Seven weeks into the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Taco Tuesday coincided with Cinco de Mayo — and restless New Yorkers emerged from their homes, creating crowds in front of taquerias across the city.
A large group formed outside Mole in the West Village, half delivery workers and the other half waiting for takeout with margaritas, turning nearby Abingdon Square Park into a de facto open-air bar. Donna in South Williamsburg, usually a quiet scene outside, had a long line of more than a dozen people. Small groups of customers collected around Sunset Park’s Tacos El Bronco food truck on Fifth Avenue, with orders taking far longer than usual. And Chelsea Market’s Los Tacos No. 1 and Los Mariscos, both open again for the first time since the pandemic closure, sold out close to 7 p.m., sending a line of disappointed patrons home without tacos.
At many places, people wore masks, stayed in orderly lines, and remained somewhat far apart from each other. But other restaurants got so busy that social distancing went out the window.
At Tacombi’s Williamsburg outpost, dinner orders flowed in from the various apps: Seamless, Caviar, Grubhub, UberEats, and the restaurant’s own website. Earlier in the evening, the restaurant was handling it reasonably well. But by 7 p.m., orders were severely backed up, and a crowd of several dozen customers and delivery workers massed outside of the restaurant’s staging area, in a scene reminiscent of the first nights of the lockdown when Italian red-sauce joint Carbone was inundated with orders.
Slightly tipsy patrons spilled out onto Metropolitan Avenue, where cars were double parked with hazards flashing as their drivers waited for their orders. Passersby gawked at the maelstrom, and one woman, clutching a bag of limes that she had purchased from Foodtown across the street, wondered aloud when her food was going to be ready. Then the cops showed up due to several 311 complaints about the crowds.
By 7:45 p.m., the restaurant’s employees started telling customers that the police had ordered them to stop making new orders — only the ones that were already bagged or being prepared were allowed to finish. “We’re going to be refunding all the orders. The police made us shut down,” explained a Tacombi employee wearing a hat embroidered with “A Lost Cause,” the name of a streetwear brand. A police spokesperson said that while NYPD did not ask the restaurant to halt operations, officers did request that the restaurant advise people to distance more.
Over at the restaurant’s Nolita location, the company stopped taking orders at 6:30 p.m. due to the flood, according to a restaurant spokesperson. Now, the team is working on new takeout rules for both customers and workers at all five outposts due to Tuesday’s crowds. “Where normally the capacity of our dine-in restaurants limit the orders coming through, we underestimated the volume of digital orders we would get for the Cinco de Mayo holiday this year,” the statement says.
Many people stayed with hope that their order would be one of the ones that broke through, while other customers and delivery workers continued to show up, unaware of what had happened at the restaurant. “Everyone come closer so you can hear the names,” yelled one courier to his colleagues. “But not too close.”
Others couldn’t handle the wait. Amelia Drayton ordered chicken quesadillas on the Tacombi website at 7:05 p.m. An hour later, she was still waiting outside the restaurant on a Revel scooter as her husband Tyler paced around the crowd and listened for the names of the final orders being called out. “[The website] said that it was only a 20 minute wait, which is ridiculous given that it’s Cinco de Mayo,” said Drayton. They left empty handed shortly after 8 p.m.
At 8:22 p.m., Tacombi employees finally shut the doors. “I have 200 tickets that I have to call for refunds,” said one staffer.
Customers continued to come, though the pace slowed. Caviar drivers tried to flag down the restaurant’s staff through the window, often to no avail. Williamsburg resident Magnus Melen was one of the last to arrive, at 8:30 p.m. He had ordered fish tacos and margaritas to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with his wife at 7 p.m., and walked down to complain only to discover that Tacombi had been shuttered by the police. Luckily for him, taco joints are not in short supply in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
“Why be angry?” said Melen as he walked toward another nearby Mexican restaurant. “These guys are probably hurting enough already.”
With additional reporting by Serena Dai, Erika Adams, Milly McGuinness, Robert Sietsema, and Luke Fortney
This story has been updated to add a statement from NYPD and Tacombi.