On the north Williamsburg waterfront, where slick luxury towers have helped transform an old working class community into a bastion for young, affluent professionals, there lies a single taqueria. The name is Tacocina, and the owner is Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. The venue is lit up like Times Square: A sign the size of a Chevrolet Suburban hangs above the stand, glowing in neon purple. Seen from the East River, it could double as a lighthouse.
There’s something admittedly wonderful about a Mexican spot, run by one of the country’s top hospitality gurus, occupying a permanent place on the city skyline. But there’s something surprising about how given the community of small-scale, celebrated restaurants that embody Williamsburg and Bushwick — many of them Mexican — it’s the Manhattan operator with a billion dollar burger chain who nabs the 10-year contract at a fancy new park.
Nowhere in New York is gentrification such a powerful force as it is in Williamsburg and Greenpoint. According to a 2015 New York University report, rents have risen over 70 percent since the 1990s, with a marked influx of white, wealthy, non-family households, and a decrease in the region’s sizable Hispanic population — scores of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who were once employed by the now-shuttered factories. The quarter mile of waterfront park that hosts Tacocina is part of the $3 billion Domino Sugar redevelopment that will bring over 2,200 new apartments to the neighborhood. Around 700 of those will be affordable units; when the first tranche hit the city’s housing lottery system last year, 87,000 people applied.
The $50 million park, a vital and energizing green space, is the more democratic part of the mega-project. On Friday, a diverse group of residents, many of them Spanish-speaking, watched the blood red sunset over Manhattan, while others played beach volleyball, cooled off at misting stations, threw bocce balls, ran through water fountains, lounged on an athletic turf, or let their (good) dogs run off the leash in the permissible zones.
I did something less productive: I queued up for 40 minutes at Tacocina, then waited another 25 minutes to get my fairly average tacos — and excellent margaritas, which come with salt even if you ask for them without. It’s one of several restaurants planned for the megaproject; only an Italian restaurant by Missy Robbins and an outpost of Mekelburg’s, a Clinton Hill grocer and bar-restaurant that charges $17 for banh mi sandwiches, are confirmed so far.
But Tacocina is the sole concession on the waterfront park, with no other vendors currently planned, the developer tells Eater. One wonders: Is this really the fairest way to feed the thousands of visitors that will pass through? As I queued up I read signs explaining why cash isn’t accepted here, as well as advertisements promoting Tacocina’s $100 per person fourth of July party. A real people’s taqueria!
Chef Barbara Garcia, a native of Aguascalientes, Mexico and an ex-sous chef at Meyer’s Union Square Cafe, oversees the venue, sending out pork rinds coated in Cheetos-like cheddar dust (right on), little cups of guacamole, and terrible pork belly tacos with strips of chewy, blubbery fat.
Better is the slow-cooked beef taco with the rusty, chocolate-y salsa negra, or the soft and spicy chicken adobo. The best taco by far, however, is the gulf shrimp version; it packs a crispy cornmeal crust, a barely-cooked-through flesh, and a rich tartar sauce. The fried mushroom tacos are decent too, deriving much of their flavor not from the bland fungi but their funky goat cheese-laced sauce.
But what brings all the tacos down are the tortillas, whose substandard quality belie the fact that they’re pressed-in house. The cold rounds bear few signs of having been warmed on a griddle or burnished on a grill. The corn flavor is robust, but the texture is vaguely dense, about a notch below decent supermarket tortillas. None of this would raise eyebrows if this were an anonymous lunch spot on the Upper East Side. But one expects more from one of the country’s most prominent hospitality groups. And one expects more at these prices: A light snack for two, two tacos each plus two beers, will run about $30.
One of the reasons I’ve always recoiled at underperforming food at ballparks and elsewhere is that those venues are often, for out-of-towners, one of the first point of interactions with a region’s signature foods. Those Sunday football concessioners aren’t just selling pastrami sandwiches; they’re acting as diplomats for the city’s restaurants. And so Tacocina, situated at this gateway of sorts to Kings County, is an emissary not just for Meyer’s empire, but for Brooklyn’s greater restaurant community, Mexican or otherwise. And yet, not much here would make an out-of-towner say: “I bet there are great taquerias in Brooklyn.”
So why didn’t the developer, Two Trees, select a more experienced taqueria operator from the borough, or a heralded high-volume spot like Los Tacos from Manhattan? David Lombino, managing director of external affairs for Two Trees, said during a phone interview that there were no other bids for Mexican concepts during the request for proposals. I’d counter that it would’ve been open-minded to have actively solicited such proposals, at the very least to engage venues who aren’t typically part of these conversations.
Other Williamsburg restaurants submitted plans, but the developer tells Eater that a key factor was experience in potentially serving up to thousands daily, as well as the ability to weather downturns during colder months. It’s tough to compete with a Danny Meyer level of logistics and scale (he runs the skippable El Verano at Citi Field).
But most good taquerias are well equipped to serve quite a few people every day; tacos are rarely a low volume business. It also would’ve been heartening if such a well funded real estate company had taken this as an opportunity to economically empower a smaller operator from the neighborhood, giving skeptical locals a better reason to root for the waterfront. Or here’s a thought: For a park with so much foot traffic, maybe tapping more than a single vendor — or calling in food trucks — wouldn’t have been the worst idea?
Lombino says Two Trees engaged in Latino outreach during the staffing process for Tacocina, and that independent operators will have more chances to be a part of the larger development, specifically when the ground floor of the old Domino factory itself opens up. Alas, that won’t happen until the early 2020s. By then, one hopes that Tacocina will at least have the tortilla situation figured out.