The word ‘Vaquero’ is Spanish for Cowboy, so it’s fitting that the owners of the Steiner Ranch Steakhouse, with decades of rodeo and ranching history, would use the name for their Tex-Mex restaurant on Loop 360 in Austin.
Open for only about two years now, Vaqueros came to be as partners Bobby Steiner, and Don Burdette purchased and completely renovated the location that had been a Tres Amigos restaurant for 40 years.
Bobby Steiner tapped Rudy Casillas, a trusted manager at the Steakhouse, to pull the project into shape keeping longtime manager Isi Farias (Dobbs) and many original employees from the restaurant and bringing in some from the steakhouse.
The primary difference is a sense of upgrade. Everything still has the familiar Tex-Mex look and feel, but at the same time, everything is just a little nicer.
The sense of upgrade was by no means an accident; the projected opening of the restaurant was delayed by the effort and scope of the renovation. The interiors, from the faux stucco walls, wood beams and pressed tin ceiling to the traditional/shabby mix-matched chairs, everything looks like old Mexico, but if you look closely, everything is new.
(One really nice item linking the Steakhouse and Vaqueros are a couple of stunning custom leather saddles displayed in the back-dining room, one of them on loan from former Governor Rick Perry.)
Even little details like the fence around the back parameter are enhanced – with all the windows along the sides, Bobby Steiner didn’t want patrons just staring at yards of boring fence. The fence got a mural themed ‘A day in the life of a Vaquero.’ Images include cherished Steiner Rodeo memories – the lady carrying the stars and stripes on horseback along the back fence depicts the opening processions famously lead by his mother Beverly and then his wife, Joleen. The silhouette of men walking through brush and the depiction of the church are elements of manager Rudy’s early experiences on a ranch in Mexico.
As I approached the restaurant recently, I noticed that the music playing was not just in Spanish, but was specifically a good cumbia, a distinctive music and dance style familiar to many in South Texas. It’s a common thing to find Spanish music at a Mexican restaurant, but this one somehow felt more authentic.
Just inside the door you’re greeted by a large, stuffed bull affectionately named “macho” and the front end of a Mexican bus.
Attentive staff greet you quickly and lead you to one of several dining rooms or, on milder days, the shady back patio dining area.
The menu is a good collection of Tex-Mex standards (some old Tres Amigos favorites were kept in deference to the decades-long clientele) but with some surprising premium additions like Wagyu Fajitas and even the popular Steiner Ranch Steakhouse Ribs. Little things like the salsa brought to the table were tested over and over till just the right one was achieved.
I started with a margarita and was surprised at the quality – Manager Rudy himself worked to create a pretty premium base. Their standard margarita tastes top shelf and only gets better when premium liquors are requested.
The wait staff is mostly young, but due to focused efforts by Rudy, his wife Maria (also a staff manager) and Isi, all seem well-trained and professional.
As chips and salsa are brought to the table, you get your first taste that some thought has been put into the iterations. The sauce is smoky, garlicky, medium-hot, and very tasty.
On two recent visits, I’ve started with the Queso Flameado – this dish allows for a bit of showmanship on the staff’s part as it’s always prepared tableside. A very hot iron skillet gets a bit of oil, mild poblano peppers, mushrooms, chorizo and a mound of cheese. As it starts to steam and melt, a small amount of Bacardi 151 is added and flamed. As the fire dies down, what’s left is delicious, slightly caramelized melted queso ready for the warm stack of flour tortillas.
Having grown up with really good Tex-Mex (as well as the best Southern standards), I judge Mexican restaurants by a simple sautéed beef recipe called carne guisada (chunks of lean beef simmered with fresh tomatoes, bell pepper, onion, garlic, and Mexican seasonings.) Vaqueros version looks almost elegant in a serving bowl and has a rich flavor, the meat cooked perfectly tender.
In an early interview, Mr. Steiner had mentioned that he wanted the meat at Vaqueros to be better than most other places. Possibly more expensive, though not out of bounds, but with the express purpose of being superior to what could be found at other Tex-Mex restaurants.
To that end, I tried something completely new – fajitas made with Wagyu beef. These had the traditional flavor from the seasoning, green peppers and onions, but with an insane tenderness to the meat.
Most dishes are served with pretty good beans of various preparation and a rare thing in this city… good Mexican rice.
In addition to the excellent “Parrilladas” (Fajita dishes), the menu features various tacos plates, outstanding “Carnitas” on corn tortillas a recent standing-out, and six varieties of enchiladas. Popular combination plates, “Especiales” and “Mariscos” (seafood dishes) round out the list.
With a nod to the Steakhouse, the restaurant serves BBQ Chicken, Steiner Ranch Ribs and ‘Chorizo’ Mac N Cheese.
As ‘cantina’ is in the name, twenty-one top-shelf tequilas are available along with eight specialty margaritas and eleven Signature cocktails. Prosecco, red and white wines and a good variety of domestic and imported beers will certainly accommodate most tastes.
One final thing that both the Steakhouse and Vaqueros excel at is coordinating large events, by sharing some staff, both have become expert at hosting weddings and corporate functions.
Like my recent visits to Steiner Ranch Steakhouse, I saw guests affectionately saying good-bye to the staff at Vaquero’s. I’m usually skeptical when the word “family” gets used by businesses, but personal observation of Rudy and his family’s interaction with guests again leaves me with the feeling that this is pretty authentic.
By Richard Arebalo
OTL Features Editor