In the book Planet Taco (2012), Jeffrey Pilcher recounts how tacos went from being a local phenomenon in Mexico and certain parts of the southwestern United States around 1960, to being the worldwide obsession they are today. And that has certainly been the case in New York City, along a similar timeline. Never before have we had so many tacos, many from different parts of Mexico, so readily available all around town. Now a new taqueria in the East Village in the old Otto’s Taco space poses a question: How many kinds of tacos can one place make without feeling redundant or falling into mediocrity?
Planet Taco is the brainchild of restaurant industry veterans David Sirinek and Paul Kwok. The former has worked in a bewildering number of places over the years, including Maus, Sticky’s Finger Joint, Quiznos, and Max Brenner’s short-lived Blue Stripes Cacao Shop. The latter has cooked in Chinese kitchens all his life, including his father’s restaurant Silver Palace in Philadelphia. “He’s the one with the real cooking experience,” Sirinek says of Kwok.
When trying to decide what kind of restaurant to open, the pair settled on tacos. They thought about all the versions available in NYC, featuring the usual south-of-the border and north-of-the-border fillings and decided to extend the theme, first to other nations and then whimsically, to other planets. “We just wanted to impress people, and make them happy,” Sirinek says. Wisely, they hired a Mexican chef, Miguel Flores, who previously worked at Cantina Rooftop on Manhattan’s West Side.
The menu became bewildering in its length. There are 13 Mexican tacos, 3 tacos representing American cities, 4 national tacos, and 3 named after planets. As if that weren’t enough, 11 sauces are available in a rainbow of colors. Beyond that, there are soups, burritos, Mexican rice, grilled fruit, fajitas, fried calamari, avocado fries and regular fries, quesadillas, bowls, nachos, tres leches cake, and dessert tacos. I ask Sirinek how one tiny place could possibly make so many things well. He told me they intended to whittle the menu down after they saw what things worked and what didn’t.
I’m pleased to report the Mexican tacos are generally solid, and priced on par with the neighborhood at $3.75 to $6. Naturally, there’s birria. The corn tortilla has been dipped, the consomme deeply flavored, and the meat copious, though not as tender as it might be. Even with this slight defect, it’s the best birria taco in the East Village. However, the al pastor was better in the Mexican category, with a painstaking micro dice of fresh pineapple on top. The chorizo was actually made with intact sausage rather than the usual ground sausage, and it flung off a bit of heat; while the adobo chicken, coated with a lackadaisical red sauce, was a bit dry; it was the only one we wouldn’t gladly order again.
Now for the more off-beat tacos: “Philadelphia” tries to recreate the famous cheesesteak. The grated cheese refuses to melt and the presence of mushrooms was a turnoff. End of story. An homage to Japan, made with shrimp tempura and miso-ginger slaw, was a triumph of international diplomacy; but even better was “Venus,” hauntingly ensconced on a blue corn tortilla stuffed with fried calamari, which was apparently the most spacelike creature the menu could imagine. Mars, somewhat predictably, comes on a red tortilla filled with a paste of quinoa topped with lots of cauliflower. Not bad.
The 11 optional salsas (one comes with each taco at no charge, and we tried them all) are universally good, except for the last and hottest, called “scary.” It was an arresting impersonation of Chinese chile oil incorporating olive oil, garlic, and arbol chiles, but it looked nothing like what you’d want to drizzle on a taco and it also wasn’t hot.
The best salsas were the tres chiles (arbol, chipotle, and guajillo) and the bright yellow habanero citrus. Ultimately, the menu could do well with half the salsas, assigning them to each taco so the customer’s only choice would be the filling. Where menus are concerned, sometimes freedom of choice is a burden. On the other hand, the bill of fare also poses the existential question: When does a taco, identifiable only by its tortilla and not by its filling, cease to be a taco?