Two years ago I celebrated my 50th birthday with a weeklong trip to Mexico City. I stayed in the very chill neighborhood of Colonia Roma Norte on Tehuantepec. I ate and documented as many tacos, tortas, and other specialties as I could, took a couple of food tours and even ran into Rick Bayless. But there’s one experience I didn’t document, maybe because I wanted to stay in the moment, or maybe because it caught me so off guard.
On my last night in Colonia Roma Norte I took a walk down to the other end of Tehuantepec to check out the street food by the Metro. There were several stands with tacos, tortas, and some sort of soup, but none of them called to me. By this time I’d eaten tacos pastor de arrachera con queso at Taqueria Dos Parados where I ran into Bayless and enjoyed stellar seafood at Contramar, so perhaps my standards were higher than they would have been at the beginning of the trip, but I like to think that the food gods were guiding me toward a more special experience.
As I walked down Tehuantepec back to the apartment I noticed five EMTs jumping out of an ambulance and running toward a small shop. Wondering what was going on I ambled over and realized that rather than a medical emergency it was a street food pit stop. (more…)
A spread from Don Irwin, clockwise from left: a mighty steak cemita, tacos al pastor, and tacos arabes.
Irwin Sánchez, a cherubic taquero from La Resurección in Puebla who started operating out of a window in front of the now moribund Cevicheria El Rey two weeks ago is passionate about his craft. I know this from talking to him, tasting his food, and getting a recommendation to try his comida from none other than Steven Alvarez.
At the recommendation of the specialist in taco literacy I went with a pair of flour tortilla wrapped tacos arabes and a corn tortilla with cochinita pibil. Don Irwin points out a lot of cooks rely on spice mixes when making the Yucatán pork specialty. No such shortcuts are taken at Tlaxcal Kitchen where the meat is seasoned with clove, cinnamon, allspice, and bitter orange, among other things. Excellent on its own the cochinita pibil is even better with pickled onions and habanero that have just a whisper of clove.
Don Irwin is passionate about his craft!
For a guy who’s been covering food in Queens for more than 20 years I am woefully late to the tacos arabes game. “Taqueria La Oriental in Puebla City was one of the first places to serve tacos arabes,” Don Irwin schooled me as I happily munched on the flour tortilla wrapped pork whose origins lie with the Lebanese. “I tried to recreate the same flavors.” Those flavors include sumac that Sánchez sourced with the help of his son’s Lebanese music teacher and a fermented chipotle sauce. The fermentation was a happy accident. He couldn’t quite get it right and then he came upon a jar of it that he had accidentally let sit for two weeks.
Don Irwin is especially proud of his cemitas and makes the bread for the Puebla City style sandwiches from scratch several times a day. Listening to him wax rhapsodic about the sesame studded bun made me realize it is as important to a cemita as the right demi-baguette is to a proper Vietnamese sandwich.
Sánchez seemed disappointed I didn’t get a cemita so I promised to try one on my next visit. He wanted me to have the steak version, a gigantic well-fried slab that overhung the bun, which was smeared with refried beans and packed with quesillo cheese, pickled chipotles, and just the right amount of papalo, a lemony herb that is a must for cemitas.
My only complaint about the sandwich is that it was much bigger than I expected, leaving me jealous of my dining companions sumptuous looking tacos al pastor. I guess they will have to wait until my next visit.
It bears pointing out that like Dr. Taco, Sánchez is also an educator who has taught cooking classes and is as passionate about preserving Mexico’s indigenous Nahuatl language as he is about tacos arabes and cemitas. In facy his outfit’s name comes from the Nahuatl for tortilla.
Tlaxcal Kitchen c/o Cevicheria El Rey, 85-16 Roosevelt Ave, Jackson Heights
Taco trio from Mi Dulce Mexico left to right: arabe, machaca, and birria.
I’ve been trying to meet up with Dr. Taco since this past spring, when we began exchanging Instagram messages. Finally on Saturday the stars, especially the one that’s been baking New York City, aligned and we set a rendezvous for one of his favorite foods, tacos at Mi Dulce Mexico. And not just any tacos, Sinaloense style ones from Northwestern Mexico.
