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30 Tacos, 30 Days

In Austin's thriving tacopolis, we just call that September

Mike Sutter
The salsa choices are plentiful at El Taquito.

The question is not, `How could you eat tacos at 30 different places in one month?' The question is, `How could you limit yourself to 30?'

In our thriving tacopolis , at least seven places sell tacos on a half-mile stretch of East Seventh Street alone. But you have to start somewhere.

So on Sept. 1, I started with fried cauliflower at Papalote and ended on Sept. 30 with crispy Tex-Mex at Amaya's Taco Village. In between were 28 tacos with Southern-fried chicken, stir-fried cactus, tempura-fried avocado, grilled fish, scrambled eggs, chopped chorizo, wood-fired beef and pork that had been spit-roasted, pan-fried, citrus-marinated and hand-shredded.

Thirty tacos in 30 days? In Austin, we just call that September.

DAY 1: PAPALOTE

(2803 S. Lamar Blvd. 804-2474. )

The taco: Tortas de coliflor ($3.25). Blessed are they who fry cauliflower. A fragrant canvas for cabbage, avocado and queso fresco. Guajillo chile sauce gives it a neon orange glow and a unifying heat.

Salsa y mas: Hot pickled onions with oregano. Papalote is new in the Austinville 78704 block of shops, the little sister of Azul Tequila. Saturated vintage posters of Mexican movie idol are Cantinflas everywhere. If his face can't make you smile, you have no soul. Just try not to hum `Paparazzi.'

DAY 2: TACOS LA GÜERA

(2510 S. Congress Ave. 326-8226. )

The taco: Migas ($1.50). Corn tortilla strips add crunch and flavor to a mix of eggs, tomatoes, jalapeños and onions - every taco pan-fried to order, hot and fresh.

Salsa y mas: Simple red with medium heat. Karina and Alfredo Ballesteros have made the leap from trailer to brick-and-mortar shop, bringing their low trailer prices (nothing more than $2) and warm orange color scheme to the former home of Red Cap Chick. The trailer's still outside, if you're feeling nostalgic.

DAY 3: ONE TACO

(A van next to Little Woodrow's at 520 W. Sixth St. 539-7561, www.one-taco.com .)

The taco: The Gowalla ($3.50). Grilled steak, guacamole, chunks of queso fresco, a sprinkle of bacon. Your protein quotient for the day on two hot corn tortillas.

Salsa y mas: Smoky chipotle red, tangy tomatillo green. Axel Beverido worked for John Deere in Mexico before moving here for love - and tacos. The Austin-based Gowalla team gave his taco truck a jump-start by ordering 1,000 tacos for South by Southwest. For that, they get a taco with their name on it. It's good business; it's good food.

DAY 4: LA FAMILIA

(3601 W. William Cannon Drive, Suite 900. 892-1311, www.lafamiliaaustin.com .)

The taco: Carne guisada ($2.29). A blue-plate special's worth of fork-tender roast beef barely held back by the tortilla, stewed in thick red gravy. More about quantity than taste.

Salsa y mas: Red table sauce, medium heat. A strip-mall family place with low prices and friendly people. Carne-free alternative: an egg-and-veggie taco with sweet corn and zucchini ($1.79).

DAY 5: TWO HOT MAMAS GRILL

(2418 S. RM 620, Lakeway. 992-2136, site.twohotmamasgrill.com .)

The taco: Barbacoa ($5.50 for three). Once an indulgence only on the weekends, barbacoa is yours during breakfast hours weekdays from 7 to 11 a.m. and weekends 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The shredded beef is rich and tender, without the gamey undercurrent of some barbacoa, finished with cilantro and onion.

Salsa y mas: Genevieve Thompson started Two Hot Mamas salsas with a business partner, but the grill in Lakeway is her baby. The creamy chimichurri sauce with almond and mint is subtle and refreshing, and a `wild' chile verde will light up your barbacoa.

DAY 6: ZUZU

(6317 Bee Cave Road, No. 200. 732-2117, www.zuzuaustin.com .)

The taco: Mahi mahi ($2.75). My intent was positive taco reinforcement, but it's challenging with fish so aggressively fishy and overcooked.

Salsa y mas: Sauces go from the merely mild to Ambien-strength mild. On the plus side: nice people, kids' quesadilla with rice and beans for $1.95, walls like posters at a progressive middle school. Downside: Tacos like the cafeteria at a progressive middle school.

DAY 7: TORCHY'S TACOS

(2809 S. First St. 444-0300. More locations at www.torchystacos.com .)

The taco: The Trailer Park ($3.25). Down-south fusion: fried chicken from the South, green chiles and pico de gallo from even farther south. In this free-for-all, you can taste it all.

Salsa y mas: Green-hot poblano cream comes standard, but habanero Diablo gives it teeth. Bonus: good coffee-shop coffee instead of toxic taco-shop coffee.

