The Taco Trucks of New Haven

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If you’ve ever driven on I-95 through New Haven, you’ve seen them. A row of seven or eight food trucks lined on Long Wharf between the freeway and the water. After a few years of passing by, I finally had a chance to stop by and try them out. Of course, it’s taken me seven months to post the images, but better late than never.

The day I went, there were seven trucks in total. Four Mexican, two Puerto Rican and one lonely Hot Dog truck in the middle. To really do the trucks justice, one would need to spend some considerable time at each. I have been once, and barely touched the surface. So stay tuned for future reports. But in the meantime, I can certainly declare that the tacos placero (have no idea what the translation of “placero” is) from the Nexcalli truck were wonderful, and the cemitas I had at the starkly simple Santa Apolonia truck was equally gratifying.

But, really, that was just a teaser. Must go back for more… and must not wait another seven months…


New in NYC: In-N-Out… er… I mean, Fresh-n-Fast burgers

I’m in the process of writing up notes from my two days of pure pork gluttony in Arkansas last week, but need to shoot off this quick dispatch. As an unashamed Southern California boy still in exile in New York, I’m always pining for a taste of home (honestly, half the reason I fly back to LA is for the fish tacos at Tacos Baja Ensenada). I have a routine when I travel to California. My first stop is always In-N-Out and my last stop before heading back to the airport is In-N-Out.

So, I was really taken aback when walking down 23rd street in Manhattan yesterday going to my office when I saw what, at a glance, looked exactly like an In-N-Out Burger (forgive the terrible quality cell-phone pictures):

fresh-n-fast burgers

It’s a new burger joint, just steps away from the uptown 6-train subway stop at 23rd Street. Clearly, they have In-N-Out as their model. Everything was a copy – the menu, the font, the color scheme, the red-striped tiling on the wall, the hyphenated “N” name, even the paper hats of the employees are In-N-Out ripoffs. They even tout the fact that everything is fresh and they don’t have a freezer. The only thing missing was a glass case of t-shirts for sale with pictures of California beaches.

fresh-n-fast menu

Having a blatant In-N-Out rip off in NYC both intrigued and annoyed me. I’d love an In-N-Out burger locally, but I’m not sure how I feel about the obvious copying of the entire In-N-Out restaurant. I did a quick search and it looks like I’m not the only one who has noticed the striking similarities.

So, like any good expat, I decided to give it a try. The first difference is the price. A single burger will set you back $4.24, cheeseburgers are $4.74, fries are $2.60. But more striking is that a double cheeseburger goes north of $7 and a shake is more than $4. Those are Shake Shack prices.

Having eaten literally thousands of In-N-Out burgers in my lifetime, I think I’m a pretty good benchmark.

fresh-n-fast burger

The Fresh-N-Fast burger is actually pretty decent, with a soft pillowy white-bread bun that compacts under the burger, crisp iceberg lettuce, and nice red tomatoes. Fresh-N-Fast burgers also have an In-N-Out-esque thousand island like sauce. But the big difference is the patty. The Fresh-N-Fast patty was bland with little flavor and a slight cardboard-like texture. It may not have been frozen, but it still didn’t have a beefy freshness to it either (where Shake Shack excels). Don’t get me wrong, the burger isn’t terrible. It’s a competent burger, satisfies the urge and can be acquired quickly.

Their fries are slightly thicker than In-N-Outs, but are similarly weak – I’ve never been a fan of In-N-Out’s fries. Fresh-N-Fast’s fries may have been a bit better, but it’s all relative to me.

Frankly, if it didn’t try and rip off In-N-Out so blatantly, I’d probably think much higher of Fresh-N-Fast. But because they explicitly welcome the comparison, I have to declare that they just don’t measure up. And comparing to similarly styled burgers in NYC, I’d still give a big advantage to the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridien followed by the Shake Shack.

All that said, it does have one big leg up on Shake Shack. On a sunny day, you won’t have to wait an hour for your burger. And for those of us who don’t have interns to send down to wait in line for us… that’s a big plus.

