El Taco H: Austin (and Mexico City) Quality on a Denton Budget

El Taco H: Austin (and Mexico City) Quality on a Denton Budget
Flying Luchador with an opossum referee hanging from the ropes / Photo by Shea Scott

By Rob Curran

Denton has some great Mexican restaurants; Denton has some great bars (Editor’s note: hyperlink to bar column to be added later, when bar correspondent sobers up). In this time of relentless inflation, when every time you come back from Kroger it feels like you’ve just been jumped by a ski-masked gunman who accepts coupons, dinner-and-drinks is usually dinner-or-drinks. That’s why now is Dentontime and, above all, now is the time for El Taco H.

Comparisons between Denton and Austin are tired. They’re also unavoidable: for 10 years, the majority of Americans and a good portion of the globe have gravitated towards central Texas as a kind of hip Mecca. And, why? I would argue that post-Slacker Austin was founded on the four pillars of Trudy’s(‘s?)  Mexican Martinis, Chuy’s frozen margaritas, Guero’s rocks margs and Curra’s avocado ‘rita. It’s impossible to envision Austin’s recent rep – this world where, whenever Swedish backpackers and English advertising execs swap travel brags on remote Asian beaches, Austin comes in somewhere between the pyramids and Tierra del Fuego; this whole Silicon Valley South thing, where half of San Francisco ups and buys ranches on the slopes of Ben White overpasses and starts the “Uber of horse-riding schools“; this rise of SXSW from a Circle Jerks road stop to a billionaires’ circle jerk…it’s impossible to imagine Austin as we know it without those TexMex margarita spots. The only place that globetrotters want to trot more than Austin, apart from Berlin and maybe Bali, is Mexico City.

I don’t mean to suggest that Guero’s or any of the other Austin joints are expensive. Guero’s tacos and liquor are still eminently affordable, right on par with El Taco H’s. It’s just you have to pay $8,000/month to share a converted carport with seven unwashed death-metal hopefuls and all their secondhand crack smoke to be a regular at Guero’s. You can live for six months across the street from El Taco H and have the same experience for about the same dollar amount as one night in an Austin Airbnb. 

Why do people even still live in Austin, you might ask, if you were the rhetorical-question writer for this column.

Because there’s something about a margarita head buzz gradually displacing brain freeze (I asked a couple Taco H regulars how they avoided brain pain with frozen marg pitchers and one shot back “just don’t have a brain”...now I’m not a relationship columnist but that sounds like solid advice); there’s something about the taste of lime-inflected liquor in a setting where swamp fans are Apocalypse Nowing up clouds of beer-garden dust near your wooden perch, but never quite obscuring the smell of charred fajita beef wafted around the property by the friendly tattooed wait staff; something about that fajita odor so strong it paints a mental still life of the flat black cauldron of goodness you just ordered off your jumbo laminated menu as it thwopped pleasantly in the fan wind. And you know what that something is? That something is the quintessence of Austin. That’s why everybody loves the damn place. There’s a couple spots around the Katy Trail in Dallas that could hang with the Austin joints, but…the stressheads loping past checking their steps on their giant computer watches mean you can’t quite get there with Katy. El Taco H has that Austin summer’s day chill, that feeling that you died and went to Texican Spaghetti Western heaven, where the only thing that can hurt you is the orange habanero sauce that just conflagrated your tongue.

Photo by Shea Scott

El Taco H is a true taco specialist. It avoids that insecure TexMex thing of re-rolling the tortilla 12 different ways from Tuesday. I don’t hate enchiladas, or quesadillas, or chilaquiles, or chimichangas, or chalupas or tostadas, or migas. In fact, I love ‘em all. I’ve been in long-term relationships with several of them. It’s refreshing that a taco place has the self-confidence and Mexico City street smarts to focus on the tacos.

The name El Taco H sounds pretty cool in English, but it’s also a pun on “takuache,” a word for opossum derived from the Aztec language, Nahuatl. (You have to pronounce the H in the Spanish fashion, “Ah-che.”) Among Mexican-Americans, takuache is a slang for a certain kind of brash, silver-gilded boots-and-belt sporting chicano dude who rides around in a "troca" and says things like "no quema cuh," which the urban dictionary says means something like "tires ain't burning, cuz."

My knee-jerk order upon first visiting El Taco H was the al Pastor (known as trompo on the El Taco H menu) because that’s what my friend Fernando Soto taught me to eat in Mexico City. As I’ve written about before, Mexico City is to street tacos what Paris is to almond croissants. Any time you pick up a lil four-buck meat treat on a corn tortilla with fresh  radish, you are paying homage to the mile-and-a-half high volcano-hugging mother of all the Big Cities (on paper, Tokyo is bigger; but, amongst its 9.2 million residents, Mexico City has the densest concentration of prizefighters on earth, and they came up in the fancier barrios on the fringes of the hardcore shantytowns…it’s a Big City in a way that Tokyo never will be). The co-owners, Raul and Nick had consciously designed their joint’s menu after street cafes in Mexico City where Raul was born and had taken Nick for visits (“As Michelangelo had been to marble…so would they be to carne asada and al pastor,” El Taco H’s Web site provides as their mission statement). I found a somewhat worrying streak of healthiness in the al pastor from which I was safe in the lunch places I was used to. The barbacoa was unparalleled, however, dripping with meaty decadence. I’ve had many variations on the smoked beef cheek over the years but few could rival juiciness and tenderness of this beef. The three top sellers according to general manager Miguel, are the asada, which is the grilled beef responsible for the fajita smoke in the joint, the al pastor and the birria, which is a taco sauce made with consommé. People are also digging the fusion dish (and only non-taco staple) Birria ramen. The sides are strong, with modest helpings suitable for such delicacies. The Charro beans (another detail that gives El Taco H more of a Mex-Mex than a Tex-Mex vibe; in most of Mexico beans are seldom refried) are as tasty as any I’ve had this side of the border.

Photo by Shea Scott

Like Taco Cabana of old, you are allowed to assemble your own condiments. This is another master stroke for the inflation age. If, after putting together the cilantro and salsa toppings, you’re still up for parlor games, check out the cornhole out the back or the regular games of loteria, another Mexico City import (think bingo mixed with Tarot cards). Beer-garden vibes are kind of what Denton is known for around the Metroplex and Taco H’s beer garden might just be the vibiest of them all.

Even the decor is fun. The distinctive glittery balaclavas of Lucha Libre masks are hanging behind the bar, and in various locations around the restaurant. They are not just for show. The restaurant hosts wrestling nights, the next coming on May 4. One of my neighbors went to a Libre training camp in Veracruz and insists that these theatrical rumbles are just as dangerous as they are bizarre and entertaining.

Mexican people – incredible as this may seem to American people – actually like having children around. They have this weird idea that kids are little dotes who bring a youthful positivity to a party. The bright lucha libre mask decorations and the near endless selection of aguas frescas make El Taco H very welcoming to the little mans and womans.

And the margaritas? El Taco H is the first joint in the DFW area…hell, any area, that could have slotted in there as the fifth pillar of Austin’s holy Quadrumvirate. The lime mix tastes fresh. They spice up their creamy homemade horchata rice drink by spiking it with rum.

It’s nearly summer, Hottest people. I’ll see you down El Taco H. Order me a pitcher of frozen margaritas, a carne asada, and a Panadol.