(by Corbo Eng)
Now, more than ever, the persistent put-down that one can’t find good Mexican food in New York City—and, by that, tacos primarily—should finally be laid to rest. While the assertion may have arisen as a point of contrast between the food scenes in New York and those in the Western United States—where, frankly, the imprint of Mexican immigrants has a more pervasive influence—the demerits given to New York are exaggerated and lazy. Perhaps, they were issued and promulgated by those who hadn’t ventured beyond Midtown or had thrown up their hands after a cursory search of the concourse at Penn Station.
As the odds would have it in a city that’s as vast and culinarily diverse as New York, tacos are well represented, Today, the state of affairs has been positively reshaped by both non-Mexican chefs and restaurateurs who have devoted themselves to Mexican cuisine and enterprising Mexican immigrants who run spirited mom-and-pop operations. Many are on their A-game but are so in inconspicuous places—hidden along an innocuous row of storefronts or else tucked away on a narrow street beyond the bright lights and tourist traffic.
In Manhattan, a good starting point is below 14th Street. Here, across from Thompkins Square Park at the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Avenue A, where the East Village abuts Alphabet City, is Chef Alex Stupak’s newest Mexican eatery, Empellón Al Pastor (132 St. Mark’s Place). As the restaurant’s name suggests, the focus is on al pastor tacos—the ubiquitous, staple pork tacos that so many taquerias and taco trucks serve.
Often, what passes as al pastor is seasoned pork of some kind. But, at Empellón Al Pastor, the pork is prepared and served in the traditional way that’s true to its Arab roots—sliced off of a rotating, vertical spit like lamb or beef shawarma is served in the Middle-East. After all, “al pastor” is Spanish for “in the style of the shepherd.” It’s an expression that points to the Mexican-Lebanese mash up that defines it.
At Empellón Al Pastor, the vertical spit, called a “trompo,” is kept in the very back of the dining area where a line cook—or, Alex Stupak himself if recent staffing patterns hold true—is responsible for slicing the meat from the cylinder of layered pork (the “trompeta”) that’s affixed to the spit.
The cooking method makes a difference too. The flesh on the surface is crisped from exposure to the heat as the pork turns on the spit while, simultaneously, being basted by its own juices that drip off of it. That crispy exterior, once its sliced off—with something, by the way, that looks like a sword from Arabian Knights—and integrated into the rest of the succulent pork—offers an intermittent but defining crispness and char. The corn tortillas that are made in-house are fresh and supple; and, the finishing touches of cilantro, salsa, and a slab of citrusy pineapple round out an overall superb taco.
Further south, just past Houston Street in the Nolita neighborhood,Tacombi at Fonda Nolita (267 Elizabeth Street), housed in a converted garage and painted in seaside hues of Yucatán-inspired turquoise, welcomes visitors with its wide door agape, a popsicle vending bicycle as a prop on the sidewalk, and the sound of boisterous diners eating inside.
Here, owner Dario Wolos, who was born and raised in Mexico, has recreated the vibe of a beach resort taco stand—one run out of an old Volkswagon van. While said van would have been parked outdoors under palm trees in Mexico, Wolos’s van, instead, is set inside Tacombi’s cavernous dining room. A dedicated line cook stands inside the van, with its roof raised above him, and prepares the tacos as if he were stationed beachside. A counter runs along the outside of the van where condiments rest and can be easily accessed by the wait staff. Guests sit at metal tables with folding chairs. It’s a fun atmosphere—one that, certainly, contributes to the restaurant’s overall sunny appeal.
Tacombi features a range of taco options. The barbacoa, which offers an extremely moist serving of shredded brisket, impresses. The pork belly taco consists of cubed pieces of chicharrón, with remnants of crispy skin, topped with cool, crunchy bits of green apple—a winning combination. Fish tacos, served grilled or batter-fried, are both excellent as well. The former, called “seared veracruzana fish” on the menu, is a huge, delicately flaky filet. The latter is crispy and topped with an enticing tartar sauce dressing and slaw. Squeeze bottles of signature salsas—chile de árbol, dried chile de árbol, habanero, and chipotle hibiscus—offer a choice of flavors. All add a depth that complements the protein in question.
Then, there’s Mission Cantina (172 Orchard Street) on the Lower East Side where James Beard Award winning chef, Danny Bowien—known for his take on Sichuan food and Asian-inspired riffs—has set his sights on Mexico. When it opened in the fall of 2013, Cantina was somewhat burrito-centric; and, ceviches of one iteration or another were, likewise, a popular order. There were tacos, of course, too—taco al pastor, for example, and an off-beat octopus and chicken wing taco as well. Today, there are a wide selection of tacos on the menu with Bowien, seemingly, focused on them like he’s never been before.
It helps that Bowien scouted out the best tortillas in Mexico and learned nixtamalization firsthand (the process by which corn kernals are treated with slaked lime and turned into “masa” or corn dough). As such, Bowien makes his own masa from Anson Mills corn and subsequently his own tortillas, which are unmistakably on the mark—robust with corn flavor, supple rather than coarse and dry but sturdy enough to stand up to the onslaught of meats and ingredients that they are asked to carry. In a word, the tortillas are outstanding.
The tacos are as well. The pulled pork trotter taco is one of the best. Braised with coconut and peanuts, the pork takes on a very distinct flavor. That every other bite offers up a fatty, edgy piece—a reminder that trotters are at play—makes for pleasing textural variation. In the end, the meat is surprisingly complex due to how it’s uniquely cooked.
The masa fried fish taco, as well, is superb. The fish in masa batter is fried to a state of utter crispness and dressed with a tangy sauce. A layer of “queso blanco” (white cheese) rests between its two corn tortillas. A dollop of pickled onions adds a sharp touch to the proceedings. The assemblage works magic and makes for a delicious end product.
