaurant." In the interview, West was unapologetic about (often strangely spelled) statements from the press release such as "Greatfull Taco is best stereotyped as a tacqueria for non-Latin's (stereotypes are real)" and "planned immigration/ temporary work status is probably good, or migration will result." He was careful to point out that of his two chefs, one — the one with the Mexican name — is a "naturalized Citizen."
He's also strangely self-deprecating, describing himself as "a hedge fund, a ponzi, a patsy, an executive, a board member, sometimes bored member, a friend, a CPA, a good Samaritan, a car enthusiast, an elitist, a common man and victim of infallibilities, a staunch American," among many other things.
It's not difficult to overlook West's eccentricities if you're an average customer, but I find myself wondering how fully I can encourage people to dine at a restaurant where the employees occasionally wear shirts with "Who Is John Galt?" emblazoned on them, and where the owner will sometimes trap you in conversations about the evils of the credit system and why he prefers that you use cash in his establishment. I don't want to discuss Randian philosophy over my tacos, but perhaps others might revel in the odd atmosphere.
"I find him charmingly eccentric," said a friend of mine as we left Greatfull Taco one afternoon.
"Like the Houston version of the soup Nazi?" I asked.
"Yeah, like that," he said. "Anyway, it's not like he's running for office. He's just making tacos."
Whatever you find yourself thinking of West, there's no denying that his tacos are top-notch. That's largely thanks to chefs Riccardo Palazzo-Giorgio and Miguel Romero, and I was never happier to see a chef popping up in a taco joint than I was to find Palazzo-Giorgio at Greatfull Taco. His food at Sabetta was masterful, and although it was a low-down, dirty shame that the restaurant didn't make it, I'm glad to report that he is just as good at making mole as orecchiette.
My current favorite lunch rotation includes the Viola Lee taco — large hunks of green tomatoes, battered and fried and topped with a zippy garlic-serrano sauce — and the Red Rooster Jerk — jerk chicken with crunchy jicama slaw and mango-habanero salsa that will leave your eyes watering — paired with a lunch pour of Albariño from Greatfull Taco's short but sweet wine list. A lunch pour gets you four very generous ounces for around $1.50 — it's quite simply the best wine deal in town — and the list is full of some summertime favorites right now.
The beer list is even more substantial, with heavy hitters like Left Hand Milk Stout and local favorites like Fireman's #4. On a recent, indecisive visit, I stared at the vast beer case unable to choose.
"Let me pick something for you!" chimed in West from behind the counter, eager to share a favorite of his with a customer. He grabbed a bottle of Scrimshaw and popped it open, handing it over and telling me, "If you don't like it, it's on me."
It's like West read my mind; the crisp pilsner with a lightly hoppy finish was exactly what the muggy weather called for. I enjoyed it with my bevy of tacos — it's difficult to order just one — and the guacamole spiked with serrano peppers and topped with a crumble of queso fresco that I can't resist ordering on each visit.
You see, it's not just the tacos that are good here. Even the accoutrements are outstanding: the crisp, paper-thin tortilla chips that accompany the guacamole; the spicy queso that tastes indulgently homemade; the charro beans with thick hunks of onions, tomatoes and pork fat; the roughly smashed refried beans with the ample, robust flavor of bacon.
"I judge a place on its beans," said my friend Nancy one night at dinner. "Too many places have taken the bacon fat out of their refried beans, and they're so bland as a result."
"These," she said, after several spoonfuls, "are just right."
She was equally taken with the charro beans and her mole taco, which she compared favorably to the moles from the famous Red Iguana in Salt Lake City. After dinner was done, we sat at the table until the sun went down, catching up and slowly finishing a cup of queso.
Not once did we feel rushed, despite the steady flow of customers in and out of the restaurant. The employees mingled easily with the customers, many of whom seem to treat Greatfull Taco as an extension of their own living space: setting up laptops at tables thanks to the free Wi-Fi and watching one of the many flat-screen TVs as they idly munch on tacos and chips.
It's a comfortable feeling, as if your beloved but eccentric uncle opened a restaurant — and in that regard, West's idiosyncrasies are what makes Greatfull Taco special. That, and the great tacos themselves.
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