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.
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.
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