If there’s one thing that’s in short commodity out here in the North East when it comes to Mexican food, it’s consistency. A place that is good one week seems to be terrible the next. So a restaurant or taqueria that can consistenly turn out great tacos, month after month, year after year, is a real treasure.
Which is why, of all the tacos places I’ve tried in the NY Metro area, Tortilleria Los Gemelos in Port Chester is the one I’ve been going back to most consistently since I first tried it back in 2002.
I’ve seen this place go through a lot of changes. At first – when it was named Tortilleria El Paisano (if I remember correctly) – it was just a bare-bones tortilla factory with tables and chairs that served basic taqueria food. The walls were white and bare and the ceiling looked like an old factory ceiling. Slowly they’ve transformed – painting the walls a festive color, redoing the ceiling, changing the name, expanding their menu, redesigning the seating to have permanent booths (which, by the way, are the most uncomfortable booths known to man). They’ve gotten a little more expensive, but their food has remained consistently good.
About a year ago they started offering taquitos, which are nothing more than small tacos (hence, the name), similar to what you find throughout Mexico. Since I usually order regular tacos, sopes or tortas there, I’ve avoided the taquitos. But on Tuesday this week, I decided to order three taquitos – carnitas, al pastor, and cecina.
Most importantly, the tortillas were perfect. I know they don’t hand make their tortillas, but they do “housemade” them. In other words, this place always have fresh tortillas because they make them there and you can see them running off their conveyor belt. These small tortillas were more tender, and more toothsome than I ever remember their tortillas being. They were slightly thicker and cooked to perfection on the griddle with a little oil to give them tender flavor and texture.
And the fillings were done perfectly. Their al pastor, which has never been their strong suit, was well flavored and slightly charred – a nice touch since they don’t use a spit. Their carnitas, always their best choice, was perfectly tender, moist and flavorful without any hint dryness. And yet, it wasn’t overly rich either. And the cecina taco was good too, though not as memorable as the other two.
So, while Los Gemelos isn’t new by any stretch, it’s good to know that some places are still producing great Mexican food, seven years on.
Tortilla Los Gemelos
So, I found out last week that El Charrito is going to close up for the winter. I’m not sure what I’ll do for tacos from now until March. After all, they’ve been the only taco I’ve had in Stamford since I discovered them a year and a half ago. But, while I wait until they reappear in March, I figured I’d recap everything I’ve eaten there:
Huaraches – Although my first ever experience at El Charrito consisted of tacos (when they were still hanging out in the the Shop Rite parking lot), it wasn’t until I had the huaraches in their current location that I was really sold on this place. Their huaraches are thick, sandal-shaped, semi-hard and chewy tortillas smeared with refried beans, meat of your choice, lettuce, cotija cheese, crema, avocado and salsa. These huaraches are very, very good. They aren’t stuffed huaraches like you find in some places where the “tortilla” (for lack of a better term) is filled with beans or meat inside (ala pupusas, but thinner). Nevertheless, these huaraches are very good. At about 9 inches long, these make a pretty good meal unto themselves. $4.50 each
Sopes - really, at El Charrito, sopes are about the same as huaraches, just smaller and round with a slightly thicker tortilla. Excellent.
Tostadas – a different vehicle, but the same formula as sopes and huaraches, with beans meat of choice, lettuce, crema, salsa and cotija cheese. And, like the others, they are very, very good.
