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This Austin Chef Reimagines the Taco—and Grinds His Own Corn – Texas Monthly

The closure of Trill Taqueria on March 17, 2020, after two years in business, was a loss to Texas tacos. Nick Belloni’s one-man operation in East Austin was a master class in understanding and celebrating the taco as a representation of a time and place. Belloni nixtamalized Texas corn, used in-season, locally grown ingredients, and smoked his own meats. The result was a stunning playground of flavors, and the menu brought me deep taco-nerd joy. “I just knew tortillas could be better,” Belloni says, thinking back to that first iteration. “Then, I could fill those tortillas with maybe some classic stuff and maybe some stuff that’s not so classic.” The price point reflected the work and quality of the food, with tacos going for about four dollars each. Sadly, the gloriousness that was Belloni’s farm-to-taco experience appeared to be short-lived.

Belloni was already considering temporarily closing Trill due to the labor-intensive work, including hand-grinding corn, when the pandemic forced his hand. He took a private chef job in Martha’s Vineyard and later spent time in his native Louisiana. His family joined him along the way. Belloni, now 33, insisted that Trill Taqueria would return by the end of 2020. It did not.

Instead, he reconceptualized Trill—named after the Houston-area hip-hop portmanteau for “true” and “real”—as a trailer serving the Cajun and Creole dishes of Belloni’s home state. There were no tacos on the menu. Trill Foods opened in the Arbor Food Park in February 2021, two weeks before severe winter weather knocked out power across the state. During the freeze, Belloni joined the Austin Taco Mafia, of which he is an honorary member, in cooking and giving out free food and supplies at Nixta Taqueria.

That stressful but rewarding time made him realize how much he still enjoyed making tacos. Conversations with Nixta co-owner Edgar Rico and Discada co-owner Anthony Pratto played a role too. “I remember talking about it briefly and asking [Nick] why he stopped selling tacos,” recalls Pratto. “He mentioned that his self-constructed molino requires hand-grinding, and his arms were tired. I get that.”

But sometimes you just can’t stay away from what you love. For Belloni, the decisive moment came in San Antonio at the Taco Rumble, a friendly contest between Austin and Alamo City taqueros. For the July event, he submitted a taco with a lobster-roe tortilla. The masa disc turned red when it was cooked, just as the namesake crustacean does. It was a triumph. I expect nothing less from Belloni, who excels at blending his experience in corporate and fine dining with his curiosity and respect for Mexican food traditions. Discada’s Pratto remembers mentioning to Belloni that it was great to see him making tacos again. Later in July, Belloni made it official by revamping Trill Foods’s menu to a nearly all-tacos list written on taped-up butcher paper.

“The fact that he is able to make almost Michelin-level food out of his trailer is amazing,” says Nixta’s Rico. “He pours his heart and soul into everything he makes, and it’s evident the moment you taste his tacos.”

Two recent visits to Belloni’s one-man taco trailer at Vacancy Brewing in South Austin prove that Trill’s tacos are as great as ever. The menu is shorter, offering four tacos and one non-taco dish. The prices are a touch lower too, at $14 for a quartet of tacos on three-inch, fresh nixtamalized tortillas. The other selection during my visits was a fried chicken dish, which was peppery and crusted with masa. Served alongside it are a chipotle mayo, for dipping, and razor-thin slices of pickled Japanese cucumber (sunomono) to cut the heat.

Aromatic, with a slight chewiness and impressive strength to withstand fillings such as brambles of lamb carnitas, Trill’s tortillas are made from corn ground in Belloni’s homemade molino. It’s an impressive tool: the chef retrofitted a 3.5-horsepower table-saw motor, connecting it to a tabletop Country Living grain mill. He welded it together on a custom steel frame. To prevent the masa from cooking as it goes through the milling process, the taquero geared down the grinding plates to spin more slowly, at about a hundred revolutions per minute. He didn’t immediately jump back into nixtamalizing and grinding, though. It was a slow progression that began with Belloni experimenting with sourced nixtamal tortillas.

molino at trill foods
Nick Belloni’s homemade molino.Courtesy of Trill Foods

He did so to lower costs and labor while finding the best tortillas available. Eventually, he gained the confidence to make them himself. “I love the process, the smells specifically. Also, I’m a huge history buff too. Just how far ancient [tortilla-making] goes back is exciting,” he says. I’m thrilled he thinks so. We’re lucky Belloni, an obsessive researcher who fell in love with Mexican food because it’s so dang complicated, thinks so. It’s self-inflicted torture, though, to make your tortillas the ancient way. “How can I take something that could be kind of simple and complicate the s— out of it?” Belloni asks. “That is kind of what I did. I’m a glutton for punishment. Thankfully, I love the process.”

Good thing, because he’s come up with a range of fresh, surprising tacos. On my visits, the aforementioned lamb carnitas shared menu real estate with traditionally braised pork carnitas. The pork was topped with a pair of tiny grapefruit wedges. They were bright beacons against the sweet, silky meat with its rich juice. Chicken tinga was the third protein option. It’s slowly braised with chipotle and Lao Gan Ma chili-crisp oil, reminiscent of salsa macha, and covered in a layer of smashed avocado. Chicken tinga is often too dry, but Trill’s version was anything but. Finally, the vegetarian option was a sweet potato taco. Large, long, irregularly chopped strips of the root veggie, orange and candylike, lay in a swath of chipotle mayo. The dish was capped with Spanish peanuts and a swoosh of chili oil. I hate sweet potato, but I loved Trill Foods’s sweet potato taco.

Not everything is locally sourced or grown. The sweet potatoes aren’t. A 100 percent farm-to-taco concept just isn’t sustainable in a food truck, Belloni says, at least while he’s working solo. Diners expect a certain setting when it comes to that kind of experience. They want a bottle of wine. They want table service. They want air-conditioning, which Trill Foods can offer via the brewery at which it’s stationed. A truck isn’t exactly well suited for the rest of that list, though, especially at the low price point such food demands. But Belloni’s rebranding has helped wipe the slate clean, the taquero says: “I’m starting over and doing it the right way, sustainably, but sustainably for myself. If I can’t pay my bills, at the end of the day, I’m not successful.” Belloni also admits concessions must be made, just as in any business, and in light of pandemic-related supply-chain issues. “Not every cucumber is going to come from a local farm.” He never sacrifices quality, however, and does source locally when possible. A local beef connection has recently led Belloni to ponder the inevitability of a beer-braised lengua taco. I can’t wait to try it.

Trill Foods

Vacancy Brewing
415 E. St. Elmo Road, Austin
Phone: n/a
Hours: Thursday 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday noon to 10 p.m., Sunday noon to 8 p.m.

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