It was with some apprehension I learned that my friend and colleague Gustavo Arellano would soon be visiting from Orange County, California and wanted to go on an extreme taco run.
Arellano is the editor of alternative newspaper OC Weekly and the author of the celebrated column, ¡Ask a Mexican! — a tongue-in-cheek but also straight-serious, syndicated advice column. He’s also a go-to authority on Mexican food, having published Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America in which he explores the backstory on Mexican dishes and champions a broad sweep of Mexican-American fare.
Accompanying us would be Steven Alvarez, Arizona native and newly minted assistant professor at St. John’s University, who recently moved to Queens from Kentucky, and a video crew that would record Arellano’s impromptu responses to the food for a forthcoming Spanish-language website.
We started in Bushwick, where we met near the Myrtle-Wyckoff station on the L and M at 11:00 a.m. on a Sunday — one of those shivering-cold mornings where the sun struggles to make an appearance. Hands in pockets, Arellano strode up wearing only a plaid shirt and short jacket, open at the front. So much for Californians being afraid of the cold. I was bundled up to the chin as a frigid Santa Ana blew from the west.
Our first stop was Taqueria Acatlan (298 Irving Ave.), a new spot advertising several Pueblan specialities, including fiery chilate de pollo and the homely vegetable soup mole de olla.
We stepped inside to find a café with only two seats and not enough room for all five of us to stand. We ordered a couple of tacos, chorizo and carnitas. Before we moved outside to taste them in the outdoor seating area — furnished with a couple of red picnic tables — Arellano talked to the two cooks, quickly learning they were from Venezuela, and not Mexico. How wonderful New York is! The tacos were good, each made with the usual double tortillas, and we squirted them liberally with red chile sauce.
I pointed out a Mexican restaurant across the street, La Mesita (1513 Myrtle Ave.), praiseworthy for its pambazos, and Cholula Deli (1481 Myrtle Ave.), a very solid taqueria with a hidden dining room in back that name checks a suburb of the city of Puebla. Our next stop was Santa Ana Deli (171 Irving Ave.), another of the archetypal Mexican bodegas that had evolved into taquerias, and in the process shed most of its groceries. Outside a cartoon girl smiles and extols the quesadillas — not the bar food staple, but massive, hand-patted rounds of corn masa folded over a wealth of stuffings, like a giant taco.
Inside, tables occupied much of the triangular floor space. Above a counter at the end was a hand-painted sign offering tacos, tortas, quesadillas, and huaraches with a choice of fillings. Arellano, Alvarez, and I sat down and made ourselves comfortable. First to arrive were a pair of tacos placeros, or “market tacos,” that Santa Ana Deli has been instrumental in popularizing them in Bushwick. One was filled with orange rice and a freshly fried chile relleno, the other with a boiled egg. We topped both with the tomatillo-and-green-chile salsa, and pronounced them soul-satisfying.
Next up was a taco arabe: As interpreted here, it included rolled shards of pork al pastor with sauteed onions and spicy chipotle sauce in a flour tortilla. The taco — really, almost a pita sandwich — proved marvelously mouth-singeing. Alvarez had noted an addition at the bottom righthand corner of the menu that I hadn’t noticed, something called a Santanero burrito. We ordered one filled with carnitas. Since burritos are a California invention, it’s always interesting to see what Bushwick bodega-taquerias do with them.
In this case the result was an opulence we weren’t prepared for: a weighty package folded around pork, rice, and beans, topped with three sauces representing the Mexican flag. It was snowed with queso seco and further greenery, and sided with salad, chips, and guacamole. Basically, it was like a burrito mojado like you find at Taqueria Cancun in San Francisco’s Mission District. Amazing!
We were already feeling a bit stuffed as we made our way in a sharp wind — though the sun had luckily come out — past Maria Hernandez Park. Decades ago it was called Bushwick Park, but renamed to commemorate an anti-drug crusading mom who was shot down in the window of her Bushwick apartment in 1989.
One of my favorite places in the neighborhood is Taqueria Sofia (187 Suydam St.), where I knew to go right for the picaditas — hand-patted rounds of masa dough with a little ridge around the edge to keep the fillings in. One was heaped with barbacoa (steamed goat), the other with long-stewed lengua (tongue). Arellano took one bite of the barbacoa and he smiled. “These are some of the biggest picaditas I’ve ever seen, and the masa is smooth and creamy.” It may have been the best of many great things we ate that day.
Our route next took us west on Knickerbocker, where we admired the cactus paddles, huauzontles, and guaje pods on display in a vegetable market. We passed Gaby’s Bakery (238 Knickerbocker Ave.), a panaderia off the southwest corner of Hernandez Park. “That was the first Mexican institution I was aware of in the neighborhood back in the late 90s,” I noted, and then pointed out the sign, still on the side of a building, of a long-defunct Mexican-Chinese restaurant nearby. “Maybe they came from Mexicali,” said Alvarez, referring to a town on the Mexican side of the California border filled with Chinese restaurants.
We were on our way to Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos (271 Starr St.), one of the earliest tortilla factories in a neighborhood where there were once as many as seven on either side of Flushing Avenue. I explained that this facility had managed to persist, at least partly, by turning into a taqueria catering to the tastes of students, hipsters, and middle-class apartment seekers who had lately moved into the neighborhood. We tried a huarache and a vegetarian taco in the extensively decorated dining room that took up much of the factory’s floor space — though boxes of tortillas were still stacked around the room.
While we liked the huarache — with the masa shaped like a sandal —the taco caused some consternation since it tasted like a side salad in a tortilla. “You know, the kind you get with your main course and leave lying on the plate,” said Arellano. But he was impressed by the general set-up: a tortilleria incorporating a taqueria that appeals to a mass audience. “I don’t think we have anything like that in California,” he said.
We headed back to the car, parked near the bar called Boobie Trap (where a neon sign on the wall reads “Fuck Off”), with the intention of motoring off to Queens to continue our jaunt. It was around 5 p.m., and we’d been walking and noshing for almost six hours. Before leaving the neighborhood, we stopped at Taqueria Izucar (1503 Myrtle Ave.), where we grabbed a couple of suadero (brisket) tacos. “Man, these are good!” said Arellano, while chewing.
It took us a half-hour to drive to Corona’s Tortilleria Nixtamal (104-05 47th Ave.), famous for making its tortillas from scratch from dried yellow corn, creating a product more like California tortillas than the ones we’d been eating. Unfortunately, a sign on the door informed us the place was closed to cater a party, directing us to a second storefront just off Roosevelt Avenue, which also had its gate pulled down.
Not to be deterred, we hopped back in the car and headed for Tacos Morelos (94-13 37th Ave.). This comfortable restaurant in Jackson Heights started out as a humble street cart on Roosevelt Avenue ten years earlier. It had further morphed into a pair of taco trucks parked in Williamsburg and the East Village, and a small cafe just off Tompkins Square. The Jackson Heights location offers a full bar.
Thus we started with shots of tequila, and quickly scarfed a platter of the rarely seen chicken in red (rather than the usual green) and mole pipian. Pipian is an ancient sauce made of powdered pumpkin seeds, the more interesting of the two dishes, that we mopped clean with freshly made tortillas. We also had a taco placero with a fried poblano pepper that was much larger and thickly breaded than the one we’d had a few hours earlier.
“This poblano chile is amazing,” said Arellano. And with that we finished up our Sunday afternoon taco blitz.