Tacombi supposedly started out in 2005 as a VW bus selling tacos on a Yucatan beach. It was the scheme of Dario Wolos, a former Cornell student who’d grown up in Monterrey, Mexico. He brought the concept to New York in 2010, parking a similar VW Kombi in a garage just south of Houston Street festooned with décor that handily recreated a Mexican beach resort — complete with surfer films, a juice stand, rickety all-weather tables, a concrete floor, and a menu devised by Aaron Sanchez focusing almost exclusively on tacos. The food was good, but what sold the place was the décor, which dazzled with its gimmicks and bright colors.
Five years later, the fifth branch of this concept has opened in a former sushi eyesore on Bleecker Street once configured as a pagoda — sans Sanchez. Now the building, with its blue-and-white-tiled juice bar fronting on Bleecker Street in a pool of bright light, looks more Mexican than Japanese. But can the concept stay fresh after four previous go-rounds? The partial answer is yes. The new interior is the usual Tacombi blend of garish supergraphics on whitewashed walls, with very small tables; at the rear is a bustling open kitchen emblazoned with palm trees and menu come-ons (a chicken chef carries a plate of steaming chicken).
Once again, tacos make up the bulk of the menu — nine of them, in addition to five starters. The alcohol part of the menu is held down by a mere three Mexican beers in bottles. Additionally, there are three aguas frescas and three juice combos, plus horchata. A friend and I went early on a recent evening with the intention of trying, and ranking, all the tacos. These range in price from $3.49 to $6.49, and include some selections not available at the other Tacombis. Engagingly, the menu emphasizes food from the Yucatan, the region that spawned the Tacombi concept in the first place. Principally, this is done via taco fillings and with two types of panucho: a peninsular specialty of fried corn tortillas smeared with refried beans and topped with shredded cabbage before the main fillings are deposited.
Here is our ranking of the nine tacos currently available, all made with single corn tortillas. The size of the tortillas varied from three to five inches:
1. Cochinita de Merida ($3.95) – This small single-tortilla taco, named after Yucatan’s bucolic capital, comes extravagantly stuffed with the signature dish of the state, cochinita pibil, a pork roast marinated in bitter Seville orange and roasted in a banana leaf. The shredded filling develops a delightful sour edge.
2. Panucho de Lechon ($6.49) – The two panuchos come on slightly larger tortillas and might be mistaken for tostadas. The pig filling here is lush and dripping with grease; pickled purple onions add sweetness and zip; a slice of tomato oozes welcome moisture.
3. Seared Fish Tikin ($5.49) – A strongly flavored fish that tastes like mackerel has been marinated in Yucatecan spices and seared, with its flavor a nice complement to the corniness of the tortilla. Like the finest sushi, no extra salsa is necessary, or desirable.
4. Mayita Vegetariana ($3.49) – Summer squash and crumbly cheese make up the majority of this filling, with a squirt of what must be chipotle mayo on top. It’s a great formula for a vegetarian taco, but the quantity of filling could be more profuse.
5. Carne Asada de Tizimin ($3.95) – Name-checking an inland city that few tourists visit (though it’s a cattle center, which perhaps justifies the taco’s name), this filling mainly tastes like grilled strips of beef, which is not a bad thing at all, but spoon on the red (habanero) or green (jalapeño) salsa for maximum enjoyment.
6. Taco Especial ($5.95) – Presumably, the filling of this special taco changes. In this case it was an unusual ceviche of shredded cod that came on a hopelessly small (a scant three inches) tortilla; not bad tasting, but not good enough in either taste or quantity to justify the price.
7. Panucho de Pollo Izamal ($6.49) – This taco is once again a panucho, with all the appeal of the heirloom beans called Rancho Gordo and the crunchy cabbage. Indeed, the pre-Columbian city of Izamal is famous for its parchment-wrapped poultry, only in this case the process imparts little flavor.
8. Crispy Fish ($4.49) – Switching coasts, this taco recreates what has become a New York standard, Baja-style fried fish tacos. The size of the fish finger is relatively generous, but the taste is nearly non-existent: fellas, it needs some oomph!
9. Pollo en Recado Blanco ($3.95) – Stewing poultry in a spice combination called recado blanco containing Seville oranges, garlic, oregano, and black pepper should result in some very pungent chicken. In this case, not.