Dr. Taco, whose real name is Steven Alvarez is an English professor at St. John’s University, where he teaches a course called Taco Literacy that explores the foodways of Mexican immigrants in the United States. He’d originally suggested we meet for Colombian burgers, but I insisted on tacos, which is how we wound up at Mi Dulce Mexico. I’ve passed by the bakery/taqueria numerous times and never thought to eat there, but Alvarez told me that since February it’s been the new home of América Rodriguez, the chef of Taqueria Sinaloense, which closed a while back.
Since I skipped breakfast and am at root a glutton I was seriously considering a plate of machaca con huevos, a Sinaolense beef jerky cooked with eggs and tomato that is a typical breakfast, or chilorio, another specialty of the Nortwestern state. The latter is a life-changing heap of pork that’s been slowly cooked down for hours, then fried in lard, and lastly cooked in a ruddy concoction of chilies and other herbs and spices. When you’re dining with a professor of taco literacy though, tacos are the way to go. So we each got three: a machaca con huevos, birria de res, and tacos arabes.(more…)
As the No. 1 food fan in Queens, I was very pleased to learn tennis fans have some Queens-based dining options at this year’s U.S. Open. My favorite Vietnamese sandwich shop, Elmhurst’s JoJu is slinging classic bánh mì as well a bánh mì inspired hot dog and Helen You of Dumpling Galaxy is serving up her signature lamb with green squash dumplings and other goodies. It’s nice to see China and Vietnam represented, but Queens offers food from all over the world so here’s a globetrotting list of 7 of our favorite places from an Argentine steakouse and the borough’s only Burmese to one-of-a-kind only in Queens street foods like Peruvian doughnuts and amazing Tijuana style tacos.
1. Tijuana style Birria tacos at Beefrr-landia
Dozens of taco trucks and carts line Roosevelt Avenue as the 7 train rumbles overhead transporting tennis fans to the Open, but there’s only serving Tijuana style tacos: Beefrr-landia. The truck’s signature beef birria taco is filled with a ruddy beef stew scented with cumin, cinnamon, paprika, bay leaves, cloves, and a good dose of chilies. For a real treat get a side of consomme—a heady scarlet soup featuring more beef—and dip your taco into it. Beefrr-landia, 77-99 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, 347-283-2162
2. Burmese at Asian Bowl
Despite its generic name and a menu that features such American Chinese standbys as General Tso’s chicken this spot run by Kyaw Lin “John” Htin and his wife, Aye Thida, has the distinction of being the only Burmese restaurant in the World’s Borough. Among the list of 13 thoke find the famous latphat thoke, or tea leaf salad, as well as the lesser known gin thoke. The latter is a tangle of shredded cabbage, ginger, and tomato shot through with briny dried shrimp and crunchy broad beans resulting an explosion of texture and flavor. It’s great paired with the crispy beef, which has been fried with onions and chilies until it shatters. Asian Bowl, 101-11 Queens Blvd., Forest Hills, 718-275-1888
3. Chinese Breakfast at Joe’s Steam Rice Roll
This breakfast specialist whose Chinese name translates to Stone Milled Rice Roll King, is located just one subway stop away from Arthur Ashe Stadium. It’s a well-deserved moniker, owner Joe Rong and his crew make the lightest rice rolls around thanks to the fact that the grind their rice in a stone mills to create fresh batter daily. Fillings include shrimp, pork, beef and an assortment of veggies. The crown jewel at the King Joe’s though is the shrimp and egg topped with curry fish balls, soy sauce and peanut sauce. It’s even better with the complex homemade chili oil. Best of all Joe’s is open all day not just for breakfast. Joe’s Steam Rice Roll, 136-21 Roosevelt Ave., #A1, Flushing
The signature taco from New York City’s only truck specializing in beef stew tacos.
I first ate at the Beefrr-landia truck—New York City’s only specialist in Tijuana-style beef stew tacos—after a long walk down Roosevelt Avenue following an evening eating through the Queens International Night Market with Action Bronson.
It was our third taco stop of the night, and we were already quite full. The first was a passable taqueria on National Street, and the second was the amazing nameless al pastor cart that comes out late night in front of the check cashing spot on the northwest corner of Junction and Roosevelt.
