Torchy's Tacos brings a little more Austin to Houston

August 8, 2012
Update: An eagle-eyed reader discovered that the City of Houston Health Department wasn't too pleased with what they found on their last visit to Torchy's, either.
City of Houston Health Department

When a foodie thinks about Austin, what often comes to mind is a quirky, casual spot that serves good food in a somewhat offbeat setting.  Ever since Austin was just a college town and a hippie hangout, it's had its own sensibility that is slightly out of step with the rest of Texas.  In a good way, of course.

As Austin grew to become a high-tech (and hipster) mecca, the quirky Austin vibe went somewhat upscale, with the rough edges polished off.  Some of these interesting concepts make the trip down 290 to the Houston area, where we now have outposts of some of Austin's favorite establishments, like the highly popular Chuy's or the superlative Uchi.
One of the latest restaurants to migrate from Austin is Torchy's Tacos.  Founded in a food truck and based in the salt-of-the-earth South First Street area, Torchy's has been serving up creative tacos to rave reviews all over Austin.  It's as if the humble Tex-Mex staple has been reinvented and elevated to a new level, one that apparently every Austinite craves.  Foodie friends were swooning of the appearance of Torchy's in Houston, giving us grief for not having checked it out.

So how will Torchy's be received in Houston, a town known for its hundreds of family-run taquerias?  We went to find out.

Torchy's is located on South Shepherd Drive, a stone's throw away from both the tony River Oaks shopping strip and Westheimer.  This is an area quite a bit less funky that South First Street in Austin, but that hasn't stopped Torchy's from bringing in the crowds.  It isn't unusual to see lines snaking out the door, and on our off-peak mid afternoon visit, we waited for a table after ordering at the counter.
Dining room at Torchy's Tacos
The crowd trended young, hip, and noisy.  Torchy's dining room is bare to the point of austerity, and in its usual full state, quiet table conversation is a challenge.  The setting doesn't invite lingering, which meant that tables turned fast enough so we didn't have a lengthy wait.  This was good, because right after we snared a table, our food came out.
We had followed the suggestion of the friendly Torchy's staff member at the counter, and picked a handful of their most popular selections.
First up was the Green Chile Pork taco.  The closest we found to a traditional taqueria taco, it featured slow-roasted carnitas, cilantro, onions, and some crumbly queso fresco.  Curiously, the promised wedge of lime was absent.  Astonishingly, the tortilla was clearly out of a package.  Store-bought tortillas are a huge strike against any taco joint.  They simply don't compare to the hot, soft, fresh tortillas 45 seconds off the comal that can be found at small, family run taquerias dotting every corner in Houston.  And at Taco Cabana, too.
Green Chile Pork taco at Torchy's

Our first surprise was the relatively small size of the tortilla, which was generously overflowing with fillings.  The second surprise was the tremendous amount of cilantro - no folks, that's not lettuce in the photo.  Biting into the taco confirmed the over-abundance of cilantro, not surprisingly.  When we raked off 3/4 of it, we were left with a fairly bland taco; the mild pork flavor was lost beneath the onions and the remainder of the cilantro.  We can think of a number of taquerias around town that put this semi-traditional taco to shame.  On to the next one.

For many folks, Tex-Mex means fajitas, so next up was Torchy's Beef Fajita taco.  The ingredients are right out of Tex Mex 101: Marinated, grilled skirt steak, grilled onions and peppers, shredded cheese and pico de gallo.

Beef Fajita tacos at Torchy's

Biting into this taco, we were impressed by the tender quality of the fajita beef, but we found ourselves wishing for a bolder marinade; the beefy flavor was very mild.  At the suggestion of staff, we added their avocado hot sauce - a creamy combination of tomatillos, avocados, and roasted jalapenos.  This certainly added some heat, but now all we tasted was the sauce.  We think the solution is a bolder marinade, not a saucy disguise.

Our final taco was the one we'd repeatedly heard great things about:  Torchy's Trailer Park taco.  Fried chicken chunks, green chiles, shredded cheese, pico, and lettuce are the standard toppings, and at the advice of a Torchyphile we know, we ordered it "Trashy", with the lettuce removed and a dollop of melted queso on top.

Trailer Park taco at Torchy's

This taco was a hot mess.  Good quality fried chicken, but utterly bland pico de gallo and a morass of cheese made me think of a KFC chicken bowl, not Austin's most-talked-about taco.  A dab of Torchy's poblano hot sauce helped, but we're firm believers that you shouldn't have to fix a dish by smothering it in sauce to make it good.  The result was certainly edible, but it's not something we'd seek out again.

To say we were disappointed with Torchy's would be an understatement.  Like many things from Austin, the reality doesn't live up to huge level of hype.  On the plus side, the ingredients seemed to be high quality, but on the minus, Torchy's can't be bothered making fresh tortillas.  The individual tacos look good on paper, but spotty execution and weird proportions of ingredients leave you with a taco that just tastes bland.  The result is a mediocre experience by Houston taco standards.

That may be good enough in Austin.  In a Tex-Mex mecca like Houston, Torchy's is going to have to up their game.

Torchy's Tacos | 2411 South Shepherd Dr. | 713-595-8226 |

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