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Austin Howard grew up on tacos, enchiladas, nachos and all manner of Tex-Mex food. But, he maintains, “there’s nothing like a good steak”.
When the Texan came to Ireland three years ago with his Irish girlfriend, he was underwhelmed by the Mexican food on offer. He was homesick for it, too.
“I thought we could probably do a kick-ass job here,” he says.
On a recent Monday afternoon, Howard was carrying heavy pots and trays of condiments between his car and the flamboyant food truck he has parked up in the courtyard of the Belfry pub.
He loads in rice and beans, salsa and guacamole. And long-marinated meats.
The truck, which he got off DoneDeal, has a psychedelic paint job: it’s decorated with a stylized armadillo – the “unofficial mascot of Texas” – and a cactus.
The Taco Truck opened about three weeks ago. This Saturday, for the first time, they’re also setting up at Bluebell’s Green Door Market.
Howard comes from a family of foodies, he says. “Especially my dad. We would have big Sunday meals, and people were always telling him to open a restaurant.”
His dad, Randy, is firing up the stoves and fryers in the truck. The air starts to smell of limes and cornmeal.
A Hole in the Wall
Howard met his girlfriend in New York. Each day, they both passed the same taco stand outside their subway stop.
“It was run by a couple of Mexican guys, with tacos, quesadillas. We’d be stopping and grabbing food on the way home. And the guys were great,” he says. It made the neighbourhood better.
“The standard taqueria is a hole in the wall back home,” he says, and that’s exactly what they’re trying to bring here.
He wanted to make what he thinks of as proper queso too: hot, melted, seasoned cheese.
On the truck’s window ledge, a heavy black cauldron bubbles with hot cheese, cut through with chillies, tomatoes, and seasoning.
This mixture is the crowning glory of the freshly fried corn tortilla nachos served up with steak, chicken, or black beans and vegetables.
“We’ve been getting loads of compliments about the queso,” says Howard, pushing a ladle through the cheese.
The menu is simple. It offers nachos, sides, and tacos.
The steak, chicken, and vegetarian options are all seasoned with Randy’s own signature spice blend. That’s a closely guarded secret. And where do the recipes come from?
The elder Howard taps his temple with a knowing look. He slides some finely diced courgettes and mushrooms into a pan. They hit the oil with a sizzle.
He places a corn tortilla in hot oil. He cooks “by feel”, he says. “If it’s too hard, it’s not pliable, if it’s too soft, it’s greasy.” They need to be able to stand by themselves in the fryer basket, but be soft enough to fold over a filling.
The taco is salty and hot, with a little warmth from the spice, a little sweetness from courgettes. There’s a hit from the home-made salsa, diced onion, and finely-tuned guacamole.
Some customers come by, two young guys and an excitable retriever. They order some steak and chicken tacos – with extra jalapeños.
Howard senior gets to work as the customers wander into the main pub.
“I was born and raised in Texas, so I’ve been eating Tex-Mex before I ever went to Mexico,” he says. He started cooking when he was about 12.
In May, he decided to make a change and join Howard and his girlfriend in Dublin. For a while at least, to help run the truck.
“The other big thing in Texas is barbecue,” he says. He wants to get a smoker so they can serve up smoked brisket.
Carnitas(slow-cooked pulled pork) are on the way, but barbecue needs to be smoked, he says, his expression is serious now. “If they get a restaurant, they can expand the menu.”
“I hope they can move from a food truck to bricks and mortar,” he says. And maybe get a liquor license, so it can all be washed down with some cool margaritas.