It’s been a blockbuster two decades for Tacombi, the Mexican restaurant chain that started out of a Volkswagen van in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and is now backed by Danny Meyer. The company opened its first storefront on Elizabeth Street, in Nolita, in 2010. Now there are Tacombis in Miami Beach and suburbs of Washington D.C. The company has 17 locations so far, with plans to open 60 more in the next five years.
Now, something interesting is happening. This week, Tacombi opened a small taqueria in the East Village. It’s different from the company’s other restaurants — the casual, white-walled dining rooms where customers sit down and eat average burritos with crispy fish. The taqueria, which opens today at 139 E. 12th Street, near Third Avenue, is inspired by Mexico City, like everything now, and serves a different menu. Its star is suadero, a pale cut of muscle that’s ubiquitous on the streets of Mexico’s capital.
What does it mean that Tacombi, the Shake Shack of Mexican food, is opening a Mexico City-style taqueria? During the pandemic, travel to Mexico’s capital from the United States, and New York specifically, hit record highs, according to Steven Alvarez, a Mexican foodways expert and professor of rhetoric at St. John’s University. The tourists came back, and “now they’re hungry for tacos. The white folks are getting tired of birria,” he says, referring to the Mexican dish that’s seen a surge in popularity in recent years.
In response, a new crop of restaurants has opened with menus inspired by Mexico City, including La Chilaquería in Manhattan and Aldama, Panzón, and Taqueria Ramirez in Brooklyn. Bigger brands, like Tacombi, which recently received a $27.5 million investment from Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality Investments, are now getting on board.
At the new taqueria, tacos are sold for about $5 each from a small, standing-room space that’s around double the size of a large restaurant bathroom. Customers order at the counter, wait for their names to be called, then suck down tacos with longaniza sausage and rib-eye steak at counters scattered throughout the restaurant. It might all happen in 15 minutes or less.
At an event held ahead of the restaurant’s opening on Monday, a half-dozen taqueros shuffled behind the counter. They sliced al pastor from a spit and chopped slabs of vegan milanesa, made with flaxseed and walnuts, on a wooden block by the register. Toward the back of the restaurant, one of them hovered over a choricera. The shallow metal pans are used to slow-cook meats in their own fats. They’re sometimes called a sombrero, given their shape, or a jacuzzi, on account of the pools of pork fat that bubble inside of them.
Choriceras are common at taquerias in Mexico City, but they’re almost impossible to source in New York City. To display one in your kitchen is a sign of great effort. The one at Taqueria Ramirez, one of the city’s best taquerias right now, was custom-built in Mexico’s capital and brought to Brooklyn by its owners. The one at Tacombi was shipped in by an importer.
That hat-shaped metal pan feels like an appropriate metaphor for the new Tacombi, a chain taqueria with some striking similarities to other businesses in the city. “It’s a very expensive reproduction of the real thing,” Alvarez says. “They know what sells and what works.”
The white-walled space is covered in colorful, hand-painted words in Spanish. It resembles another chain of taquerias in Manhattan, Los Tacos No. 1, which started in Chelsea Market in 2013 and still serves the city’s best tacos al pastor. Taqueria Ramirez, which helped popularize suadero and longaniza in New York, has been serving a similar menu since 2021.
According to Tacombi’s founder, Dario Wolos, the company wants to put more regional Mexican foods in the spotlight. In April, Tacombi hired a new culinary director for the brand, the celebrity chef Carmen Miranda, who won Masterchef Mexico in 2019 and worked at Mexico City’s popular restaurant Maximo Bistrot. She oversees a test kitchen at the Tacombi on the first floor of the Empire State Building, where she creates new menu items and weekly specials for the company.
To its credit, the chain is bringing visibility to foods, like suadero, that are still finding their footing in New York City. “There is not a town across Mexico that I have been to that doesn’t have something special that’s unique to that town,” Wolos said over the phone earlier this month. He was in a taxi on his way to Wynwood, Florida, where the company is opening its newest location.
Tacombi is open for breakfast from 8 to 10:45 a.m. and for lunch and dinner from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.