Oh man, who doesn’t love tacos?!? They’re the perfect quick bite, the best thing to eat on the go (or drunk at 2AM), and, New York being the multicultural smorgasbord as it is, so accessible, authentic, and delicious. They come in so many different variations and styles, with hard corn tortillas or soft, with any number of yummy meat, veggie, and cheesy fillings. And what’s best, they usually don’t cost more than a crappy lunch at McDonalds! As you probably know, tacos are a traditional Mexican dish made from folded tortillas and a variety of fillings, though the name “taco” comes from the Spanish. And they get a lot cooler than the stuff you find at Taco Bell! Traditionally, Mexican tacos use soft corn tortillas, while the hard, bright yellow shells are a United States invention. We mostly think of tacos being comprised of ground beef, shredded iceberg lettuce, and a little dabble of cheddar cheese in between that u-shaped tortilla. But you can have so much more! Venture a little farther from the Bell and you’ll find tacos filled with stewed pork, shredded chicken, black beans, pico de gallo, cubed mahi mahi, cilantro salsa verde…the possibilities are endless! I’ve been waiting for this day for a while, my taco ingredients on-hand and ready to be devoured. And what better day for a taco dinner than National Taco Day!
You should definitely venture away from the chain restaurants for some variety on National Taco Day (and yes, that includes that inexplicably long line at Chipotle!) Chefs from the United States and all over the world have taken the very practical and simple idea of the taco and elevated it into fantastic, gourmet food, blending it with all different culinary cultures. And, since there’s such a large Mexican population in New York, it behooves you to try a taco at its most authentic, the taquerias and comfy food stands that serve tacos made from recipes that are generations old, so dedicated to the originals it’ll taste like you’ve gone south of the border instead of simply south of the Williamsburg Bridge. I usually don’t try to clog the blog posts with tons of restaurants to try, but when it comes to National Taco Day, it’s tough not to mention all the great places that, while they are starkly different in their methods, price, and clientele, all embody the spirit of the taco in their own way.
Unfortunately, one of the best new places to get an inventive, modern taco isn’t even open for National Taco Day! 😦 But, just in case you’re taking a gander at this post months after October 4 and you’re hankering for some good taco recs, I have to give this place some props. Rockaway Taco (which keeps the Ramones song in my head–“Rock rock rock, Rockaway Taco!”) Set far out on the A train (if it even takes you there) in Rockaway Beach, Rockaway Taco is the brainchild of David Selig, a rare breed of New York City surfer who saw the need for high-quality, low-pretension street food on the beach boardwalk. And if you build it, they will come: Rockaway Beach had always been the best-kept secret of New York, a beach that’s actually clean with great surfing waves and little fanfare. But now, thanks to popular hipster eats outposts and Rockaway Taco, the neighborhood is booming with people in the summer, searching for a day away on just their Metrocard. And Rockaway Taco definitely delivers: beer-battered tilapia and spicy chorizo are just some of the different fillings you can get in each soft tortilla taco, which will only set you back $3 each. It’s easily become one of the hottest spots to grab this easy Mexican dish, and has helped reinvigorate this neighborhood past the small community of surfers in the know. I’m pretty sad that this place is already closed for the season–doesn’t anyone know that the coolest sight ever is an empty beach in the winter?
