Yes, There Is a Taco Worth the Drive to Austin
There’s been a lot of taco talk on the food-web in the past six months or so. First, Texas Monthly released its comprehensive and considerate list of 120 Tacos You Must Eat Before You Die. Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ was on this list. Then, there was the Great Breakfast Taco Kerfuffle of 2016. Valentina’s was not on this one.
Where the first list launched a share-and-share-alike campaign of taco intel swapping, the second list mostly incited disagreements that ended with everyone else in Taco-dom telling Austin that it and its tacos suck. This had more to do with Newton’s Third Law than with the actual state of Austin tacos, but it made me think back to one of the best tacos—and bites of barbecue—I’ve had in recent years. While you can’t hang your hat on a single taco, this is one of which Austin should be proud, and one that should make the rest of us jealous.
The first bite I took of a Valentina’s smoked brisket taco made me involuntarily exclaim, “Holy s***!” That’s barbecue benchmark stuff right there. My moment of clarity came on a drizzly Austin afternoon, huddled against the wind under a canopy alongside a trailer in a gas station parking lot. I was in Austin on business, and took the opportunity to sample one of a handful of barbecue movers and shakers that had sprung up there in the past few years. La Barbecue was my other list-topper, the pair making up an interesting movement in the smoked meat arts, bringing a Tex-Mex twist to the Texas Trinity.
I’ve eaten my fair share of brisket tacos. I haven’t liked a one of them. Too often, the concoction lessens both the brisket and the taco, the parts never quite meshing into a whole. That’s a damn disgrace, and a bit of a curiosity. Brisket and tacos seems such an obvious combination, it’s always baffled me that it goes so wrong so often.
Really, I think it comes down to focus. Both tacos and brisket are specialist items. Good brisket needs a serious pitmaster who knows how to control the very elements themselves, transforming a tough and unappealing cut of meat into one of culinary alchemy’s finest achievements. Likewise, a good taco requires a good tortilla, and a good tortilla requires focus and attention, turning a few simple ingredients into a food worthy of obsession. Neither exists readily within the same skill set, and the combination isn’t foundational to most places serving either. Usually, the brisket taco is an afterthought, an attempt to capitalize on a potential market with relatively little cost of entry, either in monetary terms or labor. “Hey, let’s chuck this leftover chopped brisket into some prefab tortillas” isn’t exactly a recipe for culinary success.
Valentina’s differs in its focus. A Tex-Mex twist on barbecue from the beginning, tacos were pretty much always in the plan. Proprietor Migeul Vidal pays as much attention to his pillowy, griddle-charred tortillas as he does to his lush, smoky meats. The combination isn’t “fusion” in the manner of “General Tso’s Wonton Nacho Burger,” but is rather a carefully crafted combination of foods and flavors that, in Vidal’s care, seem almost purpose-built for each other. Mostly because at Valentina’s, they are.
As for that brisket taco: I'm not normally big on mesquite as a smoking wood—I find it a bit acrid over a long smoke—but like it here. The suave spread of guacamole and gently peppery punch of the salsa add great counterpoints to the aggressive, almost acidic smoke of the mesquite. A squeeze of lime cuts through all the richness nicely. The brisket is simple but well-seasoned, coarse salt and cracked black pepper punctuating the rubble of the meat, which has been pulled rather than chopped. The tortilla is nice and fluffy, but not so thick that it trumps the fillings. It’s also well burnished and charred in spots. It’s great as a taco; it’s great as barbecue; it’s fantastic as a barbecue taco.
The smoked pork carnitas taco may have stood had I tried it on its own, but it paled compared to the brisket. That’s actually an end-around complement to both, though. The carnitas was really good. The meat itself is sweet and nutty and deeply porky, all imbued with a gentler smoke than the brisket gets, with a range of textures running from super crispy to quite juicy, often in the same bite. Grilled onions reinforce the sweetness. They gamely add a wedge of lime in case you want a bit more tartness, which I did. It all balanced out nicely.
I also tried the brisket in sandwich form. Again, it suffered a bit for the comparison, but was a damn good sandwich in its own right. The eggy bun had enough structural integrity to stand up to the mound of rubbly chopped beef mined with plenty of barky bits, keeping the meat from veering into that awful pre-chewed texture that can plagues lesser sandwiches. It was impeccably dressed with chopped onions and a tiling of pickle slices. Just enough sweet/tart/black peppery sauce is applied to lubricate the whole affair. The side of lightly pickled cabbage and onions added even more pleasant crunch. Rather than tossing them atop, spear a few slices with your fork every now and again.
There were leftovers, naturally. Even after the drive back to Houston—food stashed safely in the cooler I bring with me whenever I think I’ll be near a barbecue mecca—my wife declared the brisket taco the best she’d ever had.
My one complaint from the meal was the smoked corn. The Tex is there in good form, but I want more of the traditional elotes treatment instead of a thin drizzle of crema. That's really a minor quibble from a meal that, had I consumed it in reverse order, would have yielded an escalating succession of “wow” moments. It’s nice to have your expectations subverted, and that’s just what Valentina’s did to mine. It's worth seeking out, even if it requires you to go to Austin.
Let’s talk more about that, and less about TacoDeli.