Iliana de la Vega’s Oaxacan Kitchen: El Naranjo Is Reborn On Rainey Street

One of the most viewed articles I’ve ever penned for this site was a review of Iliana de la Vega’s entry into  Austin’s Mexican food scene with her Oaxacan cuisine  trailer; El Naranjo Mobile. {}

The chef  arrived amid a whirlwind of publicity as she was considered one of the top talents to come out of the whole of Mexico and our city gasped at the good fortune of her arrival.

There was plenty to like back then, but I was mystified that such a high-level cook was using plastic bag tortillas from a local grocery store. In a land of plenty like Austin, all of our top flight taqueras are wielding dowels, rolling pins or presses when it comes masa pressing time.

Tortilla purists can cease their worrying. Ms. de la Vega is no longer pushing a shopping cart through the pre-packaged tortilla aisles of Fiesta Mart.

Walking into El Naranjo, the brand new brick and mortar restaurant on Rainey Street, the first thing that hits you is a blast of icy air. It’s a hundred-plus outside and that cold chill is most appreciated as it offers some very tangible comforts vs Austin’s Hades hot summer.

The rehab on the house that the new restaurant occupies is stunning with towering ceilings and soft amber lighting giving a honeyed glow to the old room. The joint is packed so we seat ourselves at the bar and are immediately and warmly greeted by the barkeep. Moments later another gentleman appears with a basket of rolls and a trinity of amuse bouche: salsa roja, salsa verde and escabeche.

The rolls are soft and yeasty and quickly have us overcoming our fear of being totopo deprived in a Mexican restaurant. Special note must be made of the red sauce as it is divine. Morita chiles have been pureed til silky smooth and feature a prominent smoke flavor to go with the medium heat.


The escabeche is also very nice showcasing a light hand with the vinegar and still-crisp vegetables. The verde is sound as well. Tart and bright, it’s a perfect tonic vs the brutal Texas heat. A margarita and a paloma arrive and each is expertly mixed with plenty booze in each one. Some Austin bars and restaurants are known for light pours-El Naranjo will not be added to that shit list. When we go out drinking we expect liquor in our cocktails. The barman here mixes nice and strong

Appetizers: Egregious pricing is in effect as is the norm in lots of new restaurants in Austin. $8.50 for an avocado that’s been mashed up is always going to piss me off but air conditioning costs money and I can imagine the renovation of the old house will have them vending overpriced guacamole for ten years before they recoup their investment. It’s good, is it as good as El Zunzal’s showstopper? No.

Redemption is found in the most unlikely of sources however. A humble bowl of queso, atmospherically priced at $8, brings some real drama to the table as Iliana de la Vega is now making scratch tortillas! Not just any handmade tortillas either. World class-some of the best I’ve ever eaten tortillas. Scooping into the bowl of hot molten gouda and mozzarella {which is delicious} with a soft, pliable tortilla is just such a direct, simple, yet underrated, pleasure.

These corn tortillas are sublime and there’s a reason why. El Naranjo has a molino in the back. They’re nixtamalizing their own corn y’all. Name another place in Austin that does that. Yes, it’s common in San Antonio, but in Austin it’s unheard of to pay such close attention to tortilla production.

The process is simple: you purchase bulk dry corn, cook it in an alkaline solution, let it soak overnight, then the corn is rinsed, hulled and ground into the dough that you use to make your tortillas. We were absolutely blown away by the quality of these beauties.

This is the first time we’ve felt that Yolanda at El Taco Rico could have a serious contender to her throne. She’s been the queen of Mexican cuisine in Austin for a long time, but Iliana de la Vega brings some serious skills to the table via a molino tucked away in her Oaxacan kitchen down on Rainey Street.


85 Rainey Street
Austin, Texas
(512) 474-2776






About RL Reeves Jr

I'm a writer living and working in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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2 Responses to Iliana de la Vega’s Oaxacan Kitchen: El Naranjo Is Reborn On Rainey Street

  1. Scott says:

    Food is above avg, but not outstanding.  Chayote salad was fantastic – duck breast in mole rosa was over salted.  Service was meh, especialy at this price point.  They will fix these things, but the dining room noise is atotal turnoff.  Deafening.

  2. RL Reeves Jr says:

    Thanks for the feedback, the restaurant was packed so we sat at the bar, service was great but we were the only people the barkeep had to worry about attending to. the chayote salad sounded great but we were completely stuffed after two apps. Did not notice the noise level.

    El Naranjo will definitely get some repeat visits but it’s a special occasion place due to the high prices.

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