In case you missed it, LA and its surroundings got their undies in a bunch this week after the New York Times published a Hungry City column declaring that NYC could go “mano a mano” with the City of Angels when it comes to tacos.
Wrote Los Angeles magazine’s Bill Esparza: “New York City, your inferiority complex is wrapped in a flimsy, dry tortilla made from Maseca, and covered in ketchupy salsa. But it’s cute that you keep trying over there.” Gustavo Arellano, who pens the “Ask a Mexican” column at our sibling paper OC Weekly and wrote a book about Mexican food in America called Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, said we should “drop our Mexican food inferiority complex” and that claiming good tacos have finally come to New York is like claiming that “good egg cream is now flowing from the spigots at In-n-Out.”
The crux of these arguments is that most Big Apple Mexicans hail from Pueblo and Hidalgo, and those regions aren’t known for tacos. So what should we do today, the made up food holiday of National Taco Day? Weep into our cemitas and lament our inability to best Southern California at their own game? Nah. One of the best things about NYC is the convergence of cultures that informs our dining scene–and just because MOST Mexican food here comes from Pueblo or Hidalgo doesn’t mean ALL of it does. Perhaps tacos aren’t part of the culinary history here–and so we shouldn’t stake our Mexican food identity on them–but New York still has some pretty good tacos. Good enough to satisfy this former LA County resident’s cravings anyway.
Taqueria Lower East Side, 198 Orchard Street, 212-677-3910
This Lower East Side spot pays not-so-subtle homage to LA: The walls are plastered with movie posters, Lakers gear, and Dodgers paraphernalia. And the center of the menu? Tacos, of course, and damn good ones. Opt for verdant nopales coated in salty queso fresco, juicy and piquant chorizo, or mind-blowingly good carnitas, rich and tender in their own fat.
Empellon Cocina, 105 First Avenue, 212-780-0999; Empellon Taqueria, 230 West Fourth Street, 212-367-0999
Alex Stupak reveres Mexican cuisine, and he’s eager to take it to another echelon in this country, proving that the canon goes far beyond street carts and hole-in-the-wall joints. Taqueria and Cocina both boast menus of fancified tacos made with good ingredients that manage to preserve what’s lovable about this street snack. Try the skirt steak for the best proof.
Tacos Mexico, West Fourth and Grove Streets
Arellano says in his piece that New York can boast the first documented taco truck, and the tradition continues. Pop over to the Christopher Street 1 stop during the evening hours, and you’ll find Tacos Mexico, which is certainly one of the best in Manhattan. The best order here is the chorizo taco–you’ll get your spicy sausage covered in cilantro and onion and tarted up with salsa.
La Pasadita, Myrtle Avenue and Broadway, Brooklyn
We sang the praises of this taco truck’s quesadilla this morning, but the vehicle’s bread and butter is its tacos–and look in particular for the stewy tinga de pollo (sort of like juicy spicy shredded chicken), not listed on the regular menu, but designated by a handwritten sign in the window. No matter the meat you choose though, you’ll get char-flecked bits of it wrapped in a corn tortilla and dressed simply with onions, cilantro, and lime.
Tacos El Vagabundo, Queens Plaza at 40th-41st Street, Sunnyside, 347-276-4522
Scarlett Lindeman covered Tacos El Vagabundo for her ¡Oye! Comida column earlier this week. The order there, she writes, is the cecina (salted beef), which is “unlike any other. What is usually sheets of dried-out leather are juicy and plump here; salty iron-rich chunks are folded into double-layered tortillas where they’re given a squirt of salsa and a sprinkle of chopped onion and cilantro.”