Tacos – The tacos are very good at El Charrito. I haven’t tried every variety, but I’ve come really close. So far, I’ve sampled carne adobada (marinated pork), al pastor (another marinated pork, though not spit-roasted like traditional Mexican al pastor), bistek (beef), cecina (salty beef), pollo (chicken), lengua (beef tongue), carnitas (slow-roasted pork), pescado (fish) and pescado al pastor (fish cooked “al pastor style” with pineapple). All of them are good. The standouts for me though are the carnitas and the two fish tacos. The carnitas are good, rich and moist. Sometimes the chunks of fat – intentional with carnitas – are a bit too big, so I’ve got to pick them out, but otherwise, no complaints. And the fish tacos… well, they are excellent. Tender chunks of marinated white-fleshed fish, cooked to perfection. These aren’t baja style fish tacos, which are battered, deep fried fish filets, topped with cabbage and a spicy crema. But they are excellent nonetheless. $2.50 each
Tortas – tortas are the ultimate lunch fare. Big Mexican sandwiches, on a big roll, griddled, slathered with refried beans and filled with queso fresco-style sliced cheese, lettuce, avocado, jalapeños, cotija cheese, salsa, and a huge pile of whatever meat you choose. My favorite torta is always the carnitas torta. El Charrito’s is huge and messy. Get extra napkins and watch out for spilling on your suit. I’ve had more than one trip to the dry cleaners as a result of their tortas. $5.50 each (I think)
Quesadilla – these are a real treat. Put out of your mind the flour tortillas that you find at most places or make at home. At El Charrito, quesadillas are made from huge hand made corn tortillas, probably 12 inches wide, delicately cooked on the griddle, then folded over and filled with the meat of your choice, some Oaxacan cheese (I think, as it resembles mozzarella in taste and texture ), and other goodies. I think they serve gringo style quesadillas too, so make sure you order quesadilla ala Mexicana. $4.50 each
Hamburguesa – As much as I might say the tortas are messy, the hamburguesas make the tortas seem downright tidy. These are hamburgers with a true Mexican spin – spicy mayo, sliced jalapeños, avocado, etc. These would be the best hamburgers in town, except the quality meat they use isn’t the best. I’m not positive, but it seems they just use normal pre-made beef patties similar to what you find from Costco. If they upgraded to some great ground beef, these would be amazing. They still really hit the spot, but until they upgrade the beef, they aren’t the best thing on their menu by any stretch. $5 (I think)
Tamales – Tamales are only sold at El Charrito on Saturdays, but they are worth the week-long wait. The only tamal they offer is the Oaxaqueño variety – either chicken or pork tamales wrapped in banana leaves rather than corn husks. If you’ve never had a Oaxaqueño style tamal, it’s worth the effort to hunt them down. The banana leaf imparts a unique earthy flavor, and the masa is much smoother and much softer than the more toothsome corn-husk tamal. While I wish these were the real traditional Oaxaqueños, replete with mole negro, they are still wonderful in their salsa verde or salsa rojo form.
Sincronizadas – The best way to describe these are a cross between a quesadilla and a ham and cheese sandwich. In Mexico, the ones I had were made with small flour tortillas, with thin slices of ham, queso amarillo (yellow American cheese), pickled jalapenos and avocado. They may not sound very good, but they are surprisingly addictive. At El Charrito, sincronizadas are made with flour tortillas, with a stringier cheese (probably Oaxacan), refried black beans, and thin slices of ham. That’s pretty much it. I can’t say it’s my favorite thing at El Charrito, but it can be satisfying in a guilty pleasure, comfort food kind of way. $4.50
Burritos – These are the only glaring omission in my list, as I’ve yet to try them at El Charrito. I fear this has more to do with psychology than anything else. Over the years I’ve developed such an aversion to burritos that I just can’t bring myself to try them any longer. Maybe if I were hanging out in Texas or Northern Mexico, where burritos are legitimate components of the traditional regional cuisine, but anywhere else, I just see burritos as an appeasement for the gringo. I realize how silly and elitist that sounds. But I can’t help it. So, I can’t report on their burritos.
Whew… that made me tired. And hungry again.
UPDATE: I went by for some dinner tonight and found out that they’ve changed their plans and no longer are taking the entire winter off. Instead, they’ll be around until January, then will be leaving for Mexico for about three weeks. Then they’ll be back in business. So, Stamford folks, no need to lament a loss of tacos for the entire winter.
