Last November, Tony Luhrman brought his team to the Butcher’s Ball in Brenham with high hopes. The event brings together chefs and pitmasters so independent farms and ranches can highlight their produce and compete for the Golden Ax that goes to the chef with the best food. Luhrman, owner of El Topo in Houston (just featured on taco editor José R. Ralat’s list of best new taquerias), had already won the award with barbacoa in 2018 when the business was still in a food truck. He moved to a real-world company in early 2020 and, after switching from cheek to breast, left last year’s Butcher’s Ball again with first place. The winning brisket suadero taco has now found a permanent place on his restaurant’s menu.
Traditionally, suadero is a cut between the flank and the bottom sirloin that is cooked in oil, then crispy on a flat surface before serving. (This video shows an example of preparing a suadero from Cuantos Tacos in Austin.) At El Topo, Luhrman uses brisket that is cut into four pieces and covered with a dry adobo seasoning overnight. The next day, Luhrman roasts the beef directly over the oak fire before transferring it to a skillet and covering it with beef tallow to cook for a few hours. The finished pieces are cooled and portioned. When an order arrives in the kitchen, the brisket is chopped into hot beef fat on a flat platter until the meat is crispy.
It’s not barbecue, but this brisket has similar flavors from a wood grill, with the finishing touch of caramelization on high heat. When Lurhman planned to enter the competition, he knew the döş suadero needed a salsa of his own. His team blended homemade salsa macha with emulsified oil salsa, habanero peppers, and caramelized onions. Since the win, they’ve called it salsa de campeones, or “champions’ salsa.” It resembles a spicy barbecue sauce and complements fatty beef well. Topped with pickled onions and fresh cilantro, the ingredients make an incredible taco.
When I first heard about El Topo in 2019, Luhrman was explaining the concept of the restaurant. Houston Chronicle Barbecue columnist JC Reid, in an episode of the paper Barbecue Mood digital audio file. Lurhman told him that El Topo makes tortillas from Maseca, a common instant cornmeal used for tortillas. Since that meeting, he has changed his mind and Cónico Azul is importing blue corn from Mexico. In El Topo’s small kitchen, staff mix corn for handmade tortillas. “It’s the hardest kitchen task I’ve ever had to do,” Luhrman said of mastering the tortillas. “I had to cook sourdough for six weeks to get it right. It took me fifteen months to fix it.”
If you want smoked meat from El Topo, go for the smoked chicken taco. Luhrman attached a firebox to an old refrigerator to make an oak-fueled cabin smoker. He smokes the bacon on his weekend brunch menu, as well as whole chicken for tacos. The Houston taco is topped with rich beef cheek barbacoa, which, like the San Antonio sandwich, earned a Gold Line in 2018. For the latter, Luhrman places two pieces of shredded queso quesadilla directly on a flat plate and places a slice of home-baked thick-cut Japanese milk bread on top of each. Slices of fluffy bread are buttered and turned over after the cheese has melted, then tossed together with a generous serving of barbacoa in between.
Luhrman isn’t sure exactly how to categorize her cooking style. El Topo is a taqueria, but the dinner menu shows its chef side, with dry-aged steak and gnocchi made with masa. “I’m chasing after this dish we call Texian food or whatever. [it] Is that what we call this food that we make in Texas,” he explained. This Sunday, Luhrman will focus on Texas-style smoked meats while hosting a collaborative pop-up brunch with two-time Golden Cleaver winner Willow’s Texas BBQ at El Topo. The menu includes ribs, sausage and pulled pork. And for the last time, Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela will serve their iconic Brisket Hug sandwich on a jalapeño-cheese bun made by Hugs & Donuts. The Houston bakery has announced that its last day in business will be this Saturday. At the champagne and barbecue brunch, the suadero will be smoked and sliced instead of cooked suadero, but thankfully you’ll be able to order the sides of El Topo’s incredible tortillas and milk rolls with it.