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Street Foods Go Upscale, But is Something Lost in Translation?

Photo by Mose Buchele for KUT News

Traditional chicken al carbon – chicken grilled over a charcoal-fired flame – has gotten a makeover. 

Austin-owned Fresa's Chicken al Carbon – an upscale take on the Mexican street-food staple found at modest establishments like El Pollo Rico – opened this April.

"I'm a big fan of El Pollo Rico, which is an existing concept in East Austin, and I thought it would be really wonderful to provide a similar product," said Margaret Vera, one of the restaurant's three partners. 

While she was quick to identify Fresa's opening as part of a wider trend of "celebrating street food," Vera emphasized that this quick meal option has a feature that most take-home food stands don’t: the chickens are all-natural and locally raised. 

"Everyone is always on the run these days," said Vera. "I want to build a concept where people can drive through and get a healthy, great meal that is really convenient." 

Mando Rayo, a self-described "taco journalist"at Taco Journalism, sees the restaurant's opening as part of a larger trend of Mexican and Latin tastes influencing the mainstream food culture. 

"I think it actually brings that culture, and maybe some of that history, to the forefront," said Rayo.   

Though he has yet to try Fresa's tacos, Rayo expressed some reservations. 

"You want more of those certain flavors in areas where you can't get them," said Rayo, "but then you get kind of disappointed because you can't shell out $20 for lunch."

At Fresa’s, a whole chicken meal including rice, beans, grilled onion, jalapenos, lime, salsas and fresh tortillas costs $24. At El Pollo Rico, a nearly identical package costs $12.69.

In the midst of Austin’s ascendant foodie culture, restaurateurs’ embrace of street foods carries the risk of diluting taste and authenticity – or creating what Rayo called a "watered-down version" of the real thing.    

Rayo cited one fancy Mexican restaurant’s elotes – a simple dish of roast corn and chili powder, butter, lime juice and other ingredients to taste – as an example of this trend.  Elotes, like chicken al carbon, has humble beginnings, said Rayo, but now, they’ve gone “upscale.”   

“Elotes cups – you can get them for a dollar if you just go east of I-35, and over here they are asking like thee, five bucks.” 

But Rayo acknowledges that many of these pricier Mexican inspired restaurants that use primarily “locally grown” ingredients, are targeting a certain demographic: those who are willing to pay more for local ingredients. 

Fresa’s gets its poultry from Peeler Farms in Floresville, Texas, a town located just southeast of San Antonio.  Vera says the feeling of buying regionally-sourced food is one of the most rewarding aspects of the business.  

"You get to see the place and you know where its coming from and you know that you're know that you're employing people in the region, and you know exactly what's going into your mouth, its the whole experience," Vera said. 

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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