With tortilla-flecked migas, melty jack cheese and avocado, I’m pretty sure it was the Jess Special that caught my eye the first time I perused the menu at Tacodeli. Sold. I phoned my order in to the location nearest to my friend’s house in Austin.
“Sorry, we’re out of the Jess Special,” said the employee on the other end of the line.
“Oh. Can I do the regular migas taco instead then?”
“We’re out of that too.”
“How about the El Popeye?”
“We’re out of that one too.”
“Well, what do you have?”
It turned out that location was under construction and, for some reason, all the vegetarian options available that particular Sunday at 11 a.m. were mushroom-based. I was a skeptical mushroom eater at that point but also starving, so I put in an order. And that was when my entire perspective on mushrooms began to change (juicy, not slimy! Meaty, not cartilage-y! Flavorful, not bland!)
Tacodeli made its way to Houston in 2017, setting down roots on Washington for its first Houston location, next door to the Australian brewery Platypus. Like all its other locations, Tacodeli proudly serves breakfast and lunch tacos, salads, soup and daily specials made from “local and organic produce, meats, seafood and more.” The Tacodeli website will tell you where the restaurant sources most of its food. In the soda dispenser, you’ll find Austin-based Maine Root soda (100 percent fair trade certified organically sweetened), or you can pick up a bottle of kombucha.
Although it’s technically a breakfast and lunch spot, we found breakfast items generally triumphed while lunch tacos fell short. Luckily, breakfast tacos are served all day on weekends, though only until 11 a.m. on weekdays.
During a breakfast visit, the popular (and my personal long-awaited taco) Jess Special impressed with creamy eggs, a sea of melty jack cheese and avocado slices. Although the corn tortillas underwhelmed with a lack of flavor and structural integrity (a lone tortilla ripped under the weight of a juicy egg white and spinach taco), the tender flour tortillas worked well with most tacos.
My only issue was with consistency: The flour tortilla on the Jess Special was nicely browned in spots, with plenty of pliability, while the flour tortilla encasing the Vaquero taco was crisped to excess.
We opened up our migas taco to dissect the interior: The tortilla chips — a signature of migas — seemed nowhere to be found. After combing through the mass of egg, we found little bits of chips, nearly melted into the mixture and almost undetectable.
Mystifyingly, there were far more chips in the Migas Royale platter, in which the migas arrive on a platter next to tortillas for self-assembly. Although the breakfast tacos already range in the extremely reasonable price category of sub-$3, the platter feels like a Chipotle-style hack at Tacodeli — for less than the cost of three migas tacos, you get two tortillas, a ton of migas filling, a small sea of creamy refried vegetarian black beans and a serving of ultra-creamy mashed potatoes textured like thick baked-potato soup.
We weren’t as successful with our afternoon visits.
I had only ever had pleasant interactions with Tacodeli employees previously, but during both of my afternoon visits, within an hour of closing, both cashiers I spoke with seemed like sleepy shells of what were probably their normal lively selves. Still, my first cashier perked up slightly when recommending the Shrimposito and Space Cowboy tacos to me. I took his recommendation on the shrimp and added a Florentino and a Papadulce, delighted with the number of creative vegetarian options available.
A surprising number of couples, a few solo diners and a couple of families dotted the restaurant’s outdoor, dog-friendly patio as well as the inside of the restaurant for the early afternoon hour. My tacos quickly exited the kitchen via a friendly server who called out my name (they make a point of doing that rather than giving you a number, for that extra human touch).
I tried the shrimp first. The leathery-looking corn tortilla made me wonder if I was getting the last of an old batch of tortillas. Indeed, the tortilla tasted as disappointing as it looked, though the five large shrimp stuffed inside were juicy and well-seasoned with a chipotle sesame adobo sauce. Topped with queso fresco and avocado, it was a really good shrimp taco — marred only by the lifeless corn tortilla that ripped and leaked juices under the weight of the shrimp.
I had ordered the Florentino in a whole wheat tortilla, which for a whole wheat tortilla was wholly inoffensive. Thin and appropriately chewy with a nice amount of bite, it tasted much fresher than the corn tortilla. There are no squiggles of sauce or showers of cheese; the Florentino is a minimalist taco with large spears of portobello and a mess of wilted spinach, onion and roasted red peppers. It might be boring save for the marinade and the perfect handling of the mushroom spears that makes them tender and positively addicting.
Now imagine a sweet potato casserole, but swap out the maple syrup in the mashed sweet potatoes for a slightly kicky chipotle camote sauce and the marshmallows for a fiesta of diced Mexican-style vegetables like peppers, grilled corn and caramelized onions. That’s what the Papadulce taco reminded me of, in a not entirely enjoyable way. I don’t really want to eat a sweet potato casserole wrapped in a tortilla, and the toasted pepitas and chunks of less-cooked sweet potato enveloped by the surrounding sweet potato puree were jarring.
On a second visit, our cashier was again less lively and friendly than some of the other employees (granted, things were winding down on a Sunday afternoon and they had likely just negotiated a busy weekend morning). Still, he personally delivered our order of guacamole to our table, which was a nice touch.
Smooth almost to the point of puree (but not quite), Tacodeli’s guacamole is one of the most aggressively lime-forward versions I’ve encountered in Houston. I love a lot of lime in guacamole, but I wish the kitchen had dialed it back just a tiny bit, and both of my dining companions agreed; we wished for a chunkier, more hand-mashed guacamole.
Our favorite taco of the bunch, the Tikin Xic, an achiote-marinated grilled salmon, arrived in another lone, slightly leathery corn tortilla that once again arrived nearly soaked through so that it ripped while eating — an issue most other taco places avoid by doubling up on the corn tortillas. But it was spicy and flavorful and particularly good when doused in the third-spiciest of Tacodeli’s award-winning salsas, Salsa Doña, a hot and creamy green salsa (I then tried upgrading to the spiciest of the bunch, the fearsomely bright orange Salsa Habanero, and my mouth almost exploded).
Sadly, the Tikin Xic’s near-doppelganger, the pollo adobado, or chicken tossed in a red chile adobo sauce, was abandoned mostly intact on the tray in favor of the flavor-packed salmon taco. At $4.50, the Tikin Xic is one of the priciest tacos on the menu, but still comparable to similar seafood tacos at equivalent establishments.
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Tacodeli wins a ton of points in my book for its wide variety of vegetarian options — even though it has only one explicitly vegan taco (the Freakin’ Vegan is a minimalistic but delicious combination of creamy black beans, avocado and pico de gallo), the build-your-own breakfast taco option is perfect for creating a customized veg-only taco. (Though meat lovers can also load up on options like sirloin, chicken, housemade chorizo and sausage.) A four-item taco is only $2.60: my dream combo of eggs, mashed potatoes, portobello and poblano-onion rajas came out cheaper than the Jess Special.
On weekends the line can snake throughout the restaurant during peak hours, packed with taco lovers waiting for their fix. But the line moves fast and you’ll probably find me there every so often, plotting my next cheese-glazed mushroom fix.
1902 Washington, 713-357-7770, tacodeli.com. Hours: Mondays through Fridays, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Medium guacamole $6.95
Cowboy taco $3.95
Adobado taco $3.75
Frontera fundido sirloin taco $3.95
Tikin Xic taco $4.50
Freakin’ Vegan taco $2.85
Papadulce taco $3.25
Florentino taco $3.25
Migas taco $2.35
Jess Special taco $2.85
Vaquero taco $2.85