95-19 Rockaway Beach Blvd, Rockaway Beach
“This beachy stand on the Rockaway peninsula has earned accolades from some of the world’s top taco afficienados, despite it’s hipster reputation. Brave the lines for a taste of their freshly battered and fried fish taco topped with guacamole for $4. Get your fix now, as the stand is only open until October.”–CBS New York
“This summertime-only snack shack, situated a Frisbee toss from the Atlantic, serves traditional Mexican street grub to Rockaway beachgoers. After snagging an outdoor seat, try cheesy quesadillas packed with black beans and plantains ($4); fried-to-order chips with lip-singeing red salsa; cucumbers coated in chilies and lime ($2); and splendid tacos ($3, with guacamole $4), including beer-battered tilapia and spicy chorizo showered with homegrown cilantro and jalapeos.”–Time Out New York
“The culinary and ideological epicenter of the new scene is right here, in a warren of uninsulated shacks on the corner of Beach 96th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard housing Rockaway Taco, DiCosmo’s Italian Ices, and Veggie Island. And a mastermind of the movement, red-haired and scrawny, is flipping tilapia fillets in the back. Andrew Field, Rockaway Taco’s 28-year-old co-owner, is a classic surfer-Zen entrepreneur.”–New York Magazine
“Mr. Field’s fish taco is filled with moist, flaky tilapia, whose batter, however, can want for crunch. Better is the chorizo taco. Deeply smoky and piquant, the coarse-ground sausage takes well to thick guacamole and a bright splash of tomatillo salsa. The griddled tofu, marinated in soy, cider vinegar, cayenne and garlic, holds its toothsome own.”–The New York Times
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“When I finally reached the counter I ordered two fish tacos. We waited about half an hour for our food, but they had a nice waiting area for us with benches so we didn’t have to stand. The fish tacos were not what I expected; they were fried crispy on the outside, and flaky on the inside. It was divine. The vegetables on top were crisp and fresh, and the shell was warm and soft. Overall, these were some of the best tacos I’ve ever tasted.”–Caitlyn D.
“I can’t really think of a better summer day than sitting on Rockaway beach with a good book. Unless you add lunch from Rockaway Taco to it. Really fantastic tacos. I got the tofu, and added guacamole. Two tacos were very filling. They also have watermelon and pineapple mint juice. Best lunch option by far.”–Natalie B.
Now that I’ve dangled a delicious-sounding taco in front of your nose, let’s talk about a taco restaurant that will actually be open today 😉 If you want to see the pinnacle of taco culinaria–to taste the finest, haute-cuisine taco you can sink your teeth into in New York City–Alex Stupak’s Empellon is the way to go. The former chef at the world-famous WD-50 wanted to try his hand at the Mexican staple, but give it a high-end, gourmet twist. Soft corn tortillas are filled with succulent, tasty taco meats you would never expect to see in between the shell: deboned chicken wings with a peanut mole, tempura-fried baby shark, and seared scallop with habanero-tomato salsa all grace the menu. It’s definitely not Taco Bell’s vision of a taco! This is the perfect blend of great quality ingredients and inventiveness mixed with a popular, homey staple food we’ve all come to love. One of their specialties hearkens back to the simple roots of the taco, with a meat we in the United States have pushed to the side for more palatable cuts: Stupak makes a beer braised beef tongue–prized in some cultures but Americans typically shy away–and spoons the flavorful stew into the tortillas, making the tough meat tender and smoky, and mixing perfectly with the cotija cheese. It feels rustic, but it’s created with the most skill a high-class New York chef can offer. A Thursday night date night here tells your significant other that you’re sophisticated and know all the hottest restaurants in town–but that you’re also still down to earth and can enjoy a tongue taco with the best of them.
230 W 4th St (between S 7th Ave & 4 St)
“Chef-owner Alex Stupak slowly cooks brined pork tongue with bacon, chorizo, onions and a slug of Negra Modelo. The meat is coated with the reduced braising liquid and drizzled with a fiery chile de arbol salsa, while slivers of raw onion, roasted fingerling potatoes and queso fresco balance the protein’s rich, spicy flavors.”–Time Out New York
“My tasters enjoyed the seafood taco (made with chunks of tempura-fried baby shark), and the plumply delicious seared-scallop tacos, which the kitchen dresses with a mild version of a habanero-and-tomato salsa from the Yucatán called xni pec (a.k.a. “dog’s nose,” so named because it’s often spicy enough to make your nose wet). But the tacos I couldn’t get out of my head were the classics, like braised beef tongue (which Stupak simmers to a kind of funky softness in beer and soaks in a spicy árbol salsa), and the smoky lamb barbacoa, which is steamed for hours and touched with a “drunken” salsa flavored with Oaxacan chiles, mezcal, and orange juice.”–New York Magazine
“I’m a huge fan of well-cooked lengua, and the Beer Braised Tongue delivers—tender and fatty with crisply frayed edges, served with a hot chile de arbol salsa and a few slices of buttery fingerling potatoes. Straight-out-of-Baja Fish Tempura with cabbage and spicy lime mayonnaise are not earth-shattering in their originality, but show faultless execution. “You could put lime mayonnaise on anything and people would flock to it,” says Stupak, dismissively. I don’t care—it tastes good to me.”–Serious Eats
“The thin and toasted flour tortillas boasted an airy and firm texture, which enabled them to fully support the other ingredients. The chili-like stew of tongue was about as tender as tongue can get, although I couldn’t taste much of the beer. It did give off a smoky and slightly gamey flavor that was well-balanced with the salty cotija cheese and spicy arbol drizzle. I only wished there was some crunchy sweetness. Maybe it’s because the cubed potatoes looked so much like apples or pears, that my mind kept hoping for that.”–Eat This NY
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“For the main, i had the Wild Spinach, Pasilla Oaxaquena, Macadamia Nut Hummus tacos and these were fantastic. The spinach didnt really look like spinach to me, but it tasted great, so I enjoyed it. The hummus was also really great, but what really made the dish for me was the actual tacos themselves – they were fantastic. Soft, chewy and warm – totally hit the spot and their mild taste/texture played well with the flavors of the filling. But, just to warn you, its not a lot of food.”–Stephanie M.
