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Five years ago, I rounded up a dozen friends and took them on a taco crawl along Roosevelt Avenue, from Flushing Meadows to Jackson Heights. Our purpose was to try a taco or two from every vendor we could find, including trucks, carts, and storefronts. In addition to a handful of palate-cleansing quesadillas featuring things like squash blossoms and corn smut, we ate 48 tacos in total. The collective favorite came from a humble cart known as Tacos Morelos planted at the corner of 94th Street. Something called a taco placeros (“market taco”) blew our minds: a freshly made tortilla wrapped around a cheese-oozing chile relleno still hot from the fat. And there was some rice dumped in there, too. Suddenly, a vegetarian taco handily bested all the meat-laden ones that had gone before.
Nowadays, the trucks and carts that made Roosevelt Avenue such a colorful place have dwindled in number by about two-thirds, as mobile establishments have gone brick and mortar, mainly on surrounding thoroughfares. The Morelos little-cart-that-could became a cheery neighborhood bar on nearby 37th Avenue, and the original cart—currently parked in front—rarely returns to its original location. Instead, the now-two-year-old Mexican restaurant has launched a pair of taco trucks, one that lingers in the East Village on Avenue A, the other in Williamsburg above the Bedford Avenue stop. Although these are convenient for late-night revelers, the quality of the gastro output can’t match the pristine ingredients and perfect execution of the mother ship.
As the restaurant’s name implies, the owners hail from the state of Morelos (specifically, Cuernavaca), which lies directly south of Mexico City, an area one tourist guide bucolically describes as “green hills and streams with scattered waterfalls.” The cuisine of this tiny state has much in common with that of Puebla to the southeast and Guerrero to the southwest, where many of NYC’s Mexican immigrants come from. Yet the tacos placeros seem unique to the restaurant and the cuisine it represents. Once you’ve thrilled to the chile-relleno taco ($5), you’re ready to move on to the potato-patty version ($3). The combination of tortilla, rice, and spud represents an unprecedented triple-starch agglomeration destined to take its place alongside French-fry po’boys and potato pierogis in the Annals of Gastronomy.
There are lots of other pleasurable oddities at Tacos Morelos. One is pork in a red pipian mole ($11), served with rice and refried beans. Now pipian is a sauce of pre-Columbian origin second only to mole poblano in popularity, at least in New York City’s southern-Mexican-immigrant cafés. Based on ground pumpkinseeds, it usually attains a sickly shade of green. Red pipian offers pretty much the same grainy texture, but with extra chile heat and a faint smokiness. Tacos Morelos is the only place I’ve seen red pipian before, and you’ll wish your neighborhood taqueria served it. In a similar vein, but in a more purplish shade, is a chicken in salsa mora ($11). While “mora” usually means bramble or blackberry, I’m pretty sure that here it refers to the mora chile, a dark-red fruit that has been toasted over a wood fire. How nice to have a smoked chile more subtle than the slap-your-face chipotle.
Because this is at heart a southern Mexican joint, normal taco-type fillings (carnitas, barbacoa, cecina, pollo, lengua, and vegetariano) deposited in hand-shaped masa vessels dominate the menu. In fact, Tacos Morelos—where even the tortillas are handmade—is something of a masa museum. There are huaraches, tostadas, gorditas, tlacoyos, sopes, quesadillas, and picadas, all roughly similar in size and purpose. Why so many variations? Well, in the mountains of southern Mexico, each serves a slightly different function as regards the balance of solid matter and sauce, like pastas in Italy. I’m fond of the huaraches (three for $10), which are shaped like surfboards, and love them stuffed with chorizo (skinless sausage) or enchilado (spicy pork stew).
The interior of Tacos Morelos is bright but not too bright, painted the colors of the Mexican flag. This being one of the few non-gringo taquerias that actually has a liquor license, you’re well advised to begin your meal with a shot of tequila, preceded by a lick of salt and followed by the usual suck of lime wedge. If you wish to continue on the road to ruin, get a michelada next—a Mexican beer of your choice mutated with chile sauce and limón, arriving in a tall glass crusted with rock salt. The extreme heat will either make you gulp it down faster or sip it slower, depending on your approach to spiciness. And, I guess, to life in general.