Is Mission Burrito Trying to Compete with Torchy's Tacos?

I get the feeling that Mission Burrito is suddenly trying to compete with newcomer Torchy's Tacos, the Austin import that features tacos with fillings like fried chicken and names like the Dirty Sanchez or the Trailer Park.

Why? Because the Houston-based burrito chain has now introduced a new line of "Ten Tasty Tacos" at three of its locations -- the original on West Alabama (which opened in 1996) as well as on Durham and Highway 6 -- with more family-friendly names such as the Tree Hugger, the Sloppy Cowboy and the Confused Farmer.

In keeping with the competitive spirit, each taco has somewhat non-traditional fillings: The Black Magic comes with fried shrimp (or tilapia) on a corn tortilla with jicama slaw and horseradish sauce, for example. The aforementioned Sloppy Cowboy sees pulled pork topped with grilled potatoes and onions, chile de arbol salsa, shredded cheese and Mission Burrito's famously irresistible serrano-cilantro ranch dressing. (I mix that stuff into my queso, into my Que Mas salads, into everything I order there.)

And if the question here is whether or not Mission Burrito is trying to compete with Torchy's, the answer is clear: It is, and it's winning -- as far as I'm concerned.

I was one of those people who were very excited when Torchy's came to town. I loved their tacos in Austin, but was greatly disheartened to see their Houston location strip down a perfectly beautiful restaurant and turn it into a cold fallout shelter in hues of concrete and gunmetal. It didn't fit at all with the aesthetic of the Torchy's back in the Hill Country at all.

And across three separate visits to Torchy's, the tacos have steadily disappointed more and more each time. The last two tacos I received were cold. Stone cold. It was baffling. Worse, they were getting expensive.

Not a single taco on Mission Burrito's "Ten Tasty Tacos" menu is over $3.95. My favorite, in fact -- the Tree Hugger, with plush slices of avocado amidst roasted corn, jicama slaw, serrano-cilantro ranch dressing and shredded cheese -- is only $2.50. Get two and it's a meal. (Yes, I know that I'm a sucker for avocado tacos.)

And because I've been eating at Mission Burrito since I was in high school and have yet to ever find the chain wanting -- even after it was sold to Houston-based Mexican Restaurants, Inc. six years ago -- I have no doubt in my mind that the tacos will remain consistently delicious over time.

I'd love to see Mission Burrito add these tacos to every one of its stores, but for now I'm happy to drive out to the old West Alabama mainstay, order a tray of tacos and relax under the big oak trees out front or in the cozy confines of the mission-style dining room. At least I don't feel like I'm taking refuge in a nuclear bunker when I'm here.

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Katharine Shilcutt