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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…
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
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
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.
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.
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…
As I first mentioned back on this thread I’ve been wanting to go to Rancho Grande since I first noticed it late last year. To say Rancho Grande is unassuming would be a huge understatement considering I’ve walked right by it at least 25 times over the past year without realizing it was a restaurant until a few months ago. No one goes in or out and the signage is virtually nonexistent. But my strange compulsion to try every Mexican place I see in hopes of uncovering hidden gems too over and I made a note to come back.
I finally stopped in for lunch a few weeks ago. As I expected, I was the only person in the restaurant. In fact, I wonder whether I am the only person who has ever gone to the restaurant. OK, that might be an exaggeration, I’m pretty confident I’m the only gringo to ever step foot in the place. The interior is clean but bare. To keep things simple, I ordered three tacos – chorizo, carnitas, and bistek – and followed it up with an horchata chaser.
After I made my order, the waitress quietly placed a phone call. I didn’t think much of it until two minutes later, a woman came through the door, made a comment to the waitress, and went straight to the kitchen to start making the food. Hmm… any place that needs to call their cook back to work when a customer comes in probably doesn’t do a lot of volume business. Now, in their defense, I’m guessing the cook was on her own lunch break. Nevertheless, it doesn’t dissuade my impression that customers don’t flow through their door with a lot of regularity.
The positive side of this, of course, is that the tacos (all $2.75) were freshly made and quite good. The bistek was the best with typically little chunks of thin beef steak, nicely charred from a hot griddle. The carnitas also had good flavor, and was appropriately fatty, but not as tender, rich or juicy as I would have liked. The chorizo was the weakest of the three. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary either.
So, all in all, I liked that my food was cooked to order and the food itself wasn’t bad either. But given the choice for tacos in Port Chester, I’d head 50 yards around the corner to Tortilleria Los Gemelos, where tacos are far superior, and now only $2 each.
8 Poningo St.,
Port Chester, NY 10573
(I’ve also updated my ongoing Google map of Port Chester Latin food)
I’ve decided to start using Google Maps much more to visually lay out the best food around. I’ll probably do this by topic and by location. So, first on the docket is charting all the good Latin restaurants in Port Chester. Here’s a start. This map will grow as I get around to loading it up with all the places I’ve been to. Right now, this represents about half of the places I’ve been to in PC.
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.