Fresh-N-Fast
111 East 23rd Street
New York, NY 10010


Look Ma, I’m on TV! (no, not the YouTube TV, I mean the real one)

CNBC video

Go figure (sorry for just a link… CNBC’s embed is having trouble with WordPress)

Now, I do have to say a few things about this. First, I was really disappointed that CNBC’s Power Lunch doesn’t offer lunch (kidding, kidding). Seriously though, I haven’t yet and probably won’t ever actually watch this clip because I feel completely squeamish watching myself on TV. All of my annoying quirks are far too exposed. So apologies if it stinks – I’m going solely on memory of how it went. Anyhow, the one thing I do remember is that I didn’t get to nearly any of the things I was hoping to talk about.

So to capture some of that mental prep I’d done, below I’ve crafted what my dream CNBC interview would have been:

How is IBM taking advantage of social networking?

A great question… (wink, wink) IBM has the largest community anywhere on earth of employees engaged in social networking! (can’t speak for extraplanetary entities) That translates into almost 200,000 on LinkedIn, well over 50,000 on Facebook, thousands of external bloggers, thousands on Twitter, 17,000 internal blogs, etc., etc. By virtue of our size and technically savvy employee base, there’s no other organization out there with the scale, size and potential influence. We still have work to do to make our efforts more connected and intentional, but the value is there now and the future opportunities are immense.

What are you all doing on these sites?

Work!!! We are doing our jobs – the same jobs we were doing before social media. But hopefully now with better access to colleagues, peers and expertise than we had before. These platforms remove all of the artificial and geographical boundaries you find in organizations that lock up knowledge and information. Instead of relying on your office neighbors or reporting line as the sole source of information, you can reach anywhere into the organization – or out of the organization – to collaborate, learn, listen and influence.In other words, we are on these platforms because we can do our jobs better using them. Sure, we like t0 share pictures of our kids on Facebook too, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Connections, or whatever to learn from the brightest minds out there.

Won’t employees just waste time if we give them access to these sites? [My favorite question, btw]

Not at all. Blocking access to these sites is a self defeating policy for two reasons:

  1. This is a reflection of poor performance measurement practices. If you want to restrict access to Facebook in an attempt to push employees toward productivity, then you aren’t focused on results; you are focused on process. And we all know that process doesn’t mean anything. If an employee is spending 50 percent of his/her time on LinkedIn and Twitter, but performs better than peers who don’t, perhaps that’s a lesson in itself? And if they are wasting their time, that too will come out when it’s time to measure results and performance.
  2. Think of the message this sends employees. “WE DON’T TRUST YOU.” I can’t think of many things that undermines any sense of trust between the institution and the employee than micromanaging how they spend their time. This has particular consequences when it comes to morale and recruitment.

Any parting advice for other companies looking to dip their toes in this water?

Another great question… First, I’d say be pragmatic about how you approach this. Don’t be afraid of the blurring lines between professional and private conversations of employees. That blurring already happens with phones and email. That it happens in social networks doesn’t really change much. Instead, focus on getting great guidelines in place and make sure everyone understands them. Based on our experience at IBM, the guidelines can’t be a top-down mandate. Employees should be part of the process in creating them. Our employees actually wrote the Social Computing Guidelines, resulting in self-regulating, very large, very well behaved community of active participants.

Do you have any advice for where to get a great taco?

Why yes, in fact, I do

So that’s my dream CNBC Q&A. To quote someone far more interesting than myself, “At the end of the day… I think the questions went… wonderfully well.


The road to the US Open is paved with tacos and kebabs

I’ve had 15 half-written food posts that I’ve been sitting on – some for more than six months. So I’m going to attempt to unclog the bottleneck here with a few of these posts. They won’t be fully fleshed out, take it as you will. First is below.

As I’ve noted before, I’ve been somehow successful in keeping IBM’s sports sponsorship as a small part of my communications beat at IBM. It’s great, doesn’t require a lot of time and allows me to dabble in sports PR and sports social media.

One of our premier sponsorships is the US Open Tennis Championship. Held in Queens, NY at the end of every summer and, it’s one of the quintessential New York cultural experiences. And while the tennis is spectacular, and the work generally successful, what I really get excited about is the excuse it gives me to hunt for tacos in Queens.

