By Steve Weinstein
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What makes a great taco? Two pale corn tortillas, rendered warm and glove-soft by a visit to the griddle. A generous heap of meat that has texture and characterwhether pork, beef, goat, sausage, chicken, or variety meats like ear and tripe. Then a fistful of minced raw onion and chopped cilantro, thrown on top as the meat is folded into the double tortilla. This Mexican masterpiece begs to be dressed from the line of condiments that every serious taco fabricator displays: red and green sauces of varying degrees of hotness, canned jalapeños, sliced red radishes, lime wedges, and, sometimes, guacamole thinned to the consistency of green gravy.
Where can I get great tacos? When it comes to this perpetual question, I've been prone to give generic advice: "Try any of the taquerias along Roosevelt Avenue." Originating in Flushing, this gritty thoroughfareovershadowed for most of its length by the elevated No. 7 tracksplunges through Corona, East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, and Woodside before dead-ending at Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside, a distance of about five miles. While the real estate in Corona is largely rickety frame houses with ground-floor commercial enterprises and windows barred against crime, by the time you reach Jackson Heights, the buildings are far more substantial, and some of the retail stores look like California-style strip malls.
Not long ago, I drove its length, and was surprised to discover just how many taco joints there were32, most located on the stretch from Corona to Jackson Heights, indicating the ascendancy of the Mexican population in the region. I found a vast range of taco-serving establishments, from fancy sit-down restaurants and walk-up windows strung with plastic fruit to humble taco trucks, trailers, and hand-pushed carts, many gaily decorated in the green, red, and white colors of the Mexican flag.
My survey only made the question of which taco is best more urgent. To find out, I assembled a group of friends and fellow foodies with the objective of walking the length of Roosevelt Avenue on a single evening, trying every taco. Included in our number were an attorney, a cheese-monger, some students from Sarah Lawrence College, a chanteuse, a tutor, a historian, and a newspaper real-estate editor. Several of us thankfully possessed an idiomatic command of Spanish.
Our band of 13 set out on a Friday evening at 8 p.m., starting at the western edge of Flushing Meadows Park (nearly everything from that point east is Chinese or Korean). We'd selected that hour to make sure the taco trucksmany of which stay open all nightwould be settled in their regular berths. The ground rules were simple: We'd eat at least two tacos at every place, and rate them on a scale of 1 to 100 using a form that I'd established and stuck on a clipboard. Another clipboard would record other miscellaneous info such as name, address, phone number, prices, and condiments. We decided to avoid sit-down restaurants with no taco counter or window, since a wait of 30 minutes or more would defeat the momentum of our expedition. Anyway, tacos should be fast food, we reasoned. Let the taco crawl begin!
The weather threatened rain as we hit the first place, a blue panel truck called Tortas Neza, parked between 111th and 112th. Our gang was unimpressed with the bifstek taco, but the carnitas taco was a thing of beauty, overstuffed with giant, fat-rimmed pork chunks. Just past 108th Street, we found another truck called Tacos Mexicanos, which also offered salchipapas, a Colombian snack of french fries and hot dogs. The taco varieties were few, and we ended up ordering a pair of beef tacos. They displayed a concentrated beefiness that caused them to get scores as high as 62. As with most places on our route, the tacos were $2 each.
We were faked out by Los Mismos Amigos ("The Same Old Friends"), a comfy café in a frame house near 104th that turned out to be Dominican, but hit pay dirt at nearby La Vega Grocery, an ancient vegetable stand that seemed to be morphing into a combination florist and taqueria. The entire southern Mexican menu was vended from a tiny kitchen, including fiery shrimp soup and mole pipian (pumpkinseed sauce). Here we ran into a problem that plagued us all evening: Among our doughty band were three strict vegetarians, and at every place we'd ask, "Could you make us a taco with frijoles or cheese instead of meat?" Usually, we received a look of incredulity. La Vega was willing to make a vegetarian taco, though it was a rather wan affair of chopped tomatoes, cilantro, and onions, with runny guac on the side. The minced beef taco was totally dope, though, made verdant with extra cilantro.
Next, near 102nd Street, we found La Nortena, a bar and restaurant open 24 hours with a flashing marquee that provides a walk-up taco counter through the door on the right. The packaging was the most elaborate we'd seen: four tacos neatly rolled in butcher's tissue, lined up like fat sausages in a Styrofoam container with radishes and lime wedges. Of the three varieties tested, the spicy chorizo received the best overall score, while the barbacoa (steamed goat) came a close second. But you pay for the glorious packaging: The tacos were $2.50 each.