“I know tacos. I live in Austin, TX the home of tacos. These were incredible tacos. I split an order of fish tacos and an order of lobster tacos with the others at the table. Both were phenomenal. Though if I had to choose I’d have just gotten the lobster tacos and been super stoked on those.”–Matthew R.
While eating high-end tacos may appeal to your refined foodie sensibilities, many food critics (and Southwestern and Texan transplants) complain about the quality of Mexican food in New York City. Although we have a thriving Mexican population, the claim is that New York is too far away from the border–both geographically and culturally–to have any semblance of good, authentic Mexican cuisine. And the taco isn’t immune to this criticism: many a review of a Manhattan taqueria from a Southern Californian transplant argues that you have a better chance of getting a decent taco at Chili’s. And while I haven’t eaten a whole lot of Mexican food near the border states, I can tell you that authentic Mexican can be found in New York City!….but it won’t be inside any high-end restaurant in the Village. (Sorry, Empellon!)
My dad taught me the trick to finding really great, authentic Mexican tacos in New York City: don’t go to a restaurant. The best tacos can be found inside Mexican bodegas and delis, made fresh at the counter, typically in the back, behind the rows of knockoff sodas and potato chips. Much like how you want to eat at the Chinese restaurant with the most Chinese people dining, these bodegas are where Mexican people come for genuine, fresh, and–most importantly–inexpensive tacos, without the frills of fresh baby shark and artisinal salsas. One of the most celebrated bodega taquerias is Zaragoza Grocery on Avenue A in the East Village. Its growing popularity has seen it evolve from a nondescript taqueria in the back to a showcase in the front, with a very small seating area that seems to discourage eat-in dining rather than encourage it. What it lacks in ambience, however, it more than makes up for with the food: stewed porks and beefs and chickens fill these little tortillas well, making sure you feel like you’re getting what you paid for. Lush with fresh salad and cilantro, these tacos are the real deal. Order as many as you want–your wallet can definitely handle it–alongside a Mexican Coca-Cola (made with real sugar!) and a bag of fried plantain chips.
215 Ave A
“Each day brings new taco options at Zaragoza, but you can always count on Chipotle Chicken and Pulled Pork. In addition, they get crazy with Ground Chorizo, Potato, Goat and and all kinds of beef, one of our favorites being the Beef Tongue. The small tacos (there is also a jumbo taco option) are double wrapped in tortillas and overflowing with the meat of your choice. Theirs are three biters, sometimes four, and for $2.50, that’s a pretty good deal. Two tacos, a flauta and a Mexican Coke makes for a tasty, quick and delicious dinner.”–Immaculate Infatuation
“A chalkboard out front offers the usual tacos, tamales, quesadillas, and tortas that are standard in taquerias, but also a handful of more ambitious main dishes dear to Pueblans. On a recent afternoon, there was chicken tinga (a fiery sauce of chipotle chiles), mole poblano with chicken, potatoes and chorizo (doubling as a taco filling), and country-style steak with onions.”–The Village Voice
“Let’s not kid ourselves, this is a serious taco by ANY standard, not just a lowered NYC bar. It had that pop, that quality that seems to typify all great food, that moment when you find yourself struck dumb. The flavors are in some ways impossible to separate, and why would you want to? They’re balanced, working together. This is a great taco, the first really great taco I’ve had in NYC.”–Lost Taco
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“What makes me angry about NYC Mexican food is that A) it sucks and B) it is expensive for no reason. I am one of those whiny Californians who constantly cry about the lack of cheap roach coaches that supply us Angelenos with delicious $1 street tacos. At Zaragoza, I can practice my Spanish with the cute little couple that runs the shop. I highly recommend their tacos and their tostadas. And a Mexican Coke.”–Nancy D.
