On the Taco Trail

Our restaurant critic goes hunting on Roosevelt Avenue

Periodically, the No. 7 train rattled loudly overhead, the wheels screaming like a small animal being murdered. There followed four taco-free blocks with lots of Ecuadorian places, ending in a waffled chromium cart with the appealing name of Taqueria Mexicana and Hot Dog, run by a married couple. The guy proudly noted that they hailed from the city of Puebla. "Right near the airport. Do you know it?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye. The tongue tacos were right on the money, but what blew our minds were the Pueblan quesadillas—freshly made masa pancakes folded over fillings, like extra-large tacos. Many of the fillings were meatless. Vegetarians and carnivores alike swooned over the flor de calavaza (squash blossom—mainly just diced raw zucchini), but a few were repulsed by the inky appearance of the huitlacoche (black corn fungus). The proprietor asked us to pose with him for a picture.


Even though the chorizo and carne enchilada (sauced pork) tacos at Taco Al Suadero II garnered praise, and marks as high as 85, we were still enthusing about the quesadillas, and sent one of our number back to get a couple more. It turns out the area around 96th is a hotbed of taquerias. Next was the 24-hour Tacontento. With a luxuriant flagstone exterior, and configured inside with a lunch counter and dining room, this tumultuous place pushes a gas griddle out onto the sidewalk sizzling with pork al pastor as a lure to passersby. In a manner unusual for this neighborhood, the $1.50 al pastor tacos are mounted on tiny Mexico City–style tortillas and called taquitos. They were incredible.

Also near 96th Street is the first evocation of Taco Veloz, a chain that counts three storefronts along Roosevelt in its empire. The tacos have more meat filling than usual, and when we later passed another Taco Veloz down near Elmhurst Avenue, a guy eating tacos shouted at us in English, "These are the best tacos around!" We didn't agree, but the green sauce is commendably pungent. Nearer 95th Street is a pair of establishments: Veracruz Foods, another restaurant that, like Tacontento, must have once been Italian or Greek; and Puebla Food, a related bodega next-door that also turns out tacos. We were charmed by the logo of the former, which shows a smiling taco with a towel over one spindly arm delivering a tray of five tacos. Our party was also impressed when they agreed to concoct a vegetarian taco out of freshly diced avocado. The beef taco was flavorful and salty, while the one we got next-door at Puebla was completely lackluster. One block south, at Suaderos Tacos, we ate our first oreja (ear) taco, which had a crunchiness that pleased some and repulsed others.

Details

Listen to the Taco Trail Podcast

Statistical Roundup

Number of tacos eaten 48 (plus eight quesadillas and two taquitos)
Time 3.25 hours
Distance 38 blocks
Winner Taco Morelos

In general, it seems that the smaller the institution, the better the tacos. Many of our favorite examples came from carts. Youíre better off choosing anything but chickenóthe temptation to use skinless and flavorless breast meat is too great. And donít expect the tacos to be ready instantly: Usually, the meat is cooked to order, and sometimes thereís a line, so expect to wait at least 10 or 15 minutes. Our top five taquerias are as follows:

1 Tacos Morelos
Cart near the corner of 94th and Roosevelt, parked Wednesday through Sunday in the evening. Best tacos: egg and rice, chile relleno and rice

2 Tacontento
96-15 Roosevelt, 718-533-7727, restaurant with carry-out window, open 24 hours. Best: pork al pastor taquitos

3 Delicias Isabel
Cart at Elbertson (near 87th) and Roosevelt. Best tacos: cecina and lengua

4 La Nortena
102-14 Roosevelt Avenue, 718-672-4485, restaurant with window through door on the right. Best tacos: chorizo and barbacoa

5 Taqueria Mexicana and Hot Dog
Cart at 98th and Roosevelt. Best: lengua tacos and flor de calavaza quesadillas

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Nothing that had gone before prepared us for Tacos Morelos. When we first saw this cheerful, gleaming cart at the corner of 94th Street, we noticed that one of the proprietors was wielding a tortilla press, making fresh tortillas for each new order. Now, a fresh tortilla made by hand, with its irregular border and heavenly lightness, completely blows away even one made last night on Flushing Avenue in Brooklyn, where we knew many of the tortillas came from. Moreover, we'd been eating tacos whose home was Puebla or Guerrero, while this cart clearly hailed from Morelos, a small state southwest of Mexico City. As far as I know, this is the only place in town you can get food from Morelos. In addition to gorditas and cheese-stuffed tlacoyos, the main output was tacos de arroz: tacos filled with rice, for a double-carb wallop! The one featuring sautéed pepper strips and boiled eggs ($1.50) was a revelation, but even more amazing was the one that dumped a freshly fried and cheese-stuffed poblano pepper on top of the rice. It was spectacular, akin to the moment someone first put french fries in a New Orleans po' boy.

I suppose that the reason the tacos at Esquina Tierras—a window adjacent to a modern restaurant at Whitney Avenue—seemed so awful was that we'd just eaten at Tacos Morelos. Certainly, we were not impressed when we ran through the list of fillings like tongue, goat, and tripe, only to discover they were out of them. A chicken taco seemed to be the only thing available. We were soon compensated for this dull taco by a pair eaten across the street at El Aguila Real ("The Regal Eagle"). It was the biggest truck we'd seen so far, reminding us of certain Dominican lechon trucks in Washington Heights and the Bronx. The taco list was unusual, and we ordered one pernil and one "mixtos." The pernil taco didn't taste like the garlicky Cuban pork roast the name implies, while the mixtos—made by mixing every meat on the griddle—had a wonderful mellow, salty flavor. The truck got an overall score of 62. "None of the meats are that funky," someone noted sadly. Just west of 89th Street, we skipped sit-down restaurants Plaza Garibaldi, Team Tacos Mexico, and the generically named Mexican Restaurant because they seemed to be mainly drinking spots.

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