By Claudia Alarcón
Photography by Will Larson (La Flor, upper left) and Jenna Noel (Best Wurst, DaVine Foods, La Super Michoacana, & County Grill)
Being from Mexico City, I come from a culture where street food is the norm. In almost every corner of the city’s streets, independent entrepreneurs set up stands selling everything from fresh squeezed fruit juices to tamales, tacos and roasted corn, to ice creams and popsicles. Everyone, from construction workers to bureaucrats to executives in suits, frequents these places—not just eating breakfast or lunch, but briefly erasing the class division in Mexican society.
When I moved to Austin in the 1980s, I found very little in the way of street food, and I missed it. But as the Mexican population grew, so did the number of eateries on wheels. Taco truck proprietors moved inexorably from construction sites and convenience store parking lots on to more permanent locations.
Now that I can have my taco fix whenever (and wherever) I want, I’ve begun to explore street fare ranging beyond Mexico into quite a few other countries, including the ethnic U.S.
What follows is a small sample of favorite mobile eateries.
A typical working-class South Austin taco truck, Taquería La Flor caters mostly to contractors and their crews, Mexican families, and neighborhood folks who vie for a seat at the picnic table next to the tiny trailer. María Flores and her family, born and raised in the Mexican state of Michoacán, opened this tiny taquería two years ago in a South Austin paint shop parking lot. Increased demand caused them to relocate to just outside a convenience store on South First Street, and that’s where I go to eat the best made-to-order breakfast tacos in the city. I consider the ham-and-egg tacos especially worth the wait. After all, it takes time to brown chopped bits of ham on the griddle, beat the eggs and heat tortillas. By the time I get my breakfast, it’s almost too hot to hold. I’m also addicted to María’s handmade gorditas and tortas, as well as the seasonal fruit drink known as agua fresca. During cold months, I stop by for some of Austin’s best tamales, served with the traditional flavored atole—a hot, corn-based beverage. For me, La Flor is truly a taste of home.
Open daily, 7 a.m.–4 p.m. 4901 S. 1st, in the Stop-n-Shop parking lot, 512-417-4214.
Like every Mexican child, I grew up eating my fair share of paletas — popsicles made either by blending fresh fruits with milk (paletas de leche) or water (paletas de agua). In Austin, most of these treats come from La Super Michoacana, founded in 1996 by Guanajuato native Adolfo Alvarado, who learned how to make paletas in Gilroy, California, his first American home.
Alvarado produces popsicles for a small-but-growing fleet of little green pushcarts, each selling one-dollar paletas—not just in traditionally Mexican neighborhoods, but all over the city. During the hot months, he and his wife, daughters and a few seasonal workers produce 16 all-natural flavors, including watermelon, cantaloupe, lime, strawberry and chocolate, all sold direct to independent contractors, who then hit the streets with their little green carts.
“The most popular flavor by far is coconut,” Alvarado says. “We sell twice as many as any other flavor.” My personal favorite is pepino con chile, a tangy, sweet, and slightly savory combination of fresh cucumber, a good dose of fresh lime juice, and a bit of powdered chile piquín. Other exotic treats include arroz, which tastes like frozen rice pudding on a stick, as well as tamarind, guava, pecan, piña colada, mango, lime and pineapple.
Considering our area’s long-standing German roots, German street food seemed inevitable, and now it’s here. For great nighttime eats downtown or at family-friendly events such as the Pecan Street Festival, you just can’t beat Best Wurst. I don’t frequent the 6th Street area often, but when I do, it is de rigueur to have at least one of their grilled sausages, with all the trimmings. It’s awesome to watch these incredibly skilled cooks work in perfect synchronicity out of the tiny four-by-five-foot kiosk. No wonder lines can be long—on weekends, you can get Best Wurst until 3:30 a.m.
In 1996, New York musician Jon Notarthomas came to Austin for a gig and loved it enough to stay. Having come from a city jam-packed with street food and small neighborhood ethnic joints, he modeled Best Wurst on one of his favorite New York City hot dog carts, expanding his repertoire to include the wide variety of local sausages available in Central Texas.
