The first thing I noticed when I ate at East Village newcomer Yellow Rose was how wonderful the flour tortillas were — dappled with toasty brown splotches, lanky and pliant, tasting like waving fields of grain. I mentioned how good the tortillas were to chef Dave Rizo, who along with co-owner and wife Krystiana Rizo arrived from San Antonio four years ago. He said with some pride, “That’s what we spent the most time perfecting.”
Ever since living in Austin, I’ve been a fan of flour tortillas. These off-white, wheat-based flatbreads are essential to Mexican-American cooking, and some of the best I’ve ever tasted were made on San Antonio’s West Side, where tortillerias specialize in them. But when flour tortillas are used in New York restaurants, they often seem like they’ve been pulled from the freezer case, where they’ve developed a gummy and gamy taste.
Indeed, the best of three tacos at Yellow Rose employing its tortillas features earthy refried beans with plenty of gooey cheese, the Alamo City’s quintessential combo. The beans are ultra creamy and tasting of cumin, the cheddar contributing more funky dairy than it often does. With the refried beans made using premium Rancho Gordo pintos, this taco tastes like it was acquired from a taqueria in a wood-framed house in Central Texas.
Tried as I might to take a seductive photo of this remarkable taco ($4), I failed miserably. But this just speaks to the point that great food often doesn’t look like much of anything; the barometer for success shouldn’t be whether it’s well-suited to Instagram.
Two other tacos vie with the humbler beans and cheese for taco supremacy. The chicken verde taco features shredded poultry in a light tomatillo sauce, which furnishes a welcome tart edge, though the chicken itself doesn’t taste like much. Resembling somewhat the beef birria of Birria-Landia, or the beef adobo of nearby Downtown Bakery, the carne guisada ($6) is instantly one of the city’s best tacos, a thick slurry of tender cubes of meat in a rich sauce so dark you need a flashlight to see it at the outdoor tables when nighttime falls early on Third Avenue.
Ordering any of these tacos is accomplished by walking inside and finding yourself in what could be a small store in San Antonio. What you see is a clapboard wall, a portal with swinging saloon doors to the now-dormant dining room, and an order window. There are shelves containing groceries, including Barton Springs Mill products like blue corn meal. Decorations run to posters and photos that recall Central Texas from the Great Depression to the hippie era of the 60s and 70s. Those who actually come from that area, and perhaps even all former hippies, will become misty eyed.
On Sunday the place opens at 8 a.m. instead of the usual noon, and the action switches to breakfast tacos. Austin’s famous migas taco, popularized at Cisco’s on East 6th Street, are stuffed with scrambled eggs, roasted tomatoes and onions, and corn tortilla chips, creating something of a grain conflict, but a delicious one. Eat these tacos fast so the chips still crunch.
Even better is the taco of scrambled eggs and pork breakfast sausage. As at Cisco’s, where biscuits are served along with tortillas, this is a marvelous mash up of Tex-Mex and Southern cooking, since the sausage is emphatically not paprika-laced chorizo. Though Tex-Mex cooking is a dominant element at Yellow Rose, it’s not the only one.
The chef previously worked at Superiority Burger, where Yellow Rose was a Sunday pop-up not long ago. This experience, too, is reflected on the menu. There’s a vegan version of the cheese dip chili con queso ($12), a dish often made with a block of Velveeta and a can of Ro-Tel chopped green chiles. Here it’s reformulated using orangish cashew cheese, with a jalapeno slice or two floating around. It’s not quite the same as the original (the color is not so frightening), but it tastes good anyway and adds another element to the complex cultural conglomeration that is Yellow Rose.
There’s a version of Texas chili with beans that I wasn’t so happy with (mainly because Texas chili should be beanless); a hominy soup with noodles; and a dessert cookie plate ($12) that includes four cookies of contrasting styles, one of which was a masa snickerdoodle. The cookie that really threw me for a loop was the marranito. The giant ginger cookie shaped like a pig is loved by everyone, including stoners who flock to Tejano bakeries open past midnight in Texas.
There are cocktails, too, formulated by Krystiana Rizo, with names like “foggy notion” and “someone I care about.” But maybe the best things to wash down the food are a fruity bottle of Jarritos or a Lone Star beer. As you sit outside with winter approaching, you’ll wonder that, even during the pandemic, the city is still able generate restaurants of such a quirky and beguiling nature.