La Popular Puts an Elevated Spin on Traditional Mexican Dishes in West Austin
Stylish restaurant stands out with delicious, creative Mexican dishes & innovative cocktails
In these parts, Mexican restaurants are ubiquitous. Not that I’m complaining, but when a new one pops up, it barely registers. La Popular, however, is an exception. This exciting new addition to Austin’s crowded Mexican food scene stands out with its deliciously creative food, fantastic drinks and stylish ambiance.
La Popular’s Mexico City Origins
La Popular isn’t your typical Austin Tex-Mex. In fact, it’s not Tex-Mex at all. The cuisine is decidedly Mexican, inspired from within the country’s borders. Originating in Mexico City over a decade ago, the restaurant recently expanded into the U.S. with its first location in Northern California and now with its new outpost in Austin. Next up: Las Vegas.
Obviously, it’s not some mom-and-pop operation. La Popular is part of Grupo Carolo, one of the most recognized restaurant groups in Mexico City, boasting almost 30 restaurants. For its U.S. ventures, Grupo Carolo partnered with Eureka! Restaurants, a similarly impressive California hospitality company. But don’t frown on its corporate pedigree; La Popular has its own local style and personality, including a gorgeous design by Austin-based Nolan + Bell Design Studio.
Executive Chef César de la Parra is a Mexico City native with a diverse and impressive resume. He began as a dishwasher while still a teenager, attended culinary school, then quickly rose through the ranks of some of Mexico City’s finest kitchens. He trained at a variety of Michelin-star and top-ranked restaurants around the globe, then returned to Mexico City a decade ago to join Grupo Carolo, where he oversees menu development for dozens of restaurants. For a talented young chef with such an accomplished background, de la Parra is surprisingly humble and accessible. His respect for his country’s cuisine is obvious each time he passionately describes a dish and its inspiration and history.
An elevated taqueria menu
The guacamole takes it up a notch with the addition of blended tomatillos, giving it a verdant green color and a fresh, bright flavor. A dollop of grilled onions and jalapeños adds a smoky savoriness. The tuna tostadas are glorious: crispy corn tortillas layered with chipotle aioli, silky ahi tuna, avocado, soy vinaigrette and crunchy fried leeks. And the refreshing aguachile is loaded with citrusy prawns marinated in lime juice and garnished with cilantro, peppers, onions, cucumbers, avocado and sea salt.
His menu at La Popular features elevated classic taqueria fare using high-quality ingredients, adventurous flavors, and innovative preparations. Every table is welcomed with a complimentary basket of rustic homemade tortilla chips and a colorful sampler of four salsas, ranging from mild to hot. They’re all unique and yummy, but the Toreado sauce was so good that I brought a bottle home.
Fabulous tacos & entrée plates
There are lots of fabulous tacos, including a tender ribeye taco and a coastal-inspired Baja fish taco. But it’s the al pastor and carnitas tacos that really blew me away. The al pastor is spot-on: spit-roasted pork, slivers of fresh pineapple, raw onions, cilantro and green lorenza sauce. I recommend ordering it ‘El Gringo’ style on a flour tortilla and ‘Costra Style’ with the addition of grilled cheese. It’s one of the best I’ve ever had. The carnitas taco is equally delicious: pork confit tucked into a housemade corn tortilla with pickled red onion and guacamole. It’s simple but sublime.
There are also larger entrée plates, such as beef ribeye fajitas or chicken enchiladas smothered in smoky mole or a creamy green Blancas sauce. The barbecued ribs are a standout. The slow-roasted half-rack is slathered in a sweet-hot habanero sauce and served with creamy, cheesy esquites corn spiked with truffles. It’s a decadent, lip-smacking combo. If you can, room for dessert. There are adorable mini churros served in a cast- iron ramekin with two dipping sauces or a towering Instaworthy tres leches cake crowned with a dome of ice cream and covered in caramelized meringue.
Cocktails that steal the spotlight
The drinks share the stage at La Popular and sometimes steal the spotlight. The Oaxacan Jellyfish is a showstopper, presented in an outrageous nautical glass and topped with a billowing smoke bubble. Pina Colada with a punch is a tropical mix of Dakabend Oaxacan rum, pineapple, lime, blue lemongrass and coconut cream. The bar also boasts an impressive selection of over 80 labels of tequila and mescal, plus rare Mexican spirits and emerging artisan products from small-batch distilleries in Oaxaca, Jalisco and Guadalajara.
I arrived at La Popular with few expectations but was quickly seduced by its exciting flavors and chic Mexico City vibe. Here in the land of Tex-Mex, it’s a welcome change to experience a little more Mex and a little less Tex. La Popular reflects the genuine culture of Mexico, making it a fantastic new addition to Austin’s dining scene. And there’s always room for that.