A Two-Borough Taco Tourby Dave Kim
The New York City Department of Health lists 461 restaurants in the five boroughs that identify their cuisine as “Mexican,” and while this seems like a gross underestimate for a city of eight million, it’s still a daunting number for someone looking for the best vegetarian tacos in town. Friends of mine in Los Angeles say the search would be pointless even if I could try them all. They spout off the cliché that Mexican food is awful in New York, that we have our solid institutions (pizza, bagels, steak), our modish darlings (cupcakes, arepas, Korean fried chicken), and our street food (falafel, dumplings, pretty much anything on a stick), but there is no such thing as a good New York taco.
Clearly they are insecure and full of shit, but I’ll go ahead and admit that our Mexican food, generally speaking, maybe isn’t our strongest suit. Excellent taquerias do exist but there are twice as many bad ones, and even the standouts recommended by foodie friends aren’t always good for a vegetarian, which I happen to be. Sadly, this article will not tell you which Mexican restaurant among the hundreds in the city is the absolute best, or neatly blurb the highest rated ones across the Zagat–Yelp divide, or even talk about Mexican cuisine in the sensorial language of a food critic. If you came here looking for tips, then you have permission to turn the page or click on a different link after this sentence, which includes the only bit of actual food advice I will offer: the finest taco I’ve eaten in New York is sold out of a truck on Roosevelt Avenue between 77th and 78th Streets, in Jackson Heights, Queens.
This discovery occurred during the second annual Tour del Taco, an all-day bicycle ride organized by the cycling group Brooklyn by Bike. Over 40 riders showed up on a crisp Sunday in October, and we took off from Grand Army Plaza toward the first of five taco stops on our 22-mile route.
The Tour del Taco is the type of event that gets routinely slammed by anti-cycling activists as “biker douchery”—imagine a flock of cyclists taking up whole street lanes without any sort of official escort, bombing through intersections while ringing their dinosaur-shaped bells at startled pedestrians, all for a sampling of notable tacos in Brooklyn. I admit, we’re kind of a pain in the ass. When you’re part of the group, though, sheltered from the world by a titanium touring bike on one side and a neon pink fixed-gear on the other, you feel assured by the vindication and safety in numbers. Alone, on any other riding day, you have to swerve around double-parked cars in the bike lane, dodge livery cabs making illegal turns, brake hard for jaywalkers; today, for once, traffic can adjust to you.
Our first stop, Tulcingo Deli VI, is in the heart of Sunset Park and the ride there is an easy straight shot down 5th Avenue. Past Greenwood Cemetery and the brief industrial buffer south of it, the neighborhood starts to fill in with densely stocked discount shops and lively taquerias. We zoom past at least six, including the venerable Tacos Matamoros, which was a favorite stop for many on last year’s tour. Sunset Park could easily host a taco tour of its own, and a cursory inspection of online reviews of the area’s restaurants reveals the zealous enthusiasm (and bitter divisiveness) of the neighborhood’s diners. “White people should stick to Tacos Matamoros,” one reviewer on Yelp asserts, after raving about the tortas at Tulcingo. Matamoros got a blurb in the Times a few years ago and is apparently a blogger and foodie favorite: as of this writing it boasts 129 Yelp reviews to Tulcingo’s 13, though not all of the former are positive. Tulcingo is nearly empty when we arrive and the waitstaff seem a little irritated to have a swarm of cyclists, each wanting an individual order of tacos, ruin what is probably supposed to be an easy Sunday shift for them. I get a cactus taco to go and sit down on the sidewalk outside to eat it. It is kind of terrible, filled with bland, slimy nopal from a jar, and I feel left out when people start raving about their carnitas or beef tongue winners.
Here’s what I’m starting to suspect: vegetarian tacos are almost always better at inauthentic establishments that Mexican-food purists love to hate. I’m talking about “burrito bars” and “Mexican-inspired” restaurants with brushed steel furnishings and track lighting, where you can get corn salad or marinated mushrooms on your tacos and douse the shit out of them with Cholula hot sauce. I know I’m leaning toward gringo-ry here, but the next stop, Taqueria de los Muertos in Prospect Heights, is one of these slick taco joints where you “choose your filling” and pay a ludicrous $3.50 per taco—and it’s a lot better for me than the charming Tulcingo. It’s both relieving and exasperating to eat here: the classic trade-off of gentrification, the swapping of authenticity for convenience and acceptance. My wild mushroom and poblano taco isn’t phenomenal and I know it’s called a “taco” only by association. But I can tell someone thought about this dish, designed it specifically for vegetarians like me. Despite the polished aura of the place, the sterile sleekness of it, I wouldn’t mind coming back.