When I’m done with this trip, I’ll write up all of my notes on my food exploration. But in the meantime, I’ve started a quick thread on Chowhound on some of the food I sampled in the Mission District.
But as a preview, here’s where I’ve been eating thus far:
Katana-Ya – 436 Geary (Sushi and noodles)
Baudin Bakery – O’Farrell St. (bread and breakfast)
Crepes O Chocolat – O’Farrell St. (breakfast crepes)
Colibi – 438 Geary (Contemporary Mexican)
Dotties Diner – James St. (American diner)
Antojitos Aminta – 2590 Mission (Salvadoran)
La Piñata Tortas y Jugos – Mission St (Mexican)
Yucatasia – 2164 Mission (Mexican/Mayan)
Tanpopo – 1740 Buchanen (Japanese noodles)
Yank Sing – 101 Spear (Dim Sum)
And I’ve still got a day left. So, until the excursions are over, this will have to wait.
Just a quick note that Los Gemelos in Port Chester is now making and selling blue corn tortillas. A pound costs $1.50. I didn’t get a chance to try them, but I haven’t seen freshly made blue corn tortillas around these parts, so it was a nice find. I prefer their regular tortillas to anything you can get in a mass supermarket, so I’m hopeful these will be the same.
Interestingly, I didn’t notice them on their menu in any form, though I may have missed it.
While on the topic of Los Gemelos… it had been a good 6 months since I’d been there. I think that’s the longest I’d been away from there since I first went 6 or 7 years ago. Anyhow, their prices have gone up. Tacos now range from $2.75 to $3.50. Burritos are $7.50 and Tortas are also $7.50. Now, to be fair, the torta I had today was absolutely HUGE (as are their burritos, I think). And, I must confess, their carnitas torta was as good as ever. But it is getting pricier. They continue to make the place look a little spiffier inside, with a new bamboo ceiling, covering the last exposed surface of the factory insides that used to adorn the whole place.
Now if they could just make their booths a little more comfortable to sit in… Oh well, the food is still great.
[originally posted on Chowhound]
A year or two ago, I finally made it to La Herradura and had one of the better tacos I’ve ever had in the Tristate area. Hand made tortilla, flavorful grilled skirt steak (really), guacamole, etc. It was awesome. I’ve recommended the place pretty highly based on that one taco and the fact that the interior isn’t dingy – which is generally the case with the places I like.
But Laylag’s post here had me concerned: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/48539…
So, I decided to go back there yesterday and check it out. Boy was I disappointed. It didn’t even seem like the same food.
Like laylag experienced, the only salsa was the table salsa, which is a tomato sauce concoction. Bad and boring.
I ordered two tacos – grilled steak (same one that enthralled me last time) and a shrimp taco. My wife order flautas, and the kids had a variety of dishes.
First, no more hand made tortillas. Same tortillas that you get anywhere.
Second, they put lettuce on their taco. What??? Granted, these were their “Herradura” style tacos, which I’ve now realized must mean “Gringo” taco to them. You get guac, lettuce and pay $2 more per taco.. But last time I went and ordered it, it certainly didn’t have lettuce. That’s an unforgiveable abomination in my book.
The steak was still pretty good, but not great. The guacamole was OK. But overall, extremely average.
My shrimp taco was actually pretty good, but for $4 bucks, it better be.
Wife’s flautas were quite poor and everything else we ordered was your standard typical east coast bad mexican. Really disappointing.
What’s happened? Was my first visit a crazy anomaly? But if they were hand making their tortillas when I went the first time, that’s not something they do just on some odd night… that’s very a deliberate attempt to go above and beyond. It takes skill and dedication to hand make tortillas for a restaurant operation.
So I’m guessing they’ve changed their cooking staff or something? The menus look exactly the same though.
Anyhow, sadly, I can’t recommend it any longer. But, at least there are still 4 other above average Mexican places within walking distance.
[originally posted on chowhound]