So, on my way to work at the Open on one particular day, I decided to get off the 7-Train at 74th St, and eat the rest of my way toward the Tennis Center, snacking on tacos, quesadillas, sopes and kebabs along Roosevelt Ave. Below are some of my notes.

Tacqueria Coatzingo. 7605 Roosevelt Ave, Queens, NY

Photo courtesy of Yelp

I have been to Tacqueria Coatzingo a few times before, but my last visit had been at least three years ago. I recently started a query on Chowhound for the latest in spit-roasted tacos al pastor. Coatzingo rose to the top of that discussion, so I decided to start my crawl there. As one of the few places that roasts their al pastor on a spit, Coatzingo automatically gets bonus points.

The tacos al pastor at Coatzingo are very good. Deeply flavorful pork, marinated in adobo, then roasted on a vertical spit giving it a nice char. Generous portions topped with onions, cilantro and avocado salsa (this is the thin, ubiquitious Mexican salsa de aguacate, not the common chunky American guacamole). A good, solid taco al pastor.

Taco cart @ 74th and Roosevelt, Queens

Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture and can’t remember the exact name, but this cart on the south side of Roosevelt, right at the 74th street intersection and below 7 Station puts out very good tacos al pastor. In fact, they are about as good as any non spit-roasted tacos al pastor can be. Huge portions of flavorful pork, served with chunks of pineapple, onions, cilantro and salsa de aguacate. I actually preferred the flavor of the adobo marinade to Coatzingo’s tacos al pastor, but Coatzingo’s cooking method (i.e. spit) gives it an edge. Regardless, this was a good, fat, tasty taco.

Kebab King 7301 37th St. (73rd & Broadway)

Kebab King is near legendary amongst Indian and Pakistani circles. It’s a 24-hour Pakistani restaurant that has a reputation for serving some of the best, authentic Pakistani food around. I caught Kebab King at the right time – during Ramadan – which ensured small lines during daylight hours. There are probably some better places with nicer settings, but Kebab King (the Queens location, not Manhattan) holds up to any of them.

Since I was on the move, I stuck to mobile food – kebabs: Lamb, beef and chicken to be exact. All three were of similar style, consisting of meat ground with spices, herbs, marinated (I think) in yogurt and chiles, then shaped around a skewer and cooked over a live fire. I didn’t see a lot of taste variance between the three kebabs, but all were good so I didn’t complain. (Note: subsequent conversations with Kebab King patrons and friends pointed me to other parts of the menu, like the tandoori fish, beef nihari, chicken biryani and szechuan goat. Some I’ve sampled since, some I haven’t. Stay tuned for another report just on Kebab King).

Tacos Guichos Cart – Roosevelt & 84th

tacos guicho - queens

Taking a break from the al pastor tacos I’d been sampling, I grabbed a carnitas taco from the Tacos Guichos cart at Roosevelt and 89th. While I do love tacos al pastor, carnitas (good ones, that is) probably rank at the very top of my taco food chain. Well, just under the angelic baja fish taco. This was a great carnitas taco: tender, mildly caramelized, super rich pork, overflowing the two tortillas on which its served. Garnished with onions, cilantro and salsa, it’s was a beautiful marriage making a glutton of anyone who eats it.

Random taco stand at 99th and Roosevelt

taco cart 99th and roosevelt

Along Roosevelt Avenue, you’ll find any number of taco stands that sell fresh quesadillas. This particular cart had no name anywhere to be found. It sits on a lonely corner at 99th and Roosevelt on the NE side of the intersection. If, for some forsaken reason, you haven’t had a real Mexican quesadilla, it’s well worth the $2-$3 treat. Almost always made with fresh masa, they consist of large corn tortillas, pressed to about a 10-inch diameter, then cooked on a hot, dry griddle and filled with any number of ingredients.

quesadillas on roosevelt ave

My choice for today was huitlacoche. An ingredient not all that common in this part of the country. Inky black and earthy in flavor, huitlacoche is my favorite quesadilla filling. At this unnamed taco stand, they are done very well. Huitlacoche mixed with onions, chiles and cheese. When cooked, huitlacoche almost melts, giving the quesadilla a rich creaminess that makes it a near perfect treat.