DAY 8: LA MICHOACANA

(1917 E. Seventh St. 473-8487, www.lamichoacanameatmarket.com .)

The taco: Al pastor ($1.49). After a night of fighting floodwaters at home, I needed fuel. A healthy dose of fatty, roughshod pork, robustly orange, with onions for megabreath and cilantro to calm it down. Use the lime.

Salsa y mas: A blazing roasted red chile with fiery debris. Order at the register by telling them your tortilla type (maiz for corn, harina for flour), then pay and take the ticket to the kitchen at the heart of the market. Good luck deciding among steam trays full of grilled onions, charred jalapeños, bright red mysteries and verdant truths.

DAY 9: IZZOZ TACOS

(A trailer at 1207 S. First St. 326-4996 , www.izzoztacos.com. )

The taco: Fried avocado ($3). Tempura frying creates a sibling-style battle royal over textures. Do you love it for the crunch or the creaminess? We love them equally. The gourmand's twist (courtesy of steakhouse-chef-turned-trailer-savant John Galindo) is a chipotle-sherry vinaigrette, equal parts sour, sweet and levitating.

Salsa y mas: Pick a taco, any taco. The Slowrider with slow-braised brisket and caramelized onions, the Old School with a fresh-fried corn shell and ground beef, the Padre with carnitas and pineapple-tomatillo salsa.

DAY 10: TAQUERIA LOS JALISCIENCES #7

(105 Tillery St. 385-8002. )

The taco: Chicken fajita ($1.75 on a flour tortilla, $1.50 on corn). Luck of the draw on an East Side trawl. Porfirio's closed at 12:30 p.m., so I picked Los Jalisciences for chicken fajitas sliced thin, still juicy and slightly sweet with the first traces of char on the edges, dressed simply with iceberg and tomato. Table service with chips and salsa.

Salsa y mas: We'll call it a jalapeño frappe salsa, no dairy but somehow creamy with a low and slow heat, a perfect match for chicken.

DAY 11: DOS BATOS

(2525 W. Anderson Lane, Building 1, Suite 175. 452-0001, www.dosbatos.com .)

The taco: Pirata ($3.35). There's a wood pile out front, a pyramid of chopped wood inside and a campfire aroma swirling through the stark white-and-concrete interior, muraled with a winky blend of samurai and Sergio Leone. The grilled flavor goes well with the avocado and cheese, piled on a flour tortilla stiff as breakfast toast.

Salsa y mas: A marinara-style tomato-ey red served hot as stew. Speaking of stew, a cup of hot bean-and-chorizo Pirate Soup is only a penny through 2010. Bonus: The website plays a loop of Avril Lavigne's `Girlfriend' in Japanese.

DAY 12: TAQUERIA GUADALAJARA ARANDAS

(6534 Burnet Road. 452-9886.)

The taco: Bean and cheese (90 cents for one or three for $2.49 before 11 a.m.; $1.25 after 11 a.m.). Smoky beans and a blanket of shredded white cheese on a pillowy flour tortilla. Sometimes all you need is a soft place to lay your head after a hard night.

Salsa y mas: Tomatoes, onions and peppers. Bright, but not enough to hurt your bloodshot eyes. To clear them up, there's a chile-soaked pork leg taco ($1.60) with a salsa roja like a chiminea fire.

DAY 13: GÜERO'S TACO BAR

(1412 S. Congress Ave. 447-7688, www.guerostacobar.com .)

The taco: Breakfast taco with eggs, ham and cheese ($2.38). A happy-hour breakfast? Before you judge, know that people have raspberries for breakfast, and my frozen margarita had raspberries. Breakfast is served all day every day, and mine had thick pieces of ham and a fistful of soft-scrambled eggs bonded by melting Jack cheese on a housemade corn tortilla.

Salsa y mas: Hit the salsa bar for mouth-puckering tomatillo, chunky salsa fresca or a thin red with tangy tomato and low, smoky heat. Free chips and free tattoo-watching on the patio.

DAY 14: MI MADRE'S

(2201 Manor Road. 322-9721, www.mimadresrestaurant.com )

The taco: Crispy beef ($3). There are mornings when a breakfast taco won't cut it, when only a stevedore's ration of old-school chile-and-tomato ground beef piled into a crispy corn shell will clear your head. Mi Madre's understands. It's No. 14 on the menu.

Salsa y mas: A simple red, more for color than heat or taste. Sip your Cafe de Olla (earthy black coffee with dark brown sugar and a cinnamon stick) from a window seat facing Manor Road or hide out on shaded patios in the back.

DAY 15: WAHOO'S FISH TACO

(1722 S. Congress Ave. 358-6600, www.wahoos.com .)

