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Patrick Terry helped revolutionize the way Austinites think about fast food when he opened P. Terry’s on South Lamar Boulevard in 2004. He took aim at a type of food that had rightfully earned a reputation as unhealthy, and in some cases entirely suspect, and made it healthier and cleaner while maintaining value and increasing customer service standards.
Hormone-free, antibiotic-free and vegetarian-fed all-natural Angus beef was used to make burgers; organic eggs made their way onto breakfast sandwiches; freshly squeezed orange juice was served; and antibiotic-free chicken was ground in-house for the chicken burgers. And it all tasted great.
So, when he opened Taco Ranch earlier this year, some wondered: Could he replicate the winning formula with Tex-Mex, or would he be wise to stay in his lane and watch his P. Terry’s burger empire grow? Prior success in one endeavor doesn’t necessarily predict future success in a different arena. Just ask the Birmingham Barons’ Michael Jordan, or take a look at the reviews when David Chang originally mashed up Korean and Italian at Momofuku Nishi.
After visiting a couple of times, I will admit that Taco Ranch doesn’t hold the same appeal for me as P. Terry’s. It’s not a failure, and there are a few things to recommend it, but it doesn’t feel like the revolutionary act P. Terry’s was. But maybe that’s because a conscientious alternative to fast food burgers is much more appealing to me than a similar antidote to Taco Bueno. I still generally want my tacos more on the Mexican side of things and less on the Tex-Mex side (though I’ve been known to hit Chuy’s a couple of times a year).
As with P. Terry’s, Taco Ranch is concerned with sourcing, though it can be tough to discern the nuance when you’re just talking salty ground beef and chopped up grilled chicken. But those tomatoes are certainly brighter and juicier than anything you’ll find at a standard-issue drive-thru.
The menu is separated by breakfast tacos (served until 11 a.m. daily) and lunch and dinner tacos. The beef, chicken, veggie and bean tacos you’d be inclined to order at lunch all cost $2.50, while the breakfast taco pricing depends on the number of fillings — $2.25 for two, $.275 for three and $3.25 for four.
Taco Ranch uses a machine to make their own corn tortillas in-house, and while the effort is appreciated, the double layered tortillas I had at both dinner and breakfast (but more so at dinner) had the smooth texture and elasticity of deflated balloons. You can order the corn tortillas fried, which is an improvement, though the texture and crackle seemed more like they were baked. Those shells make for the best delivery mechanism when filled with ground beef.
With that said, I’d stick to the flour tortillas. They are made off-site using a Taco Ranch recipe and have a good chew and buttery soul. Whether you find nice toasty spots from the grill depends on when you get them. My favorite evening taco was the grilled chicken. While the meat ran a little dry, it was nicely seasoned with a touch of char. Wrap that in a flour tortilla filled with crunchy iceberg lettuce, fire-engine red tomatoes and shredded cheese and add sour cream and jalapenos for 50 cents each and you get closest to the P. Terry’s model: a cleaner version of fast food that’s not trying to do anything too fancy. Add some of the spicy salsa, a roasted blend of tomato, jalapeno and serrano that’s probably only about a 6 on a heat scale of 1-10, and you’ve got yourself a solid taco.
While I appreciate the veggie crumble taco, a packed blend of beans and grains that looks and tastes like a broken up veggie burger, if you’re looking for a vegetarian option, go with a bean taco, but maybe not with the buttery and rich fried flour tortilla I chose. The cumin-flavored beans, fattened up with soybean oil, not lard, are best with cheese on a simple breakfast taco rolled in a flour tortilla.
The organic eggs didn’t ever hit the toasty or creamy points you would hope for from a morning scramble, leaving my bacon, egg and cheese taco lifeless and unappealing before a generous splash of salsa. And breakfast sausage has never been my thing, so the pale pile of sausage and eggs didn’t do anything for me. But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the chorizo. The fine and fragrant meat, which could maybe use a touch more heat, didn’t leave a greasy pool on my flour tortilla, or maybe it was just soaked up by the bits of potato, wisely cut to small pieces, allowing them a nice balance that leaned more toward crunch than flesh. Drizzle some of the green salsa, piquant with fresh and roasted garlic and brightened by cilantro, and you have a definite winner.
As with P. Terry’s, the design, here an adobe style that hearkened to old Taco Bells and Taco Buenos, delivered a tingle of upmarket nostalgia, and the friendly service (right down to the taco-wrap stickers asking for feedback and offering a phone number for said) was sincere and on point. That alone makes Taco Ranch a standout among competitors and some restaurants with much higher aspirations.
The more time I spent in Taco Ranch — one night watching as customers of all ages and families of four were fed for likely well less than $10 a person — the more I began to understand it. If you think of the nascent chain — there’s one coming to MLK Boulevard near the University of Texas this summer — as an alternative for your favorite trailers serving migas tacos or Mexican street tacos or as a competitor for more expensive places putting a modernist spin on the taco game, you will be disappointed. But if you’ve been looking for a replacement for your guilty pleasure Tex-Mex fast food spot, you will likely greet Taco Ranch as a refreshing (and local) alternative.
Recommended: Chicken on soft flour (add sour cream and jalapenos), ground beef on crispy corn, and chorizo and potato breakfast taco on soft flour.
Non-taco side note: Taco Ranch earns high marks for his citrusy housemade guacamole studded with tomatoes and a creamy, pepper-flecked queso that doesn’t rely on Velveeta.
Taco Ranch. 5033 W. US 290. 512-300-0341, tacoranch.com
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