On the Taco Trail
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.
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 quesadillasfreshly 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 blossommainly 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 Citystyle 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.
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 Tierrasa window adjacent to a modern restaurant at Whitney Avenueseemed 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 mixtosmade by mixing every meat on the griddlehad 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.
Tacos HNS Rodriguez at 89th was closing up by the time we arrived around 10:45. Nevertheless, they offered to make a pork, beef, or chicken taco, of which we chose the first two. Though bland, the tacos were bulging with meat and nicely dressed with guacamole. The elote looked even betteran ear of corn rubbed with margarine and red sauce, then dusted with dried cheese. The cart called Delicias Isabel glowed at the corner of Elbertson Avenue, and Isabel herself made us lengua, oreja, and cecina (tongue, ear, and dried beef) tacos, though she was out of tripa (tripe). Though the ears put some people off ("It tastes Chinese," was one comment), many found the pungency and chewiness of the beef appealing. Admirably, the tongue was fried crisp. We were seduced by the name and appealing appearance of the bar-café Guadalajara de Noche, just across the street, but the beef and chicken tacos were the worst we'd had all evening.
Finally, we found El Fogoncito #2 ("The Little Hearth"), a truck at the corner of 85th that slung a menu of Ecuadorian delicacies like ceviches and secos (stews) in addition to tacos and tortas. As if that weren't enough, they also made hamburgers, hot dogs, and something called "the long sandwich." The goat taco had a skanky savor that some adored, and the tongue taco was greasy and good, garnering middling marks overall for the truck.
The clock had reached 11:15, and even though we were still blocks short of our objective, we decided that we were completely tacoed out. "My taste buds can't do this anymore," noted one participant. Accordingly, we decided to bag it. In addition, many of the likely storefronts seemed to be shuttering, though the carts and trucks were still in full swing. As we trailed footsore down Roosevelt to the Jackson Heights station, we noted three more places that looked promising. Tacos Guicho was a cart at the corner of Baxter Avenue thronged with happy taco eaters, while Tacolandia, in addition to having a wonderful name, is a long-running window that consistently provides the full range of fillings. Finally, right in front of the gleaming new subway station at 74th Street, there are a pair of dueling taco carts, each with its own knot of dedicated hangers-on. We'll be going back soon to check these places out.
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