The taco: Blackened fish ($2.20). We're so accustomed to blackened catfish and tilapia that just about any fish with blackened spices takes on that sandy, earthy flavor, even something as sexy, slim and predatory as the wahoo, which I'm told is what's lying on these twin corn tortillas.

Salsa y mas: To punch up a fish taco bred for mass appeal, you'll need both the diced pico and the velvety green pepper sauce that's both herbal and edgy. Surf- and skate-shop junkies will dig the random stickering of the walls, chairs and anything else that stands still.

DAY 16: EL MESON

(5808 Burleson Road. 416-0749.)

The taco: Cochinita pibil ($2.35). Cut from pork tenderloin, with achiote spice and grassy herbs like a Thanksgiving table - or the bicentennial edition of Diez y Seis, dressed up in sweet-and-sour red onions.

Salsa y mas: Tangy green with a chest-itching burn, full of stems, seeds and leaves, but still fully legal. A more rustic shop than its new sibling on South Lamar Boulevard.

DAY 17: TACO XPRESS

(2529 S. Lamar Blvd. 444-0261, www.tacoxpress.com .)

The taco: Migas ($2.39). An omelet on a corn or flour tortilla, with even more corn tortilla inside. There's so much cheese, egg, jalapeño, onion and tomato that it's impolite to call it a taco. And you will not be impolite to Maria Corbalan, the owner and model for the statue outside, or you will answer to every guy who's ever tapped the brakes just to get a look. I asked the sculptor, Michael Peschka, if it's socially acceptable to covet thy neighbor's figurine. Acceptable? Preferable, he replied.

Salsa y mas: The roasted vegetable salsa is new, and so is the chile de arbol in bright desert orange. I'll take a pinch of chimichurri between the cheek and gum. Corbalan worries that she'll be lost in the taco-trailer hysteria, just another old taco shop on the block. But one thing this town knows: It's OK to stand by the standbys.

DAY 18: EL TAQUITO

(1713 E. Riverside Drive. 851-8226.)

The taco: Al pastor ($1.69). Leathery pork in renegade little cuts just sweet enough to get away with it. Finished with onions and cilantro on a housemade flour tortilla. From the parking lot, you can see the Rosita's Al Pastor sign. Follow it next time.

Salsa y mas: All is forgiven at the salsa bar, with iced-down stone bowls of flag-confetti pico, sneaky green, orange, red and redder concoctions, plus pickled strips of hot and bell peppers.

DAY 19: EL CHILITO

(2219 Manor Road. 382-3797, www.elchilito.com .)

The taco: Cochinita pibil ($2.49). Velvet-textured piggy, with your achiote blush and warm temperament, all sweet like an orange. This bouquet of pickled pink onions is for you.

Salsa y mas: Only one, a savory, roasty brown blend of medium-hot peppers and tomato.

DAY 20: TACODELI

(1500 Spyglass Drive. 732-0303, www.tacodeli.com .)

The taco: The Vaquero ($2.50). Drive by on a Sunday and this place looks like they're giving away free Austin City Limits Festival tickets. People queued like shabby-chic roadies out the door, the parking lot a mosh pit. On a more acoustic Monday morning, the Vaquero - with roasted poblano and red peppers and grilled corn with eggs and Jack cheese - is as fresh and colorful as the band you like. But it'll still be on the playlist a month from now. Also: Love dogs and all that they leave behind? You're in luck.

Salsa y mas: Tomatillo, salsa roja, creamy jalapeño and molten orange habanero. Hot, hotter, hottest and hottest-er, in that order.

DAY 21: EL TACO RICO

(A trailer at 810 Vargas Road. )

The taco: Al pastor ($2). By now the texture is familiar, this pork that falls somewhere between shredded and sliced, cooked to order with a little char, some crackle, garnished with white onion and cilantro. But the flavor at this cerulean blue trailer leans more on dusky chile aromatics and not at all on sweetness or oily sauce. Or am I just getting a whiff of Gain from the laundromat next door?

Salsa y mas: The angry red chile salsa makes your lips burn bright. Try the garlicky green on a smoky chicken taco with grilled onions. Closed Mondays.

DAY 22: MI RANCHITO

(Inside the convenience store at 5200 E. William Cannon Drive. 632-9196.)

The taco: Chorizo with nopales ($1.75). Cactus can be sinewy and sour. This is neither. More like sautéed string beans, and the deep desert green plays well against that shade of orange found only in chorizo and cheap Halloween candy.

Salsa y mas: Seven or eight, plus sweet pickled onions. Partial to a creamy light-green jalapeño and a chunky orange that tastes a little bit like peanuts. Don't let the gas-station setting scare you off.

DAY 23: PORFIRIO'S TACOS

(1512 Holly St. 476-5030.)

The taco: Bean and cheese ($1.50). It's nothing but smoky beans and commercial-grade yellow cheese on a soft flour tortilla. But out of 40-some tacos I ate with Mando Rayo of Taco Journalism last year, this is the one I still crave.