“Succulent shreds of chicken, pork, beef tongue — whatever they’ve got — topped with chopped fresh jalapenos, onions and tomatoes and queso fresco, a smattering of lettuce, a drizzle of heat, all splayed out on a flour tortilla. While you wait for taco, tamale, or burrito, you can’t help but be enticed by the bags of chicharrones in every flavor; bottles of Cholula and Valentina hot sauce; Mexican snacks and staples galore. They even have sugar skulls for the Day of the Dead. It’s open until late, so you can get your taco on post-shift or post-quaff.”–Maya F.
But I couldn’t really talk about homegrown, authentic tacos without going to a place that has genuine culinary culture down deep in its bones. And once again, it’s not even a restaurant where you can find some of the tastiest tacos around–it’s not even inside a building. The Red Hook Ball Fields in Brooklyn recently got quite a bit of publicity when the city attempted to shut down the Latin and South American food stands located around the perimeter of the fields. Thankfully, that never happened, and the event brought to light the fact that we have some amazing authentic Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Eduacorian, and Mexican (among many others!) food served in plein-air, cheaply, right here in New York City. It’s the absolute heart of street food that you see in so many other cultures that we’re only now returning to in the States. There are a few stops along these food stalls to find some amazing tacos, but you might want to take a longer look at Piatztlan Authentic Mexican Food Truck, who just last month took home the coveted Vendy Cup for the best street food in New York City. It’s a great benefit to this neighborhood, and New York in general, that we have such a community of home cooks and vendors selling unrefined, traditional, real food, and pulling us away from the ChipTacoDoba pseudo-Mexican chains of the world.
Red Hook Ball Fields
Clinton St & Bay St, Red Hook
“The tacos, pupusas, and huaraches (all under $10) that helped reignite New York’s love affair with street food.”–New York Magazine
“As usual the Vendy’s top prize was the Vendy Cup, which is awarded by a group of judges (this year that was Food & Wine’s Kate Krader, BaoHaus’s Eddie Haung, Das Racist, Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras and “citizen judge” Sara Lipton), and this year the judges chose the Piatztlan Authentic Mexican Food Truck as their favorite. The truck can normally be found at the Red Hook Ball Fields and you should seriously seek it out. Seriously. The tacos were so good we forgot to take a picture of them until they were a half eaten mess (Sorry about that!). Also, the vendors behind the truck are adorable (though really they all are). “This is my American Dream,” cried the Perez family matriarch in Spanish as she held up their Vendy Cup. “Thank you all so much for making this happen.””–Gothamist
“At Piaztlan’s, I had a hard time choosing from their large menu. I decided to try a tasty chicken taco topped with fresh radish, lettuce, and tomato. I scooped some mild sauce from one of the many jars of hot sauce to add kick to the taco. My expectations were high and I was not disappointed.”–Vendys
Some reviews from Yelp.com:
“Piaztlan Authentic Mexican Food: Winner of the 2012 Vendy Cup and I happened to be in Red Hook, looking to score from a food truck or two the day after they won. What does this mean? Euphoria surrounding the truck, potentially making my barbacoa taco taste even better than I can ever imagine it tasted before. And I may or may not participated in a celebratory shot of really good tequila. This food truck is solid – no bells and whistles, no flashy designs and twee lettering, just really good Mexican food made with love and by family.”–Ki G.
“Last, but not least, was the steak taco. Normally, they come in pairs, but my bud and I were so stuffed, we asked if we could just get one and they happily obliged. These tacos were huge and came with every single condiment imaginable: guac, crema, chopped tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, cilantro, and a salsa bar to boot. Delicious! They had a lot of uniquely named menu items that were as big as the plates they were served on and piled high. Can’t wait to try those on my next trip!”–Sandee L.
Make sure you check out the updated NYC Food Holidays Map to find this most recent holiday!