Hunters Point in Long Island City has become one of the city’s surpassing destinations for food trucks. This in an era when these mobile operations are struggling to attract patrons, even though open-air eating seems like one of the safest ways to dine.
The area undulates along Center Boulevard, lined with expansive green lawns and glitzy condo towers, furnishing views of the lapping East River and the United Nations just beyond. On any given Saturday, about 20 trucks, vans, and trailers pull up in orderly clumps, and a stroll along the three blocks running south of the new Queens Public Library presents a bewildering array of culinary treasures.
Two friends and I arrived by car and bicycle with the express purpose of testing the new birria truck that recently appeared, wondering if it would be as good as the city’s first birria truck. But after trying that, we stayed to graze further. Seats are provided here and there in the area, called Gantry Park Plaza, and on its piers, but we mainly gobbled standing up, maintaining social distancing and putting our masks back on between trucks.
Chinelos Birria Tacos occupies a jet-black van, wainscoted with brightly colored Aztec and Mayan motifs. The menu is a broad one, featuring tacos, quesadillas, tortas, fajita bowls, burritos, and nachos with a choice of six common fillings. Only at its tail end did we find birria (three tacos for $10).
The three owners of the truck are all veteran taco truck vendors, hailing from Morelos, Puebla, and Mexico City. Two were on duty when we arrived, Boaz and Jose (they preferred not to give their last names). We ordered the birria, of course, and soon three tacos were handed over, garnished with a zippy red salsa. They had been made on exceptional tortillas, two to a taco, which had been dipped in meat juices before assembly, as is traditional.
Said to have been invented in Jalisco, and popularized in Tijuana and LA, birria has only recently come to New York City, though partial versions of the dish had been around for years, presented as either a soup or as tacos with undipped tortillas. Here, birria tends to be made with beef, as it is at this truck, rather than with the conventional goat, though beef is also sometimes used in Tijuana. It’s probably a matter of the relative cheapness of beef here, which is subsidized by the U.S. government.
These birria tacos were superb, juicy and oily, especially when further dipped in the soup, which comes on the side, but must be requested. Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented us from dipping as frequently as we might have liked, not wanting to share germs. Were these birria tacos as good as the ones at the Birria Landia truck in Jackson Heights? I’d say not quite, perhaps since this truck provided multiple fillings, while the one on Roosevelt Avenue had birria as its only product. Another birria source has arisen in Union City, New Jersey, at Chofi Birria, and my friends and I hope to also try it soon.
Turning to the rest of the food truck campus, we plotted our further culinary progress. One bright red trailer across the cobbled street, called Abuela’s Empanadas (Grandma’s Empanadas), was run by an Ecuadorian woman and a Venezuelan woman, both inside the small trailer this afternoon. They provided empanadas of the deep-fried sort, constructed with wheat-based crusts. Displayed in a metal rack in the window hot out of the fat, the choice included cheese, meat, chicken, chicken with cheese, and vegetable.
Really, is there anything better than a hot empanada? These were wonderful in their simplicity, which you’ll recognize as a good thing if you’ve gone to an empanada storefront and been confronted by 80 or so choices, knowing that most had been previously frozen. These were freshly made, and we tried three ($3 apiece). The hot cheese pulled away in long tendrils as we bit into it (we’d torn them into thirds), the ground beef was appropriately crumbly, and the chicken was flecked with modest quantities of red pepper. Each was a paragon of plainness and subtle flavor.
Where to go next? One of the odd specialties of this food truck lineup was something called crispy dogs that I hadn’t seen elsewhere in town. They’re sold at a pair of miniature trucks called Long Island Hot Dog Shack and L.I.C. Crispy Dog, the latter of which also advertised salchipapas, a tasty toss of hot dogs and french fries favored on South American menus. The crispy dog turns out to be an indifferent frank elevated to desirability by being wrapped in pastry and deep fried. It’s at its peak when served hot.
As I said, having so many trucks, trailers, and vans to choose from, regrets are inevitable, because one’s stomach can only hold so much. Our next selection, a boxy black trailer bearing the name Terry and Yaki, had a rather unique combination of attributes. It advertised halal Asian food, mainly over-rice dishes and salad bowls. The elements of a meal there are not limited to Japanese and halal, and the grilled chicken in the yaki rice bowl ($8) had not only teriyaki sauce squirted on top, but chipotle mayo as well, making a layered meal with diverse international references at a reasonable price. “And some people like vegetables with their meal,” one of my companions correctly noted.
At this point we were full to bursting, but did take note of other trucks we wanted to try. There were crepes and waffles, lamb and chicken kebabs, fruit smoothies, the usual soft serve, all-day breakfasts, Moroccan kofta and Greek lamb gyro at the same truck, tuna melts and toasted muffins with jelly, and dozens more choices. I’m not sure how many trucks one would find on, say, a regular weekday afternoon or very late at night, but Saturday afternoon, Central Boulevard is the place to be.