Notarthomas’ kiosks serve grilled sausages on soft white rolls, dressed with grilled onions and bell peppers, hot sauerkraut and Düsseldorf mustard. The shop’s signature condiment, a flavorful and slightly spicy curried ketchup, is popular enough that plans are afoot to bottle it. Best Wurst staples are bratwurst, smoked Italian, jalapeño, and all-beef, but specialty sausages are occasionally available. I usually have a hard time deciding—though I lean toward traditional brats or the spicy jalapeño. “We use sausages made by Smokey Denmark, Texas Sausage Company and Opie’s in New Braunfels,” Notarthomas says. “They tweak the recipes to our specifications, so our product is truly unique.”
Open Wed.–Thurs., 8 p.m.– 3 a.m.; Fri.–Sat., 7 p.m.–3:30 a.m. Corner of 6th and San Jacinto and 6th and Red River. Best Wurst can also be found at family-friendly events such as Pecan Street Festival. There are also plans to add a kiosk in the Warehouse District.
Country Grill, another mobile kitchen with a German accent, is a chicken rotisserie founded by Bavarian-born Wolfram Wilken. Succulent roasted chickens are sold from a van equipped with state-of-the-art Hertels grills imported from Germany. Served minutes off the spit, the chicken is juicy and moist on the inside, with a crispy, well-seasoned skin. Wilken uses only hormone- and antibiotic-free chicken purchased from local farms in Nixon, Gonzalez and other nearby towns.
“Starting with good natural fresh chicken is really the secret to getting a good product,“ Wilken says. “We never buy a frozen bird.“ And then there’s the spice rub—a uniquely Bavarian mixture of salt, pepper, curry, rosemary and fines herbes. For me, it is the curry flavor that really distinguishes Country Grill from every other rotisserie chicken I’ve ever had.
While parked near Republic Square on weekdays, Country Grill does a brisk lunch trade in chicken, roasted corn, potato salad and bread. And, while it’s the only such mobile restaurant in the U.S., it’s a surprisingly big presence in the rest of the world.
“We have vehicles in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and other Eastern European countries,“ says Wilken, who has also had calls from South Africans and Mexicans looking to start their own chicken rotisseries.
Open Sat., 9 a.m.–1 p.m., at Sunset Valley Farmers’ Market, Toney Burger Center, 3200 Jones Rd. and 2:30 p.m.-5 p.m. Austin-Travis County Farmers’ Market 6701 Burnet Rd.. Wed., 4 p.m.–8 p.m., at Triangle Farmers’ Market, 4600 Guadalupe St. Tues., Fri., 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. and 3–6 p.m. in the parking lot next to Republic Square on Guadalupe between 4th and 3rd Streets.
And now for something inimitably Austin—DaVine Foods, Austin’s first and only 100 percent organic mobile van. (The van itself is known as Da Veggie.) Located on Oltorf near South Lamar at the Enchanted Forest, a state-of-the art hippy compound, DaVine has been serving vegetarian, vegan and living food since May 2007. Living foods contain enzymes, which are generally destroyed when heated over 116 degrees Fahrenheit. Proponents of living and raw foods argue that these have higher nutrient values than cooked food.
DaVine’s specialties include sprouted spelt waffles served with organic maple syrup; sprouted flour pizzas cooked in an authentic pizza oven on the grounds; a sprouted-seed burger on a sprouted-wheat bun and fresh soups and salads. Entrée-size meals include macrobiotic plates of beans, whole grains, steamed greens with nut sauce, cucumber salad or homemade raw pickles. The living foods menu, which changes daily, usually features a variety of salads, raw pickles and other seasonal items.
Owners Matt Ohlen and Leigh Recchia, who serve produce from their own permaculture farm in Wimberley, had a mission in mind when they started DaVine. “We wanted to provide high-quality vegan food, especially with people with food sensitivity in mind,” Recchia says. “Everything is made from scratch, and we use only organic products.”
Unrefined coconut, walnut, grapeseed and olive oils, high-quality sea salt and spices and agave nectars add flavor to the all-natural menu, and, as you might expect, preservatives have been banished from the kitchen. Beverage selections include organic coffee, fresh fruit-and-veggie juices and smoothies (including a refreshing fresh-squeezed limeade), a wide variety of teas and HempMilk. With any luck, a second mobile unit is on its way.
Open daily, 8 a.m.–8 p.m., 1412 W. Oltorf St., 512-448-3100.