I’ll never forget my last visit to Torchy’s Tacos. I was coming out of a long surgery [getting pieced back together after being run-over by a drunk driver while on my motorbike], heavily narcotized, and starving after fasting for a day.
My companion asked me where I wanted to eat and the first words out of my mouth were “Torchy’s” upon which she burst-out laughing and announced “he’s really fucked up” to the room filled with medical personnel. We were in South Austin so we went to the Torchy’s that’s located in the old Virginia’s restaurant building on south first street. The food was the same, homogenized version you get at every Torchy’s scattered across the state. Likeable, bland, filling “Mexican” food at mid-range pricing.
If I lived in Berea, Kentucky and there was a Torchy’s, I’d eat there all the time.
In a recent Houston Chronicle piece titled “Torchy’s Tacos’ magic gets lost in translation”, long-time Houston food scribe Alison Cook weighs in on the Torchy’s phenomenon.
It ain’t pretty.
Cook starts off by detailing an interaction with a Torchy’s worker who’s determined to get a menu out of her hands before she’s ready to pass it off. A snippet from the author
“You really want that menu, don’t you?” I said, trying to keep my tone light. “It’s a pet peeve of mine,” he replied.
“A peeve?” I exclaimed. “Really? What on earth is wrong with me sitting here looking at your menu?”
“I’m supposed to keep everything in order,” he told me. “And that,” he said, indicating the menu, “is out of order.”
The old days of brawling with the staff of wherever I’m trying to hang out are largely over, but exceptions can still be made from time to time. I’d forgive Cook if she crashed a napkin dispenser off this lout’s head. Plus, I suspect this negative exchange is at least partially responsible for what follows.
Cook goes on to describe the ambiance at Torchy’s as being “as welcoming as a day room in a low-security Club Fed.” Nice touch.
Torchy’s is most famous for one dish; The Dirty Sanchez. As we all know this taco is named after the street term for a sex act that occurs all over Austin on an hourly basis. The taco itself is a mess of fried chiles, carrots and avocado. Cook, who’d had a good version in Austin, describes the Houston shop’s rendition as “a washed-out shadow of what I remembered.”
I’m completely spoiled for good Mexican food in Austin and the discussion begins with tortillas. Scratch, made per order-either flour or corn, as long as it’s handmade I can overlook other flaws the restaurant may have, but if you’re going to serve factory tortillas you’re going to see very little of my taco money.
Similarly, Ms. Cook describes Torchy’s tortillas thusly: “I deplored the characterless flour tortilla that cradled all this. If you’re going to serve commercial tortillas, at least pick good ones. These have all the verve of clammy plastic.” Ouch.
The reviewer leaves us by offering some good advice for Torchy’s and any other restaurant that starts small and attempts to grow:
“Even Torchy’s chipper ingredient magic seems to have flagged in the face of rapid expansion. There are eight locations in Austin now, along with two in Dallas and the one in Houston. I found myself wishing the Torchy’s brain trust would slow down and focus lest they lose their celebrated mojo.”
Too late, but not that it matters. I doubt that the owners and investors of Torchy’s Tacos really give a fig about the food they’re putting out anymore. Their sprint to open stores in Texas is more than likely little more than a prelude to a national roll-out.
Years from now if I’m on a journey through Indiana or Missouri and far from my beloved Mexico, I’ll probably have Torchy’s as an option as I roll down a freeway exit ramp.
It’ll be hard-up against an Arby’s or Wendy’s and be serving food that differs little in price or execution. It’ll be crowded and I’ll have to stand in a line to get my taco, and I’ll remember that day years prior when my friend brought the house down by announcing “he’s really fucked up” upon hearing that I wanted to eat at a Torchy’s Tacos.
Ms. Cook’s piece http://www.29-95.com/restaurants/story/torchy%E2%80%99s-tacos%E2%80%99-magic-gets-lost-translation
and the rebuttal from Torchy’s Tacos http://www.scrumptiouschef.com/food/2012/5/1/Senor-Torchy-Of-Austin-Issues-Stinging-Rebuke-To-Houstons-Alison-Cook-Over-Restaurant-Review