Salsa y mas: The passive color of the salsa verde hides a wicked punch, in case you missed the flexing jalapeño out front. A bean-and-cheese taco's best friend. The shop's open from 6 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. every day but Sunday.

DAY 24: EL NARANJO

(85 Rainey St. 474-2776.)

The taco: Pescado ($7.95 for three). The best fish taco of the month came from a trailer run by Mexican chef and culinary instructor Iliana de la Vega, her husband, Ernesto Torrealba, and their daughter, Isabel. Tender-fried whitefish with a clean taste, plus cabbage and salsa fresca with a delicate (yes, delicate) chipotle cream.

Salsa y mas: Comforting green and smoky tomato red. It's hell to park on bar-hoppy Rainey Street at night, heaven to park yourself on a picnic table by the big green van in front of the house El Naranjo will move into … eventually.

DAY 25: RUDY'S COUNTRY STORE AND BAR-B-Q

(2451 S. Capital of Texas Highway (Loop 360). 329-5554, www.rudys.com .)

The taco: Chopped taco ($1.64). You can call anything in a tortilla a breakfast taco, right? This one is a shredded rainbow coalition of brisket, pork loin, prime rib and turkey rolling in a sweet barbecue sauce. Made fresh at the counter until 10 a.m. weekdays, 10:30 a.m. weekends.

Salsa y mas: Why's a barbecue chain on this list? Soccer, that's why. Or whatever your kid plays on Saturdays. Our team winds up here a couple times a season, and a taco is an efficient BDV (barbecue delivery vehicle), plus the long picnic tables fit the players and their entourages.

DAY 26: JUAN IN A MILLION

(2300 E. Cesar Chavez St. 472-3872, www.juaninamillion.com .)

The taco: Machacado ($2.70). So much more civilized than the bloated, starchy, As-Seen-on-TV Don Juan taco. The machacado is shredded beef with eggs, tomato, onion and jalapeño. Still a mouthful, but you won't have to think about that `Man v. Food' doofus while you're eating it.

Salsa y mas: A tongue-punishing red. If owner Juan Meza's there, expect some eye contact and the feeling that he's genuinely glad to see you. He knows how hard you worked to find parking.

DAY 27: THE MEAT HOUSE

(3267 Bee Cave Road. 294-2530, www.themeathouse.com .)

The taco: Steak, egg and cheese ($2, three for $5). A real butcher shop would put grilled chunks of sirloin tip in its breakfast tacos. This is a real butcher shop.

Salsa y mas: A respectable chili-house red. The shop starts the taco business at 7 a.m. every day as they fill the butcher case. By 9, you can pick up a wicked bone-in cowboy rib-eye and a bottle of wine for dinner.

DAY 28: TACO SHACK

(3901-C Spicewood Springs Road. 418-8900, www.tacoshack.com .)

The taco: The Shack Taco ($2.45). Crisp, homefries-style potatoes bring some texture to fluffy eggs, grated cheese and ground, spicy chorizo in a soft flour tortilla.

Salsa y mas: Pedestrian red. Do they have others? The counter help was so snippy, I took the don't-ask-don't-tell approach. As far as other tacos go, I couldn't finish the barbacoa. Too gamey and gassy (don't ask, don't smell). And I've had better crispy tacos at the Bell. Better service, too. I'll bet `gimme a minute!' isn't in the cashier handbook at Taco Bell.

DAY 29: PABLITO'S BAKERY

(1015 E. Braker Lane, Suite 6. 491-8902, www.pablitosbakery.com .)

The taco: Carne guisada ($1.69). I've had carne guisada dry and chunky, painted with tomato paste and drowning in salty gravy the color of a mudslide. But this is more like a stew that's bubbled on the stove all day, reducing to the perfect concentrate of onion, tomato, green peppers and beef.

Salsa y mas: An easy green and a toasty red. The baker's case will torture you with big sandia (watermelon-decorated) sugar cookies, flaky cinnamon crisps called orejas (ears), creamy churro sticks and sweet-potato empanadas. Give in. Confess everything.

DAY 30: AMAYA'S TACO VILLAGE

(5405 N. Interstate 35, in Capital Plaza. 458-2531, www.amayastacovillage.com .)

The taco: Village Taco ($2.49; $7.99 for two with rice and beans). The perfect end to September's taco-a-day diet. The soul of a puffy corn tortilla fresh off the press with the backbone of a crunchy shell right out of the oil. The best of Tex, the best of Mex. Filled with beef, tomatoes, lettuce and cheese.

Salsa y mas: Respectable Tex-Mex red with cilantro. Years back, Amaya's had an outpost in Oak Hill. We still miss it. At Capital Plaza, there was a 15-minute wait for an open table. At lunch. They're appreciating what they've got while it's there.

msutter@statesman.com; 912-5902