Try El Topo’s Award-Winning Brisket Suadero Taco – Texas Monthly

Last November, Tony Luhrman brought his crew to the Butcher’s Ball in Brenham with high hopes. The event brings together chefs and pitmasters so they can highlight the products of independent farms and ranches and compete for the Golden Cleaver, which goes to the chef with the best dish. Luhrman, who owns El Topo in Houston (just featured in taco editor José R. Ralat’s list of best new taquerias), had already won the award with his barbacoa in 2018 when the business was still in a food truck. He moved into a brick-and-mortar in early 2020, and he left this past year’s Butcher’s Ball with the top award again after switching from cheeks to brisket. The winning brisket suadero taco has now found a permanent place on the menu at his restaurant.

Traditionally, suadero is a cut from between the flank and the bottom sirloin that’s cooked in fat, then crisped on a flattop before serving. (This video shows an example of suadero preparation from Cuantos Tacos, in Austin.) At El Topo, Luhrman uses brisket, which is cut into four chunks and covered in a dry adobo spice to cure overnight. The next day, Luhrman grills the beef directly over an oak fire to brown it before transferring it to a pan and covering it with beef tallow to cook for several hours. The finished chunks are chilled and portioned. When an order comes back to the kitchen, the brisket is chopped into hot beef fat on the flattop until the meat crisps up.

It’s not barbecue, but this brisket has similar flavors from the wood grill, along with the caramelization from that finishing touch over high heat. When Lurhman planned to enter it into the competition, he knew the brisket suadero needed a salsa of its own. His staff blended the house-made salsa macha with an emulsified salsa of oil, habanero peppers, and caramelized onions. Since the win, they’ve dubbed it salsa de campeones, or “salsa of champions.” It’s reminiscent of a spicy barbecue sauce, and it complements the fatty beef well. Topped with pickled onions and fresh cilantro, the ingredients make an incredible taco.

When I first heard of El Topo in 2019, Luhrman was explaining the restaurant’s concept to Houston Chronicle barbecue columnist J. C. Reid in an episode of the paper’s BBQ State of Mind podcast. Lurhman told him El Topo was making tortillas from Maseca, an instant corn flour commonly used for tortillas. Since that interview, he’s had a change of heart, and he’s importing Cónico Azul blue corn from Mexico. In El Topo’s small kitchen, the staff nixtamalizes the corn for handmade tortillas. “It’s the hardest culinary task I’ve ever had to do,” Luhrman said of mastering the tortillas. “It took me six weeks of baking sourdough to get it right. It took me fifteen months to get this right.”

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Tony Luhrman outside of El Topo in Houston. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn
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The barbacoa grilled cheese, aka the San Antonio sandwich. Photograph by Daniel Vaughn

If you want smoked meats from El Topo, then go for the smoked chicken taco. Luhrman connected a firebox to an old refrigerator to make an oak-fueled cabinet smoker. He smokes whole chickens for the tacos, in addition to smoking the bacon featured on the weekend brunch menu. The Houston taco is filled with the rich beef-cheek barbacoa that won the Golden Cleaver in 2018, as is the San Antonio sandwich. For the laugh, Luhrman puts two mounds of shredded queso quesadilla directly on a flattop to brown and tops each with a slice of thick-cut Japanese milk bread baked in-house. The fluffy slices of bread are buttered and flipped once the cheese is melted, then brought together with a generous serving of barbacoa between them.

Luhrman isn’t sure exactly how to categorize his style of cooking. El Topo is a taqueria, but the dinner menu shows off his chef side with dry-aged tenderloin and gnocchi made with masa. “I kinda chase this food we call Texian food, or whatever [it] is what we call this food we make in Texas,” he explained. This Sunday, Luhrman will focus on Texas-style smoked meats when he hosts a collaborative pop-up brunch with Willow’s Texas BBQ, a two-time Golden Cleaver winner, at El Topo. The menu includes ribs, sausage, and pulled pork. And for the last time ever, Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela will offer their iconic Brisket Hug sandwich served on a jalapeño-cheese donut made by Hugs & Donuts. The Houston bakery has announced that its final day in business will be this Saturday. At the champagne-and-barbecue brunch, the brisket will be smoked and sliced ​​instead of cooked suadero style, but thankfully, you’ll still be able to order sides of El Topo’s incredible tortillas and milk bread to go along with it.

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