A cow’s head takes a long time to steam. That’s why the tacos al vapor at Las Conchitas (4811 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-437-5513), a taqueria attached to a panaderia on the main drag of Sunset Park’s Fifth Avenue, are only served after 3 p.m. daily, but they’re well worth the wait.
Like tacos de canasta or tacos sudados, tacos al vapor are steamed, eschewing the hot griddle for the damp heat of steam. They’re often assembled with gushy fillings — mashed beans, potato, or stewed chicharrón — folded and layered into baskets, covered with linen, and left to soften and steam in their own heat.
At Las Conchitas, the tortillas are steamed in the kitchen and walked to the front vestibule of the dining room, like proteins ferried to the carving station at Mission Chinese. A taquera presides over a chipped wooden cutting board, with clips of meat swaddled in a clean kitchen towel and covered in plastic, trapping the residual heat.
The pale tortillas sweat against their Styrofoam plate, holding tender bits of flesh and pockets of melting fat, a mixture of cow’s head, called surtida, and a helping of lean meat, called maciza. Both reverberate with flavors of toasted corn and hot beef. Gesturing to the tacos al vapor station, my server remarked, “You know, these are made without grease. They’re healthier.” Well, not if you eat six.
All they need is a bit of salsa. Here, the green carries practically no heat at all. It’s a fresh sauce of puréed herbs and vegetables that lends acid but not capsaicin. And then there’s the red, a pastel blush that belies its own force. Just a dribble of it induces a fit of coughs and the sensory equivalent of a fire alarm drill. It’s made with dried chile de árbol and is so incinerating that a simple tostada cloaked in cream and nuggets of mild cotija — a kid’s snack, really — calls for a cold glass of milk to dampen the flame.
Scarlett Lindeman is a Brooklyn-based writer covering the city’s best taquerias, fondas, and cantinas. She writes about Mexican food for the Voice. Follow her on Twitter @itsmescar