Two vegetarian tacos—the vegetable mole taco, consisting of jalapeño radishes and carrots slathered with Oaxacan mole, and the spinach taco, made of luscious butter creamed spinach, “Peter Luger style” (after the historic Brooklyn steakhouse), and topped with crisp water chestnuts as counterpoints—are impeccably executed and unequivocally first rate as well.
Once off the island of Manhattan and in the outer boroughs, the immigrant influence becomes more pronounced. In the southern edge of Gowanus in Brooklyn, one taco hotspot is Reyes Deli & Grocery (532 4th Avenue). It’s essentially a classic New York style bodega, catering to Spanish-speaking customers—with three small aisles devoted to canned goods, packaged items, cleaning supplies, and a few cases of refrigerated beverages.
The front half of the store, on the right, is the “deli,” manned by two employees along with the cashier, where one can get a bagel with cream cheese, various “wraps,” and a bacon cheeseburger if one desires. But, really, it’s all about the tacos—a basic selection of six that is executed extremely well and that can be enjoyed in the back counter that boasts four stools.
First, there’s the carnitas taco, which features a tender portion of braised pork that’s been further finished on a flattop grill. The end result is mildly spicy and pleasingly crisp. The cecina taco features thin eponymous strips of “cecina” (cured, smoked beef). The overall effect is a subtle but lingering salty flavor that acts as a complementary foil to the salsa that tops the meat.
The chorizo taco, consisting of crumbled pieces of Mexican sausage, bursts with a dry chile flavor that’s sharp and peppery. Like the carnitas, the chorizo is embellished on the grill. Dressed with onions, cilantro, and a deft squeeze of lime, the highly seasoned and already delicious chorizo is further enhanced.
Once south of Gowanus, past the expanse of Greenwood Cemetery, the neighborhood of Sunset Park, a thriving Mexican enclave, sprawls uphill east of 4th Avenue. Fifth Avenue is the main commercial thoroughfare and the bloodline of the neighborhood—a hodgepodge of discount clothiers, budget department stores, nail salons, and, an assortment of other mom-and-pop shops of the kind—restaurants included—that cater to the needs of the local residents.
Ricos Tacos (505 51st Street), an acknowledged local institution, open 24 hours, is located on 51st Street just past the corner at 5th Avenue. Rounding the corner, one is greeted by a large mural depicting a sombrero-wearing cartoon pig, smacking its lips, smiling, and sitting in a cauldron over an open flame. It’s not an ad selling tacos but one announcing “Ricas Carnitas,” presumably a sister business, with a phone number that one should call to place a bulk order.
It’s an apt enough image—not for the act of porcine self immolation that it seemingly portrays—but for the fact that pork is also one of Ricos’s calling cards as well and figures prominently on their menu.
Al pastor and carnitas, for instance, widely popular at most taquerias, are at the top of the taco menu here—and, perhaps, deservedly so. What stands out, however, are the “cueritos” (pork skin) tacos—a rare find on a taco menu and a choice that would attract the eye of any taco aficionado who’s out to savor something different.
The cueritos are markedly gelatinous and even gooey—like a softer version of beef tendon. This textural theme is similarly repeated in Ricos’s other rare treats like the “tripa” (beef tripe) and “cabeza” (cow’s head) tacos. The tripe is chewy and slyly tender. The meat from the cow’s head—cheeks, lips, and, maybe, an eyeball or two chopped up for good measure—is fleshy, ultra soft, and crackles from occasional hints of cartilage.
None of these are for the faint of heart, however; and, are admittedly for the more adventurous diner. But, once encased in wonderfully fresh limber tortillas and properly adorned with onions, cilantro, and salsa, the payoff is special and a welcomed change from the usual taco fare.
Queens shouldn’t be ignored. Home to lively and bustling immigrant neighborhoods, it boasts its share of taco finds as well. In fact, one of New York’s great taco institutions is Tortilleria Nixtamal (104-05 47th Avenue), located in Corona and renowned for being a supplier of tortillas to taquerias and restaurants all over the city.
Owned and operated by Shauna Page and Fernando Ruiz, Tortilleria Nixtamal is one part restaurant and one part tortilla factory. In the basement of their building, vats of corn kernels are boiled in a bath of calcium hydroxide, stirred with a paddle that looks like it was taken from a canoe, and softened over the course of five hours. The kernels can then be ground down into masa.
Upstairs, just beyond the dining area, a tortilla machine—a long, metallic contraption complete with a host of gears and metal arms—has a receptacle for the masa at its top; and, after the dough is deposited, it stamps out disk-shaped tortillas, which are sent out onto a conveyor belt and that are collected in a bin.
The tortillas, aside from being sold wholesale, become part of the in-house taco offerings as well. The usual al pastor, carnitas, and chorizo options are available; and, they are all prepared confidently and hit the spot. But, if venturing out to Corona from other parts of the city—Manhattan, Brooklyn, or even other parts of Queens—it’s wise to try the “pescado” (skate wing) taco and the “nopales” (cactus) taco, two choices that seem to stick out like sore thumbs on the menu.
The skate wing is breaded and pan fried. The end product is something akin to dense fish with a slight crunch and is lightly seared. The cactus, on the other hand, is grilled and served with radish, onions, and Oaxacan cheese. The cactus itself—essentially the fleshy pads of the plant—is soft and a tad slimy, but in a satisfying way like okra is. The cheese, comforting and pillowy, enlivens everything.
This article was originally posted in October 2014.
Copyright 2014 (Corbo Eng). All Rights Reserved.
All photos by Corbo Eng.
“Taco Party” drawing by Julieta Felix.