By Tara Mahadevan
By Fork in the Road
By Zachary Feldman
By Hannah Palmer Egan
By Laura Shunk
By Zachary Feldman
By Laura Shunk
By Hannah Palmer Egan
Sometimes, food writers ruin everything—or rather, the health department ruins everything: Where food writers go, the health department usually follows. Two years ago, The New York Times' Peter Meehan revealed the story of a makeshift taco stall inside Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos (a tortilla factory) in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The factory owners had set up one communal table inside the small warehouse, close to the tortilla-production line. The chorizo and carnitas were sizzled in a street cart, and the tortillas were very, very fresh. But then the killjoy health department arrived, putting a stop to good food the way only the health department can. (I imagine inspectors hunched over their computers, reading Chowhound and cackling with glee when they find a spot that might not be up to code.)
The Lazaro family, who own the factory, decided that the taquería portion of their business was too popular to abandon. So about two months ago, the taquería reopened, renovated into an actual restaurant. The small kitchen and seating area, carved from a corner of the factory, has two glass walls, so that you can still watch the goings-on at the tortilleria while you eat your tacos. The colorful portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe still looks down from one wall, surrounded by multicolored lights, but now there are a half-dozen tables, complete with vases of fake flowers, a counter with stools, and a spotless refrigerated display case. And don't think you have to take five buses and two trains to get there: Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos is actually a half-block from the Jefferson Street L stop.
As you would expect, the tortillas are wonderful: thick, slightly chewy, and fragrant. The tortilleria churns out tortillas from 4 p.m. until 10 p.m., so if you go during that time, you need to grab a bag of hot tortillas to take home—if they can make it that far. As soon as I got outside with mine, I started pulling them out of the hot little bundle and eating them. There is sorcery in a just-made hot tortilla: floppy, steamy, corny, and almost as soft as skin. Eat them quickly; once they're cool, they're just good corn tortillas.
At the taquería, there are seven different filling options—carnitas, enchilada, beefsteak, cecina (salted beef), chorizo, chicken, and veggie—any of which can be had in taco, taquito, torta, or tostada form. The very best of these choices, and everybody's favorite, is the chorizo. The ground sausage tastes of cinnamon and red chilies, in a floral-funky way. The mix includes bits of creamy white potato slicked with a flavorful orange chorizo oil.
The enchilada (spicy marinated pork) comes a close second to the chorizo: The wide strips of pork are caramelized in spots and stained brick-red from the chile-heavy, garlicky marinade. If you want to double the burn, pour on the delicious salsa. It's puréed, taquería-style, and I'm guessing it's made with chipotles because of its smoky-sweet heat. There's also a green tomatillo salsa that's mouth-puckeringly tart.
Of the other meats, carnitas—small swabs of roasted, then fried, pork—is also a quality choice. The chicken is fine, but seems like waste of time when there are better things to be had. The vegetable tacos simply involve the usual lettuce-tomato-onion-cilantro salad, plus a sprinkling of queso fresco and a slice of buttery avocado. Skip the boring, underseasoned beefsteak—if you want cow in your taco, the salty, tender cecina is better.
The tacos here are $2, but they're bigger than the norm and even slightly unwieldy, stuffed with a generous amount of meat, shredded lettuce, onion, and tomato, as well as a dollop of crema. If you're into deluxe tacos, ask for a slice of avocado, too. Or if you want to try a bunch of different fillings, it's better to go for an assortment of taquitos, which are smaller and less expensive.
The tacos and taquitos are really the things to get here, but if you want to branch out, you could do worse than a tostada. The fried tortillas are heaped with a smear of refried beans, lettuce, tomato, queso fresco, and your choice of meat. I've never figured out how to eat one of these flat, crunchy snacks without ending up wearing it, but they are tasty. The tortas feature the same assortment of goods, but in sandwich form. Also, check out the bread before you order a torta: On one visit, the bread was so massively puffy and stale that I ended up just eating the filling with a fork. On a different day, the bread was acceptable—junky, but soft and chewy.
One night, I sat and watched the tortillas being pressed, cooked on the line, and packed. The women who grab the hot tortillas off the conveyer belt shuffle and bounce the pile of hot breads in their hands to cool them off before sticking them in the bags. It was a quiet evening, and one of the taquería workers was eating a slice of pizza. (There's no accounting for taste.) A niece in the Lazaro family was working the griddle, and Tanya Lazaro, the family's young, sweet-faced daughter, was telling me how they'd like to expand the menu in a few months. Hoping we had a good rapport going, I slipped in a request for the red salsa recipe. No dice—"That's my mom's recipe," Tanya said with a firm headshake. She's right. You should never trust food writers.