The ride from Prospect Heights to Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos in Bushwick is a long and confusing four miles, with lots of turns and awkward switchbacks. I live quite close to this famous tortilla factory near the Jefferson L stop but have never been before today. The tiny taqueria attached to the factory was once a local favorite, one of those best-kept secrets that the Internet ruined, and is now a popular destination for a bargain lunch. Everyone I know who has been here loves it. The thing to order is the quesadilla because the ladies working the grill will take a ball of masa dough and press out a tortilla for you right on the spot, whereas the tortillas for the tacos are made in the factory next door (which means they’re less fresh, but only slightly). I order a vegetarian taco—the very best in North Brooklyn, according to friends. But it’s not. It’s not even good. The fresh tortillas are hard and chewy, having spent too much time on the grill, and the filling, infuriatingly, is mostly shredded iceberg and chopped supermaket tomatoes. The layer of beans beneath the mountain of lettuce isn’t bad, and dressing the taco with heaping spoonfuls of salsa helps, but what the hell are these gushing reviewers talking about? Is it the cool Bushwick location? The ambience? Maybe it’s the fact that we’re eating in a real-deal tortilla factory with heavy machinery and a loading dock, or the house policy that makes us write our orders on index cards to prevent communication problems, or the wonderfully low prices (tacos are $2.25, quesadillas are $3). All the indicators of ethnic–industrial legitimacy are present, diligently preserved despite interlopers like us crowding the bar with our screenprinted tote bags and bike helmets. Maybe we think places like this are good only because we want them to be good, despite our outsider presence and patronage. Maybe authenticity supersedes all else, guarantees quality.
Or maybe meat tacos are just better.
What I’m feeling as we ride to Queens, speeding on Maurice Avenue past Mount Zion Cemetery, where some 200,000 gravestones are crammed onto 78 acres, is that I need to accept my role as a deadbeat who prefers Chipotle to the local taqueria. It’s a depressing thought. I fucking hate Chipotle. I’m reluctant to go complain to the local taquerias for not doing more for vegetarian customers, as doing so would be another brand of American hegemony and elitist finger-wagging that keeps ruining diplomacy these days. But I’m also unwilling to pretend these places everyone raves about—that everyone thinks are New York’s answer to scoffing remarks from Mexico and California and Texas—are as amazing as people want to believe.
We stop beneath the elevated train tracks at Roosevelt Avenue and 75th Street and examine the food carts that line the avenue. The competition is stiff in this part of Jackson Heights, a good sign. My friend Julia and I walk a few blocks east, passing cell phone stores that are blasting cumbia from hidden speakers and empanada shops that sell fresh guanabana juice. The 7 train roars above us, blocking out all other sounds when it passes. We buy tacos from a brightly colored truck labeled Sabor Mexicano, at 77th Street, and dress them with fresh jalapeño slivers and fiery red and green salsas. Mine is by far the best taco I’ve had today, and at first I can’t figure out why. The tortillas are soft but not soggy. Inside them are beans, onions, lettuce, cilantro, cotija cheese, and a stripe of guacamole. No one ingredient stands out to me. But this is exactly why it’s good. Unlike meat tacos, which are carried by strong flavors in the marinade or complex textures in the meat itself, the lowly vegetarian taco, I realize, is most favorable when it makes no scene at all. It is perfect when it doesn’t offend, when it quietly defers to the salsas or the simple, pliant chew of a warm corn tortilla. I’m a little sad to report that the best taco I’ve eaten in recent memory was also the most ordinary, that it won the contest simply because it didn’t do anything wrong. But I’m finding this increasingly relevant to a lot of things in life, from political races to foreign policy to consumer marketing: the only way to make people like you, it seems, is to keep a low profile and not fuck up.
We bike back to Brooklyn, stopping at Acapulco in Greenpoint, another neighborhood favorite, just as the sun dips past the Manhattan skyline. I take a bite of a veggie taco—bland diced vegetables in gummy tortillas—and then settle back with a beer, taco-ed out for the evening. For the next two days, I’ll keep searching for a savior, a veggie taco I can rally behind, and be let down again and again and again. But at the moment, things are good. The restaurant is packed with friendly strangers, the food comes out quickly, and our server doesn’t seem to mind when we grab our own beers from the fridge. We tell jokes and make new friends, forgetting about tacos and the day’s contenders, and when it’s time to pay the check we find our plates the way we left them, barely touched.
DAVE KIM is a writer based in Williamsburg.