In a city that seems to have one ear perpetually upturned for Mexican food trends, it’s no surprise that Taqueria Ramirez has been turning heads. The Greenpoint taqueria served its first tacos at 94 Franklin Street, at Oak Street, in early August and within a month has already been named one of the best taco counters in New York City.
The accolade is due in part to the fact that, despite living in a city of more than 8 million people, owner Tania Apolinar and Giovanni Cervantes noticed something that most New Yorkers had apparently missed. The taqueria is one of few Mexican restaurants in the borough to prepare its tacos using a choricera, the stainless steel vats of mixed meats and intestines commonly found in Mexico City. “I haven’t seen any places like this in New York,” Apolinar says.
The couple, who live next door to their restaurant, had been hunting for a Mexico City-style taqueria in Brooklyn and, failing to find one, built their own. They opened Taqueria Ramirez last month, serving tripe and al pastor tacos two days a week as a pop-up. What was supposed to be a casual “soft opening,” in which Cervantes and Apolinar perfected their recipes, blossomed into one of the neighborhood’s worst kept secrets. The lines grew. The suadero sold out.
Cervantes and Apolinar took a week-long break ahead of their full opening earlier this month, during which time they brought on taqueros Carlos Perez and Bernardino Reyes. When the team reopened with extended hours on September 8, word of their tacos had reached the rest of the borough. “I knew it was going to be crazy,” Apolinar said ahead of dinner service on a recent weekend, but it’s not clear if she expected the block-long lines that form outside of the taqueria most days prior to opening.
It’s a tall order for a team with no prior experience owning and operating a restaurant. Cervantes and Apolinar’s backgrounds are in photography, which was useful in designing the taqueria’s hand-painted menu and the font on its neon sign and faded blue uniforms, but less so when tending to unending lines of customers and setting up weekly meat deliveries. “We’re figuring it out as we go,” Apolinar laughs.
At the couple’s first restaurant, they are going for something “fast casual,” according to Apolinar, by which she means fast and casual, not clammy and corporate. “We wanted it to be like Mexico City,” she says, pointing to the city’s quick-moving, high-energy restaurants, where customers might be in and out in as little as 15 minutes without ever sitting down. It’s one reason the taqueria serves Topo Chicos, not Modelos.
Most nights, an upbeat playlist booms from a speaker in the corner of the open-air kitchen until 10 p.m. Sometimes it’s that inescapable cover of Volare by the Gipsy Kings, and at others the music is drowned out by the sound of white hipsters decoding the taqueria’s mostly Spanish menu. “Longaniza,” one customer remarked while standing in front of the restaurant last weekend. “I think that’s tongue.”
The taqueria’s bubbling heart is its choricera, a communal cauldron of meats and offal that’s occasionally referred to as a jacuzzi — pronounced “ya-cusi” — by Spanish speakers, and rightly so. Ribbons of tripe appear beside hunks of suadero like a creature in the Loch Ness. The restaurant’s suadero, a thick cut of beef that rarely gets the star treatment in Brooklyn, stews for upwards of three hours and then is shredded. It can be ordered on its own or, better yet, mixed with longaniza in a campechano taco.
Juices from the brick-red stew are used to crisp up tortillas on the grill. Not quite to the crispiness of Tijuana-style birria, but enough to give its tortillas, which come from the recently relocated Tortilleria Nixtamal in Woodland Park, New Jersey, the occasional crunch.
In a borough teeming with vegan and vegetarian Mexican restaurants, the method of preparation might not be the most accessible — “All may contain lard,” the taqueria’s menu proudly states — but it’s considered one of the most delicious. The restaurant’s tripe stews for three to four hours before Cervantes finishes it with a char using a handheld blowtorch. Encased in a tortilla, the crispy-crumbly offal already ranks among the best in the city.
One of two tacos not prepared in the choricera is the taqueria’s nopales. The tough-to-execute cactus dish is sometimes the ugly-stepchild of New York City taquerias, but here it’s done-up with fava beans, tomato, onion, and cubes of queso anejo. (Again, it helps that everything may contain lard.) The other is Cervantes’ take on al pastor, a slightly sweet meat shaved straight from the spit with a wedge of pineapple.
All of the tacos are priced at $4, except for the tripe, which costs a dollar more. Tacos come unadorned and arranged neatly on colorful plastic plates that have been imported from Mexico City by a friend of the owners. At one end of the taqueria, a line of clay pots offers onion, cilantro, lime wedges, and two salsas: one made from chile de arbol and habanero, and a milder version made with serrano chiles and tomatillo.
Taqueria Ramirez is open for indoor and outdoor dining, with no plans to offer takeout or delivery in the near future. “You have to eat it in the moment,” Apolinar says. “When a taco gets cold, the fat doesn’t taste as good,” as anyone who’s eaten water-logged tortillas or congealed tripe can attest. There are 10 high-top chairs inside the restaurant but in the final days of summer, the best seats are at a standing counter out front, where an assembly of neighborhood dogs licks at grease spots and scraps of longaniza.
Cervantes and Apolinar hail from CDMX and the northern Mexican city of Torréon, respectively. The couple met five years ago while working at Greenpoint photography studio Colony and started making tacos during office lunches. Cervantes popped up at Brooklyn Safehouse, a Greenpoint dive around the corner from the taqueria, and eventually in nearby Transmitter Park. When a former coffee shop space opened on Oak Street during the pandemic, they doubled down on those plans.
The couple designed the entirety of the taqueria, down to its clubby orange bathroom and choricera and comal, which were custom made in Mexico City. The restaurant’s logo, a street dog with an underbite, is inspired by the animals that roam the rooftops of Mexico and is of no relation to the couple’s pet next door, a vocal pomeranian named Jean.
Taqueria Ramirez is open Wednesday to Sunday, from 5 to 10 p.m. To note: The line can form as early as a half-hour before the restaurant opens, so get there ahead of time for the first of the tripa and the best of the trompo.