Austin American Statesman
by Mike Sutter
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Takoba’s roots go back more than 40 years, when owner and Mexican native Jose De Loera was a boy helping with his father’s carnitas trucks. The name Takoba, that’s a more recent story.
According to Takoba general manager Tracey Young, the word sprang from De Loera’s imagination as something easier to say than ‘El Tacorrido,’ the name of his two small Austin taquerias.
‘But it actually turns out to be a Japanese sword,’ Young said. ‘People come in, and they’re like, “Why would you name your Mexican restaurant after a Japanese sword?” But he named it that about 10 years ago, before anyone had an iPhone and they could just look it up right away and tell you you were wrong.’
Mexican restaurant, Japanese sword. No problem. The bigger issue for De Loera was finding enough parking to support the kind of place he wanted Takoba to be. So for 10 years he sublet the property on East Seventh Street to other restaurants, including the late Colombian place Doña Emilia’s. Then he snagged a parking lot around the corner and set in motion plans for 170 seats across several patios, a sprawling courtyard, a bar and a dining room. And in the middle of World Cup soccer and lane-choking construction on East Seventh Street, Takoba opened in June.
It’s ambitious and humble at the same time, meticulously layered outside with stone, glass and glowing wood, a plot of high urban design bordered by a gas station, a palm reader and the melancholy grandeur of the State Cemetery. Inside, it’s more like a jazz supper club, with regal black-and-white prints and soft light.
The bistro-Mex alarm bells start ringing. Here on the cocktail menu is the Coconut, sort of a White Russian with horchata instead of cream. How would Señor Lebowski say it? ‘El Güey abides.’ A side salad with goat cheese and pecans? Not another hybrid. But then Mom steps in.
‘The owner’s mom, a lot of the recipes were hers,’ said Young, who helped develop the menu and has by her own account cooked in five states and two islands in 15 years. ‘Anyone who cooks, it’s so great to be able to cook with someone’s mom. A French woman’s mom, an Italian woman’s mom. That would work for me. I could go around cooking with anyone’s mom.’
Young’s collaboration with Maria De Loera is a menu of Mexican standards: ceviche with shrimp and avocado, simple guacamole, tortas with eggs and escabeche or pork al pastor, a chile relleno dish as sweet and cinnamon-scented as a sweet roll, fish in mojo de ajo, tacos. This place with planter-box landscaping and the latest shades of brown, aqua and green is at heart a taqueria, with two tacos and two sides running about $8. Ambitious and humble at the same time.
One taco tells most of the story: pork carnitas ‘Don Alberto style,’ named for Jose De Loera’s father, Alberto.
‘We’ve been doing this for 40 years, my dad and I, since I was a little kid,’ Jose De Loera said. That would be 40 of his 44 years. ‘He just cooked the pork and put it on his truck and went to sell it. It took off. The demand for my dad’s carnitas was so huge that we built some taco stands.’
But city regulations pushed them to put up the first El Tacorrido building where North Lamar Boulevard meets Rundberg Lane. Takoba would follow a decade later.
In a city where family matters, where Mexican food is a birthright regardless of heritage and where a sense of style always counts for something, Takoba brings together all three at populist prices, an easy choice for Newcomer of the Year.