Ever since the first Korean taco loaded with bulgogi and kimchi was handed through the window of a Los Angeles food truck a decade ago, fusion tacos have been increasingly commonplace. Sometimes the juxtaposition of cuisines has awful results, as when steak with barbecue sauce is put in a bao and called a baoco. But other times the fusion totally works, and a sanctified marriage of two or more cultures takes place.
I recently gobbled an example that might represent the most satisfying fusion taco so far. The restaurant El Jeffe has mounted a menu that melds Mexican, Panamanian, Jamaican, and Soul Food cuisines. Opened on Fulton Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant just above the Kingston-Throop stop on the C train three years ago, the restaurant’s amazing jerk pork taco ($3.50) leads off a fascinating parade of fusion dishes.
The taco features a floppy corn tortilla jammed with a dark julienne of jerk pork dotted with nuggets of pineapple, then further mounded with vinegary slaw and crema. Fragrant with allspice, the jerk pork is fiery, though the other elements serve to mellow the heat and pungency. The meat is cut from a vertical spit you can watch spinning while eating your taco, the same contraption, known as a trompo, used for Mexican al pastor. That spit-roasted meat is descended from a lamb dish brought to Puebla, Mexico by Lebanese immigrants in the 1920s. Thus, Bed-Stuy’s jerk pork taco has a long and distinguished fusion pedigree.
The taco is the brainchild of Onishka Camarena, who was born in Panama and raised in Brooklyn. She told the website Black-Owned Brooklyn, “I love Mexican food and wanted to add the seasonings that we use in Panama.” While we’re more likely to associate jerk with Jamaican food, many Panamanians trace their roots to Caribbean islands, including Jamaica. In Brooklyn, jerk chicken is much more common than Jamaica’s traditional pork, making El Jeffe’s taco more distinctive.
El Jeffe’s interior is bright orange and green, and seating is along a lengthy counter that extends far into the narrow space, paralleling the kitchen. Eight tacos are available, and a similar catalog of fillings goes into quesadillas, burritos, nachos, and rice bowls that also deploy black beans and coconut rice, a quintessential Panamanian combination.
My other favorite taco, from a list that also includes fish, chicken, and shrimp, is the veggie medley ($3). It contains variegated bell peppers, zucchini, orange squash, a pinto bean puree, corn, cotija cheese, and pickled purple onions doused with salsa verde. It’s more sumptuous than vegetarian tacos usually are.
While the jerk pork taco was the dish that I went crazy for — and the one I’d return over and over again to eat — there are other things on the menu worth considering. One is a fried chicken burrito ($8.50), a bulging mass of stuffed flour tortilla containing black beans, white rice, greenery, and cheddar cheese, which melts engagingly into the beans and rice. The poultry has a thick crust, crunching loudly as you bite down into the burrito.
Another great dish is mazorca ($4), an unreconstructed Mexican standard consisting of a grilled ear of corn, some of its kernels engagingly blackened, swamped with spicy mayo and dried cheese. The sweetness of the corn shines through. There’s a good guac available with chips ($6), and some rather bland nachos and quesadillas that suffered, from my point of view, from not having any pickled chiles or spicy salsa. The pico here is mainly chopped tomatoes without much to give it zing. But these are small complaints.
Another branch of El Jeffe finally opened on Parkside Avenue on the border of Flatbush and Prospect Lefferts Gardens a few weeks ago, steps from Prospect Park; the opening was delayed by the shenanigans of Con Ed. But while the Bed-Stuy branch boasts a liquor license that allows it to serve beer, margaritas, and spiked sangria with its Mexican-Panamanian fare, the newer branching is currently lacking in this regard, and I didn’t think the food was quite as good, either, at least when I tried it soon after opening.
But the liquor license at the original seemed like an anomaly, anyway. What other fast-casual place do you know that has one? I’d go to either branch for the jerk pork taco and fried chicken burrito, which are unique in the city, as far as I can tell.