In honor of El Charrito taco truck in Stamford, CT

El Charrito - fixed 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 Huaraches from el charritotacos (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.


Everything I learned about social media, I learned from tacos

If you know me, you know one thing. I love food. I really love food. And tacos are generally the focus of my unhealthy food preoccupation. Almost a decade ago I moved to the East coast and out of sheer self preservation, I started what has become a never ending quest to find the perfect taco.

Now that my day job is centered around social media at IBM, I’m realizing the  process of searching for, learning about and sharing great tacos has given me better training in the dynamics of social media than anything else I could have done. 

Following are some lessons I’ve learned about communities and social media, all thanks to the humble taco.

  1. Go where the communities are already congregated on the topic. When I really want to have a conversation about where to find the best food, I don’t start them on this blog. I ALWAYS go to Chowhound.com first. (and trust me, the thousands of contributions I’ve made there over the past eight years are a testament to spending WAY too much time in community efforts).  While my blog might attract a few people (me, my wife, my mom, etc.), thousands are already congregated on Chowhound talking about where to find the best food. My goal is to find great food. My blog isn’t where that happens. I write my blog merely as a means to aggregate my random contributions online, but for real insight, I go to where the community already exists, where the conversations are already lively and the information sharing is the most helpful.
    Lesson: If you build it doesn’t mean they will come. Someone else has likely already built it. Go there first.
  2. Want value? Add value. The quality of what you get from a community is directly correlated to the value of your contributions into the community. This is self explanatory, but suffice to say that the quality of taco recommendations I got increased the more I gave recommendations to the community. Building a level of trust and credibility is paramount to affecting other people’s behavior – including what they offer you, and what they do as a result of what you offer them.
    Lesson: If you want to win friends and influence people, you’ve got to add value to the community. And “value” is defined by the community, not you.
  3. Listen, learn, follow. The great thing about communities is that you are never the smartest or most informed person in the community (if you are, I’d question either your community or your humility). Of all the great tacos I’ve found in NYC, Westchester or Fairfield counties over the past eight years, I’ve rarely been the first to discover them. Usually, someone else has already been there and reported about it. Those tips are often hard to find but through carefully listening, then following those tips, I’ve found some GREAT tacos. Listening preceded finding great tacos. Plus, I was able to see some of the dumb mistakes members made that alienated the rest of the community. Taking a listening-first approach helped me avoid many of those mistakes.
    Lesson: Listen first and you’ll learn things you didn’t even know you were there to learn about. You’ll also understand the explicit and implicit behavioral rules of the community.
  4. Closed loop. I’ve found the more I close the feedback loop, the more valuable feedback I end up getting. Finding tacos requires a lot of probing, asking and discovering. As I’ve taken people’s recommendations to try a certain taqueria, reporting back on those experiences often generates more discussion than the original query. Plus, it has the added benefit of assuring community members their contributions are considered and valued.
    Lesson: Companies would do well to create a more closed feedback loop, illustrating how community contributions are having an effect.
  5. It’s a long-term commitment. If I’d measured the value of the tacos I ate as a direct result of my participation in food communities after the first few months, I’m not sure I would have stuck around any longer. But, I took a long-term view – let’s be honest, food is a lifelong effort – and stuck to it. Over time, I found incredible value from the community (i.e., I eat better now than ever before).
    Lesson: Community focused efforts by companies are often short term in nature. And even when the mission is long term, if the measurements are short term, momentum quickly fades and companies drop their efforts.
  6. It’s not just about blogging. Blogging might be the poster child of Web 2.0, but blogs have not been that helpful in helping me find great tacos. Frankly, the best tools I’ve found in discovering food has been old-school message boards. That’s what chowhound originally was, and, in reality, still is. But that’s where people can share the most information and communities can get the best contribution. After all, forums are the original wiki.
    Lesson: Companies often take a myopic view with social media and focus on the Web 2.0 tool du jour. But sometimes the best solutions are the most boring. Find what works given the intent of the mission.
  7. Avoid any place that sells “hard shell tacos”. OK, I’m not sure how this relates, but let’s be honest, Taco Bell sucks and if you eat there, what you do with anything else in your life really won’t matter that much.
    Lesson: Got some great food tips? Share them.

Now I’m hungry.


Quick notes – great food in San Francisco

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.


Chapines Deli in Mt. Kisco, NY

I’ve written about this place before – though it’s probably been two years ago – but I thought I’d give an update.

I went again for lunch today. Very good casual Guatemalan food there. First, their empanadas are quite good. They are hand made and fried. Try the chicken. Second, the tacos are excellent – primarily because of the tortillas which are all hand made. These are a little different to mexican tortillas. They are much thicker, but much softer. Hand patted, griddle cooked, and steaming goodness. They had fried pacaya, quite a few other good steam-table offerings as well. I still haven’t tried their tamales, but intend to next time.

Now, I think the key is going there early for lunch. You’ll battle the crowds of workers coming in, but most are there just for take out. It has only three very small tables. But if you go early, the tortillas and all the food is freshly homemade. I’ve been there for dinner and the tortillas weren’t as fresh. Not sure if that’s always the case or not.
The tacos are pretty good. The fillings are tasty enough, I guess (stick with the bistek, which though a little salty, is the tastiest). My chorizo filling wasn’t that great. But it didn’t matter since the tortillas were so dang good.

This is NOT a fancy place. This place gives dive it’s name. But if you are looking for a guatemalan fix, or just some really dang good hand made tortillas, this is your place.

(originally posted to Chowhound)


Tortilleria Los Gemelos and blue corn tortillas

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]