Tortilleria Nixtamal, 104-05 47th Ave, Queens, NY

Ok, so it’s not really on the way, and I’ve been going to Tortilleria Nixtamal regularly now for about seven months, but I still had to stop by on my walk over to the tennis center. I’ll spare more details for a full post (which also has been partially written for 6+ months now) but I ordered the fish tacos. Made with fresh skate that’s lightly pan fried, they are somewhat non traditional, but still very good. These are single-tortilla tacos that come three to an order (as do all of their tacos). The pictures here are from a visit about 6 months ago.

IMG00116-20090408-1309 IMG00117-20090408-1312

As I mentioned, much more (belatedly) on Tortilleria Nixtamal in the very near future, but as a preview, I’ll leave you with this picture, taken outside of Nixtamal. Care to guess what it’s for? A hint… lard. Lots and lots of lard…

outdoor carnitas vat at tortilleria nixtamal


Sizing up the Guatemalan scene in Stamford

I’m not really sure if it’s a function of an ever growing immigrant population from Guatemala, an increased confidence in the commercial viability of their home cuisine or a combination of the two, but Stamford has become home to a significant number of Guatemalan restaurants over the past few years.

By my count, there are at least four full Guatemalan restaurants in Stamford now:

  • Antojitos Chapines – 210 West Main
  • Quetzal Cafe – 262 Hope St.
  • Maya Restaurant – 166 Stillwater Ave.
  • Delicias Guatemaltecas – 163 Cove Rd.

By my count, that means there are now more authentic Guatemalan restaurants than there are authentic Mexican restaurants in Stamford (“authentic” being the operative word). That’s as much of a statement about the poor Mexican options as it is about the significance of the Guatemalan scene in Stamford. Regardless, it’s worth taking a closer look at the burgeoning local scene.

Antojitos Chapines was the first of the bunch, opening in early 2005 in the space of the then recently closed Trinidadian restaurant International Roti. Though it has now been two years since I last ate there, I always found it to be good and consistent. Of the four, it still offers the widest range of local foods from small dishes – as the restaurant name suggests – to full entrees and meals despite its tiny size.

Quetzal Cafe opened soon after Antojitos Chapines in 2005. It is smaller than Antojitos Chapines and only offers a small sampling of food. I have to confess it’s been three years since I was last there. When I was last at Quetzal they still didn’t have a kitchen of their own, requiring them to cook off premise and reheat the food on site. That necessarily limited both their selection and the freshness of the food, but it was satisfying nonetheless. However, I am long overdue for a revisit to see how Quetzal Cafe is doing these days.

Maya Restaurant only opened last month. At first, I was giddy at the proposition of what I thought was going to be a southern Mexican restaurant, focusing on Yucatecan food. I even went there on its opening day but was turned back because they weren’t quite ready. When I asked about the menu it became clear at the time that it wasn’t Mexican, but a quasi pan-Latin restaurant without much of a focus on “Mayan” food. They were offering some Guatemalan, some Peruvian and some Mexican food. With no menu at the time, the restaurant seemed to be offering whatever the cooks in the back room knew to make. So I was a bit disappointed. But, after reading a comment on Dave Cook’s blog about his recent experience at Maya, I have decided to go back and give it another try. It’s clear they are Guatemalan at the core of the restaurant and take some pride in their local cuisine and dishes. That makes makes all the difference. So maybe we’ll have a real Mayan restaurant after all. I’ll report back shortly.

Delicias Guatemaltecas is new, though I’m not sure when it opened as I only just noticed it yesterday as I was driving down Cove Rd. I haven’t even had a chance to pop in to grab a menu, but by the looks of it, it’s a typical Guatemalan deli, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Here’s to hoping it’s a gem hidden in the chaos that is Cove Rd.

There are probably a few other Guatemalan places in the nearby environs hiding out, waiting to be discovered. I consider it my mission to uncover them all.


Some perspectives on ESPN’s new "social" media guidelines

This will be brief, but I did want to offer some of my own, personal perspectives on the issue of ESPN’s new guidelines for employee use of social media. I’m basing this on my own experiences here at IBM in helping maintain the IBM Social Computing Guidelines, which we’ve had now for over four years. The IBM guidelines were created, literally, by the IBM employees who were participating in these social spaces. I won’t go into too much detail here about it – but I’ve written up our experiences in a prior post for your reading pleasure.

