“You have to try Iliana’s food before you leave Austin,” our friends said a year ago, when we were in town for SXSW.
Iliana de la Vega is a chef instructor at the San Antonio branch of the Culinary Institute of America, and in March of 2010, she and her husband opened el naranjo, a mobile food trailer on the southeastern edge of downtown.
We wandered over to Rainey Street to find this have-to-try food our friends raved about, but the trailer was closed. We found out later they opened for business the day we left.
Fast forward a year, we’re back in Austin, and the first place I want to hit is el naranjo. On an early Thursday evening, we’re in luck.
El naranjo is open and dishing out exciting Mexican street food in a city known for abundant Mexican food.
Before Vega joined the staff at the CIA where she teaches Latin cuisines, she owned a popular restaurant in Oaxaca with the same name (translation: the orange).
Vega commutes to San Antonio from Austin to teach while her family runs the food trailer, but on weekends, you’ll find her running the small kitchen in the trailer.
The menu is simple — mostly tacos — but this is no Tex-Mex fare. Appetizers are either fried empanadas stuffed with mushrooms, serrano and epazote, or a bowl of soup (tortilla the evening we visited) or guacamole.
The generous portion of chunky guacamole ($6) is made-to-order and served with fresh fried tortilla chips (above). Since it’s made after you order, it takes a few minutes to arrive, but the vibrant lime and cilantro-flecked, buttery avocado mash is well worth the wait.
The tacos dorados (above) are three rolled and deep fried corn tortillas stuffed with either res (shredded beef) pollo (shredded chicken) or papa (goat cheese mashed potatos). ($6.75)
I order one of each flavor, and while the beef and chicken are note worthy, I fell in love with the chunky mashed potatoes tinged with goat cheese and parsley. It’s a perfect mix of crisp tortilla and soft, tangy filling.
The pork for the tacos al pastor is cooked on a trompo (above), a vertical spit roaster with pineapple.
The marinated, juicy pork is shaved off the spit and stuffed into warm, moist corn tortillas and served with chopped pineapple, cilantro and white onion. ($6.50 for 2)
A menu board lists the day’s special and we jumped at the chance to try a Puebla specialty, pipián verde, with shredded chicken (above).
The sauce is made with ground roasted sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds and peanuts, cooked with tart tomatillos and fresh hoja santo leaves, which give the dish a faint licorice flavor. ($11.50) Don’t expect a spice bite from this dish — it’s mild and nutty, almost creamy.
Settle at one of the picnic tables on the gravel lawn with a Mexican soda, or get your food to go and walk next door to the urban chic Icenhauer’s for a local draft beer or “the linda” margarita with Patron reposado tequila, lime juice and chile infused syrup.
I’m already planning a return trip to sample the few things I missed, like tacos tasajo (Oaxacan-style salted, dried beef) and tacos de camaron estilo Istmo (shrimp tacos with slaw and chipotle flavored Mexican crema).
Our friends were right. We had to try el naranjo. If you’re in Austin, you should, too.
85 Rainey Street