I had high hopes when I sauntered into Taco Santana, and not only because it called to mind a certain top-notch San Francisco guitarist. I’d been snooping around under the J and M along Broadway in Williamsburg and, having found a couple of fly-by-night taquerias ensconced in bodegas, I was developing a theory that this neighborhood could one day supplant Sunset Park as Brooklyn’s go-to place for great tacos. Like Queens’ premier taco spot, Roosevelt Avenue, it too had trains clattering overhead on grimy elevated tracks.
The menu and boxlike premises looked promising. The latter felt a bit like an art gallery, dominated by a humongous Kmart still-life showing fruit spilling out of a bowl. (The painting remained wrapped in clear plastic to preserve its pristine beauty.) Implanted in the same room, the kitchen gobbled up half the floor space, demarcated by a line of stools and a sit-down counter that encouraged hangers-on to kibitz with the cooks, often numbering three at one time in the packed space. Bubble, bubble, toil, and trouble.
In that kitchen presided three generations of women. The oldest, hair pulled back in a bun, was attending to a green mole in a cauldron on the stove that enveloped her in steam, while her tattooed and pierced younger associate patted masa into huaraches, the masa snacks inspired by a tire-tread sandal, long a favorite of hippie tourists in Mexico. Meanwhile, the ponytailed youngest of the brood commuted between kitchen and dining area on a pink scooter. It was lunchtime on a weekday, and two hipsters sat in a corner munching tortas, the Mexican sandwiches made out of torpedo-shaped rolls called bolillos.
Testing the waters, I ordered a pair of $2 tacos from a list that included the conventional choices: cecina (salt beef), bistec (razor-thin steak), pollo (chicken), carne enchilada (spicy stewed pork), tinga (fiery Pueblan chicken), chorizo (skinless sausage), vegetariano (cheese and refried beans), al pastor (marinated pork gyro), suadero (stewed beef), carnitas (sautéed pork tidbits), and the Santana taco, offered with no description. (No variety meats like tripe, pig face, or goat eyes were available, alas!) Finding myself in a meaty mood, I went for the carnitas and suadero.
My heart sank when the tacos arrived. Instead of the usual southern Mexican presentation of meat in two soft corn tortillas with chopped raw onions and cilantro, these came topped instead with shredded iceberg and crema, the ambiguous runny substance that provides lubrication but little flavor. Still, the meat fillings looked profuse and tasty, and the homemade chipotle hot sauce on the side—which glowed with an arresting orange color—added more than enough flavor. Ya-hoo!
On a couple of further visits, I brought armies of Mexican-food enthusiasts, mainly Williamsburg artists and writers. Despite its incredible length, the menu devolves into a number of set formulations. Running parallel to the taco list are a series of snacks made with fresh masa such as one finds at the Red Hook ballfields, including sopes, huaraches, and quesadillas—the latter emphatically not the bar-food staple of stacked flour tortillas oozing Velveeta. Instead, Pueblan quesadillas are hand-patted rounds of fresh masa dough folded over fillings as a kind of rustic, free-form taco. Like the tacos, they get the same iceberg and crema treatment. One remedy for this, I later discovered, is to ask that “everything” be put on the tacos, which will include raw onion and cilantro.
Mining the menu, I discovered many gems. The enchiladas bandera ($6) mimic the Mexican flag: four steak-stuffed corn tortillas banded, from left to right, with green mole, crema, and red mole. The green is beyond wonderful, a homemade sauce rife with desert herbs like papalo and epazote, the latter conferring a slightly bitter edge. Cemitas ($4.50) are giant, round Pueblan sandwiches on seeded rolls like French brioches, opulently dressed with avocados and chipotles. The filling of choice for cemitas is milanesa, named after Milan, Italy. Basically, it’s a beef wiener schnitzel.
And the taco Santana ($3)? It’s a giant, freshly made tortilla folded like a gentleman’s pocket handkerchief and overstuffed with carnitas, chiles, avocados, cilantro, and onions. Unique to Williamsburg, it’s everything you want a taco to be, and more.