Even more than Jackson Heights or Corona, Sunset Park has become our premier Mexican-food neighborhood, with more restaurants, bodegas, street carts, and food trucks per square inch than anywhere else in the city. Taken together, these places perfectly recapitulate the development of our modern taquerias starting two decades ago. Back then, Pueblan bodega owners—realizing they already stocked the raw materials—put up makeshift counters flaunting Dutch ovens filled with stewed meats and began serving antojitos, the masa-based meals that constitute a major portion of the Mexican diet. Eventually, the groceries on the shelves withered away, and full-blown taquerias arose, also spinning off street carts and taco trucks.
Located on Sunset Park’s Fifth Avenue in the shadow of the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help—making you feel like you’re in Mexico—Tacos Cachanilla is one of the city’s most fully evolved taquerias. “Cachanilla” is what residents of Baja California call themselves, after a fragrant purple thistle native to the region. And the facade promises Tijuana-style tacos—though what that means is unclear, since much of the menu is southern Mexican. More important, a sign boasts “Tortillas Hecho a Mano,” meaning the café’s handmade tortillas are so good that what you put on them is almost beside the point.
Stroll inside and find two parallel rows of tables marching toward the end of the dining room, where swinging doors give glimpses of the kitchen. Hung with the usual serapes and bejeweled sombreros, the walls are painted a hideous shade of green. But you won’t even notice once your fork hits the delicious chile relleno ($9.75)—a single huge poblano stuffed with Brooklyn-made Oaxacan cheese, egg battered, and fried golden brown. It comes with rice and beans in a mild tomato sauce, but an even better use deposits the same pepper into a taco placeros ($5). Relatively new to New York, these “market tacos” are fabricated from giant flatbreads too big to be called tortillas. Also within find yellow rice, fried chile strips, onions cooked to softness, and—brace yourself—excellent skin-on French fries for a multi-starch whammy.
There are other tacos placeros, too, alternately enfolding boiled eggs, crumbly sausage, or the razor-thin beef cutlets known as milanesa de res, quizzically referring to Milan, Italy, though the prep method was probably brought to Mexico by the Germans. But even the carnivorous tacos placeros offer minimal meat compared with the other ingredients, more in line with what most Mexicans eat every day than the flesh-intensive tacos that hipsters buy from trucks after bar-hopping.
In fact, the majority of the menu at Tacos Cachanilla is devoted to the same slaked-corn masa dough shaped into nearly a dozen different antojitos. Most often associated with Guerrero are picaditas (“little bites,” $5), flat dough saucers with raised edges. In a playful approximation of the Mexican flag, these serve as reservoirs for both red and green salsa, with crumbled white cheese in between. A favorite of neighboring Puebla is the quesadilla—not the bar-food snack of flour tortillas glued together with Velveeta, but an oversize flatbread, like that of the tacos placeros, flopped over a more meager collection of ingredients.
You may also select sopes (tiny rounds of masa with raised edges), chalupas (like sopes, only crisper and with no edges), huaraches (resembling tire-soled sandals), tostadas (crunchy, tiny tortillas), gorditas (puffy, obese tortillas), and, rarest of all, mulitas—tortilla sandwiches made with lots of stretchy cheese, salsa, and a meat of your choice.
These meat fillings seem like an afterthought on the part of the restaurant; in many cases, the vegetarian version of each dish is better. That said, the crumbly chorizo sausage has been unfailingly good, as is the chicken, either shredded in the green enchiladas ($9.75) or fried in wafer-thin cutlets atop chilaquiles ($9.50). Used in antojitos or eaten on a platter, beef tongue is a good bet, too. But both the pork-based al pastor and carnitas tasted tired on a recent occasion.
Perhaps the strangest antojito of all is the one that involves no masa. Chicharron preparado (“doctored pigskin,” $7.75) comes with your choice of meat, but you can also get it without. A huge square of crisp material the size of a floor tile is topped with greenery, onions, crema, cheese, avocado, and miscellaneous other ingredients. Squirt on the salsa and proceed across a fair approximation of the bumpy brown Mexican landscape.
By the way, skip the meat and you can invite your vegetarian friends to share: The “pigskin” is really made with wheat flour. And I guarantee you won’t miss the swine.
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.