The Sylvan Thirty development scores another hit with Austin import Tacodeli
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
With the exception of a cup of tea, the taco is perhaps the simplest of all prepared foods … which is precisely what makes it so difficult to get one right. Tortilla, protein, garnish. That’s all you have to work with. We’re talking about maybe a few bites to convey all you need to about your creation. You can’t mask a tough piece of meat behind a bed of polenta or distract the tongue by delivering a dazzling visual croque-en-bouche. You can’t hide the flaws when there’s so little involved to begin with.
Which, of course, is why a great taco is a thing of beauty — a culinary firework that, done right, sets off rockets in your mouth. You don’t luxuriate in a taco — ever heard of day-old tacos? No! You eat them, fast, quick, hot. “Wow” is the principal dividend of a taco. And since most taquerias have words like “stand” or “stop” in their name, it’s not like white glove service makes up for anything. This is the people’s food, and the people will be satisfied.
Over at Sylvan Thirty, it’s not “shack” or “stand” or even “bistro,” but “deli” in the name of the taco joint. And as with a traditional delicatessen, the menu at Tacodeli is a curated one, thought out and planned, but with enough opportunity to individualize it.
Even with just a smattering of ingredients, composing a great taco is a skill. Corn or flour tortilla? Corn, with its natural sweetness, can overwhelm an already-sweet protein like shrimp, and doubling up is sometimes needed to secure all the juices (an excessively messy taco is a failure). At Tacodeli, both flour and corn come from the same Sonoran-style tortilleria just a few miles down the road, so freshness is a watchword, and the flour tortillas here are especially delish and well-matched for the ingredients. (More on those later.)
But what might make customization at Tacodeli the taste sensation it is are the salsas. A good salsa isn’t a disguise, but an accent that inflects the flavors of the meat and vegetables. Many taquerias offer one, maybe two or three salsas (“mild, spicy or hot?”); they have four here, ranging from a soothing complement to your palate to a bit of liquid TNT.
The creaminess of their signature green “dona” salsa belies the heat from the poblano, while traditional tomatillo — which they promote as milder — imparts a deft, refreshing tang. The rojas resembles a traditional red sauce but with a warm smokiness, and the habanero — as orange as Donald Trump holding his breath — percolates menacingly on the tongue, a slow burn-like acid coming through with a strong citrus undercurrent. Half of the fun in exploring Tacodeli’s menu is a good old-fashioned mix-n-match, coming up with combos that satisfy your cravings.
That said, it’s easiest to leave the other recipes up to the kitchen. They have designed an exhaustive menu of hand-crafted tacos, including eight beef, six chicken and vegetarian, four pork and three seafood, as well as the daily specials and eggy breakfast tacos. In short, there’s no want for versions to experiment with. (They range in price from about $3–$4.)
The cochinita pibil (Wednesdays only!) is a chewy original of thinly-sliced, charred pork, as juicy as a bride on her wedding night. Brightly decorated with the achiote marinade and boas of pickled onion, it’s a flamboyantly delectable introduction to pibil-style. Another Wednesday special, the Delibelly, draws a creamy coolness from well-marbled strips of pork belly.
The freakin vegan is remarkably satisfying in its simplicity: a shmear of pureed black beans with a slice of avocado and pico, clinging for dear life to the walls of the flour tortilla. I chose flour as well for the shrimp taco, probably my favorite among the selections offered every day. The server recommended I order the taco loco (braised beef) with a double-girding of corn tortilla because the juiciness of the meat might bleed through the first layer. That ended up being an unnecessary precaution, though the dense shreds of adobo-braised brisket were plenty rich enough, along with the caramelized onion, guac and queso fresco.
The only real disappointment on the menu has been the Mexico City chicken: Cubes of grilled breast sat like lifeless monoliths in the tortilla. Much better for chicken lovers is the free-range pollo fantastico. It’s not an overstatement — almost everything here is muy fantastico. It’s one of my favorite food spots in Dallas right now.
Tacodeli, 1878 Sylvan Ave. in the Sylvan Thirty development. Open daily 8 a.m.–3 p.m. Tacodeli.com.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 15, 2016.