Now, to ESPN’s guidelines. Overall, they seem fairly reasonable. ESPN has a business to run and they need to protect their reputation and revenue streams. I understand and appreciate that. Guidelines are absolutely essential for corporations to protect both the company and the employee. But, I did have two main reactions:

  1. They come across too heavy handed.
  2. They seem to have been created and communicated in a completely old-school, top-down manner without input from employees.

If my experiences at IBM have taught me anything, it’s the following:

  • Don’t create social media guidelines for employees without including employees in the process.

Why? As far as I see it, there are a few reasons:

  1. Corporate-only mandates instill a sense of distrust between employee and employer. Nothing says we don’t trust you like management saying out of the blue that you aren’t allowed to do “X” or “Y.” If employees are part of the process, then this becomes a moot point. But by mandating behavior on employees you turn off those who are most likely your most valuable assets in the social media space. After all, nothing is more powerful for a brand than to have its employees out there talking to clients, customers, partners and – in this case – fans.
  2. Missed value. The suits in CHQ (yes, I’m one) can never know all the ways that employees are finding value through social media. And much of that is bringing value to the corporation. So to dictate rules without the perspective of the employees means a lot of potential value can get lost.
  3. Employee “ownership” of the guidelines results in a wonderful phenomenon: better behavior and a self-regulating community. We do no policing of employees in social spaces at IBM. One of the reasons for this is because the other IBMers – the ones who helped write the guidelines – keep everyone else in line. Positive peer-pressure if you like. And if you were trusted to help create guidelines, naturally, you are more predisposed to understand them and to follow them.

Social media in sports is still in its nascent stages. Heck, I even have my own little story about it. I’m very interested in seeing how professional sports leagues, organizations and media outlets ultimately find the balance for all of this. But one thing is for sure, they should all listen to employees and fans as their starting point.

Update: looks like someone else picked up on the IBM example too.


“Med” Empanada owner, Marcelo, passes away

This is generally a very positive, hopefully uplifting blog. However, it’s with regret that I share this tragic news about the passing away of Marcelo Azar, the owner and proprieter of Med Empandas. I quote here from a comment left by his mother-in-law, Jan Fields to my Empanada Guide.

Marcelo and his wife, Stacey Fields, loved to create good food and good conversation together. Over the past 7 years, they worked together in many restaurant ventures, from French Confessions ( Pleasantville), and their own restaurants; Broadway Cafe (Valhalla), and Med Empanadas (Briarcliff).

Marcelo’s memorable, booming voice could be heard through the restaurants, “HELLO MY FRIEND!, I made something special for you!”, and it was always an oversize portion.

The young couple shared a deep love for each other and their 3 month old son, Marcelo, “Marcelito”. In the last 3 years, they never left each others side.

In April ‘09, one month after Marcelito was born, Marcelo was diagnosed with 4th Stage Melanoma. Together, Marcelo and Stacey fought this cancer positively and aggressively. Marcelo’s entire family came from Uruguay to join Stacey’s family in supporting them through the next 2 months.

As the treatment was having encouraging results, the couple’s plan was to re-locate to Uruguay by August for a less stressful life. Marcelo’s health depended on dramatic life changes.

In a sudden, unforeseen turn, Marcelo died on Sunday,07/05/09, due to complications from chemotherapy. He was 36 years old.

Jan Fields, mother-in-law

The eulogy above accurately reflects my limited experiences with Marcelo. Every time I visited MED during my Westchester Empanada excursions, he was always very outgoing and eager to talk to me about his business. He was outgoing, friendly and clearly took great pride in his product. On top of that, he was very talented at his craft. Those are three qualities one would hope more people would emulate.

Finally, when I visited MED the last time, with Liz Johnson of the Journal News to complete the Journal News write up of my guide, he spent considerable time with us and was genuinely thrilled at the attention his little empanada store had been garnering. I have no idea what the future of MED will be; it may already be closed at this point. I’ll try and find out more details.

My sincere condolences and prayers for his family, and particular his wife and three month old baby.