Despite the fact that we were all at maximum tacopacity we all looked at each other and decided we had to have the tacos from this truck. None of us had ever seen a tacos de birria vendor anywhere in New York City. I had a taco de birria, while Rachel and her boyfriend, John, each had a taco and split a mulita, a quesadilla like creation, which she raved about. It was a tasty taco, the tortilla stained a reddish orange and topped with beefy stew, but I knew I’d appreciate it more on an empty stomach, so I made it my business to return. (more…)
Many places in Queens serve wonderful Mexican food, but there’s none quite like Tortilleria Nixtmal. That’s because Fernando Ruiz—who grew up eating fresh tortillas in Veracruz—and Shauna Page make their tortillas the old-fashioned way from freshly ground whole corn. And that’s why the boys from Queens Dinner Club and I have chosen Tortilleria Nixtamal to host our next dinner on May 16th. Tickets are $45 and may be purchased here.
Join us for a very special feast as we help christen Tortilleria Nixtamal’s new salon para fiestas above their tortilla factory on National Street just steps away from the 7 train! The festivities begin with a visit to the factory to taste the freshest tortillas in New York City. And then it’s upstairs to the salon, where the kitchen is rolling out all sorts of Mexican delicacies for QDC, including a taco trifecta featuring trompa de al pastor (rotisserie style roast pork); chivo (slow-cooked young goat); and pollo rostizado estilo Ciudad de México (Guajillo chili marinated rotisserie chicken). You can view the full menu here.
Our friends at Black Label Donuts are creating Mexican-inspired treats especially for this dinner. It’s our most popular event to date, so popular that we might even add a second night.
Elmhurst’s Little Bangkok is the gift that keeps on giving. Khao Nom is the latest entrant in the nexus of deliciousness that radiates outward from the junction of Woodside Avenue and Broadway. When I say latest I mean very latest, as in they opened last Thursday. Food critics normally stay away from a place for several weeks before spilling ink, thankfully as a food writer I have no such constraints. When I first heard about Khao Nom—whose name means dessert—I was told that its mainstay would be old-fashioned Thai dessert. So when I visited on opening day I was surprised to find a six-item menu of savories, including something called chan noodle ($11). It’s a generous tangle of chewy flat rice noodles known as sen chan, flavored with chili and tamarind and surmounted by two huge prawns. It comes with a back story too. My pal Joel, a go-to source for all things related to Thai food culture tells me it’s a forerunner of pad thai that dates back to the time when Siam became Thailand and there was a rice shortage. Prime minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram encouraged the eating of noodles and set up a contest. The story goes that the winner of the contest was sen chan (chan noodles) named after the town Chantaburi.(more…)
Now that the streets around Times Square are almost cleared of New Year’s Eve confetti and I’ve digested several plates of lucky New Year’s noodles it’s time to take a look back at 2015. It was a big year for me, including a profile in The Wall Street Journal.Queens continued to amaze with everything from octopus tacos and Thai noodles to Caribbean Chinese and the most unlikely French patisserie ever. In no particular order here are 15 of the best things I ate last year.
Tom yum haeng topped with fried pork sugar and chili.
1. Yummiest dry tom yum
The weekend noodle soup pop-up at Elmhurst’s Pata Paplean remained on point, but one of my favorites there wasn’t a soup at all. Tom yum haeng—dry tom yum noodles—consists of springy yellow noodles, fish balls and golden shards of fried pork all dressed with fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and chili, and cilantro. Mix it all up and dig into the best dry noodles in Thai Town.
2. Tastiest deep-fried seafood nostalgia
The cheery blue and white Bigelow’s Seafood has been around for more than 70 years. After driving by it for about that amount of time, I finally had the privilege of trying it this past spring. These wizards of the fryer turn out impeccable Ipswich clams, fried smelts, shrimp, and soft shell crabs all served in an atmosphere that time and cholesterol have forgotten. (more…)
Fish tacos are tricky business. The batter fried ones are OK, but to this eater they seem like little more than fish and chips gone South of the Border. I prefer my fish tacos with a batter and a hard fry like they do at Tortilleria Nixtamal, where they use skate wing. The other day though I encountered a kind of seafood taco I never tried, octopus tacos. (more…)
Taqueria Cocoyoc’s cemita de barbacoa enchilada is packed with spicy goat.
Last week I had the pleasure of appearing on Shari Bayer’s radio show “All in The Industry.” We talked about many things, including how I became a food writer and The Catskills Comes to Queens. (You can listen to the episiode here.) All that talking made me rather hungry. The Heritage Radio Network studio is located within Roberta’s, but somehow I wasn’t in the mood for Italian. So I ventured deeper into Bushwick on a taco tip from a friend. (more…)