Forget the eclairs, the sausage rolls and crullers. The apple fritter at Oak Cliff Donuts is my breakfast pastry of choice and has been for over two decades. Even a tray of hot, fresh, melt-in-your-mouth glazed donuts can’t seduce me away from my old standby.
As a kid, a trip to the donut shop was a rare treat, meaning I learned to be selective when faced with a case full of glimmering, glazed pastries. I got burned early on by a few bum ones.
Powdered? Goodbye saliva, hello cottonmouth.
Maple? Good with pancakes, not with donuts.
Sprinkles? No thanks, I’m 9 going on 30.
Those donuts looked good but didn’t deliver where it counted most: flavor. While the lumpy browned shell of an apple fritter might be embarrassed next to a platter of glittery, geometrically symmetric French confections, the combination of cinnamon, apples, a crisp glazed crust and a pillowy, doughy center tastes gorgeous enough to make up for its humble outward appearance.
Of course I wasn’t thinking about flavor combinations or textures as a 4th grader. I wanted the biggest thing in the case, and this fried piece of dough as big as a salad plate amazingly fooled my folks who still counted it as my one donut for the day. It was all mine; my siblings would have to be content to watch as I continued eating long after they finished. Each time I put my order in I felt like Clyde Darrow telling a bank clerk to fill a burlap sack full of cash.
My continuing love affair with the apple fritter leads me to visit Oak Cliff Donuts slightly more often than my parents allowed. It was on one of these trips that I made a wrong turn and stumbled upon Taqueria La Riconada.
Just a block south of OCD’s Hampton location, La Riconada is found in a small row of store fronts just a block off the busy intersection of Illinois and Hampton, hidden in the shadow of a CVS and bank (behind where the old Austin’s Bar-b-que once stood). These small strips of commercial real estate can be found all over Oak Cliff. Most are abandoned or nearly so. La Rinconada seems to have partially resurrected the bones of the small shopping center it inhabits. But the slate gray building creates a drab atmosphere that doesn’t do much to encourage faith in the food being prepared inside. The taqueria’s large sign fights against the chilly surroundings with large red Christmas lights. A few house specialties are advertised on neon poster board in the windows, boasting great lunch deals, house specials, soup, and nachos (probably to entice school kids on their way home from nearby Moreno Elementary). But overall it gives off the vibe of a literal hole in the wall.
The inside is simple, full of 10 tables or so. A jukebox, flat screen, and miscellaneous decorations do their best to create an inviting place to eat, but the fluorescent lights and white walls and ceiling tiles make it feel more like an office break room than a dining establishment. But like the apple fritter, don’t write this place off. Underneath the bland shell of a restaurant is a kitchen that is making some top notch tacos and more.
The menu is made up of four or five pages of enticing dishes. But up on the wall is a list of meats for tacos, tortas, burritos, and sopes. Among the standards were a few novel meats that we haven’t run across. Along with the more common adventurous (for some) beef cuts like Lengua (tongue) and Tripa (intestine), Buche (stomach) and Higado (liver) were also available. Of course , we had to try some. We placed an order to go, then drove (can’t wait to walk it in the spring) a few blocks down to the park at Mountain Lake and Rugged to eat our meal.
When we opened our to-go box we were happy to find it filled to the brim with surprises: a grilled jalapeno, a couple of limes/lemons, a heap of grilled onions, two different salsas, extra onions and cilantro, plus fresh pico de gallo. We have not received this cornucopia of condiments since, instead getting a combination of 3 or 4 of the items we got on our first visit. No matter what fills the side compartments of the to-go box, the tacos have remained consistently above average. The thicker corn tortillas are amazingly light and crepe-like. Yet, even with just one tortilla, these tacos survived being packed with chunks of pink-roasted carnitas and a dousing of slow burning salsa verde.
The carnitas earned the top spot as my (“D’s”) favorite of the meats we tried. The roasted pork was moist without being soggy, tender, with a clean aftertaste that made me feel like I could take on a few more. A close and surprising second was the buche. I had no idea what to expect. The meat was similar to tripe, thin and chopped into strips, then sautéed, crisping the edges of each piece. The flavor is reminiscent of chicken skin, especially that found around the backbone and the leg and thigh. The mild, acidic salsa complimented the flavor perfectly and the chunks of fresh, sweet onion cut through the somewhat gamey flavor. On one visit the meat was a bit chewier than usual, but still tasty. The fajita beef is also delicious but prone to be chewy on occasion. Our last visit yielded perfectly crispy and tender strips of meat, with plenty of pleasant peppery flavor and just a touch of salt. I’m still a little bitter that “A” gobbled up the fajita taco while I only got a bite. Usually I can count on her to steer clear of steak. So it is quite an endorsement that she enjoyed the beefy taco as much as she did.
The chicken is not bad, nicely seasoned with lots of caramalization. It was our 2 year old’s favorite. Unfortunately we can’t endorse the al pastor and barbacoa; at least what we had on this trip. The al pastor was almost there. The spices had plenty of tang and heat. But the meat had not soaked up the flavor, leaving the pork bland and boring. It was as if the pastor seasoning had been added at the last minute, like a condiment. The barbacoa was also close, but it had a heavy oil taste, and that of stale oil too. We’ll try them again, just in case it was an off day (it was the first day of sunshine after the Snow-pocolypse). Until the next visit, we’ll just have to stretch the house made tortillas we took home with us ($1 for 6). But we’ll be back in the neighborhood soon, either to grab an apple fritter, a carnitas taco, or both!