It used to be that Mexican food in New York ranked far below any you’d get on the West Coast. Despite what your friends in California might say, the city’s Mexican has come a long way, especially in the taco department. Newcomers, like Empellon Cocina and Hecho en Dumbo, have put New York on the map. And if your tastes lean toward the traditional, like carnitas or tacos al pastor, Tehuitzingo Mexican Deli and El Paso are as close to Mexico City as you can get north of the border. For a modern, not-so-Mexican twist on the taco, there’s Korilla BBQ’s Korean take and plenty more where that came from. Here’s a few of our favorites…
Address: 1643 Lexington Ave., btwn. 103rd & 104th Sts., with additional locations
Phone: (212) 831-9831
There’s no shortage of great Mexican food in East Harlem, but our go-to in the neighborhood is El Paso. You’ll find admirable renditions of Mexican classics, like Queso Fundido, tamales, enchiladas, tortas, and of course, tacos. The tacos are just as traditional with fillings, like chorizo, carnitas, and bistec, all topped with onions and fresh cilantro. If you’re really hungry, order one of the platos fuertes. Our favorite is the Pollo Al Carbon, a simple but tasty grilled chicken with a killer mole poblano, made from chocolate, chilies, nuts, and raisins.
Address: 100 7th Ave. South at Grove St.
Phone: (212) 647-0830
Located at a busy culinary intersection in the West Village, Mercadito Grove is a reliably lively spot to tuck into some Mexican favorites. Especially on “Taco Tuesdays” when they serve 2 tacos for only $5 all night. First things first, start with a margarita and one of their fresh ceviches, like the Dorado, a vibrant mix of mahi-mahi, Asian pear, plantain chips and tamarind-chipotle broth. Of course, you’ll find plenty of tacos to choose from, too. And if you need some help narrowing down your choices, we suggest the Tacos Al Pastor, layered with ancho-guajillo rubbed pork, grilled pineapple and chile de arbol salsa or the Baja-Style Mahi-Mahi Tacos, battered in beer and served with Mexican slaw and chipotle aioli.
Address: 251 West 50th St., btwn. 7th & 8th Ave. (additional locations)
Phone: (212) 581-1818
Julian Medina’s always putting a creative spin on the familiar at one of his Mexican joints (he’s got a few). Take his Shrimp Ceviche, for example. It ‘s cured in a peanut butter-chile de arbol citrus juice along with red onion, basil and quinoa seeds. Instead of one guacomole, he’s got three on the menu at his midtown Mexican, Toloache, including The Frutas, where avocado meets pomegranate, onion, mango, apple, peach and basil for a sweet and tangy twist. As for tacos, we suggest the Suadero, a braised brisket taco with tomatillo salsa and horseradish crema as well as The Langosta, topped with spicy lobster, morita salsa and avocado.
Taqueria y Fonda
Address: 968 Amsterdam Ave., btwn. 107th & 108th Sts
Phone: (212) 531-0383
You might think of East Harlem first when in search of solid Mexican uptown, but over on the West Side, Taqueria y Fonda happens to have an excellent menu that highlights Southwest Mexican cuisine. This low key spot serves up plenty of tacos, including the Carne Asada and Lengua (beef tongue). And there’s plenty more worth sampling on this menu, including the burritos (almost impossible to finish in one sitting). Or try one of their regional specialties, like the Mole Rojo, a red mole made with peppers, sesame seeds, raisins and almonds served with chicken, pork or beef.
Address: 230 West 4th St., near West 10th St.
Phone: (212) 367-0999
Alex Stupak blends Mexican flavors with ingredients that add a little luxury to your standard taco fillings. Tortillas come topped with lobster, field corn and epazote, or with scallops, tomato and bacon. Our favorite is the lamb barbacoa with cucumber and salsa borracha with orange juice, mezcal, and pasilla Oaxaquena. For drinks, check out the extensive tequila and mezcal list. Stupak earned himself plenty of acclaim in his past life as a pastry chef, but with his foray into Mexican food with Empellón Taqueria and the more recently opened Empellón Cocina, he may just have found his true calling.
Address: 19 Rockaway Beach Blvd., Queens
Phone: (347) 213-7466
It’s shaping up to be a sweltering hot summer, which means we’ll be escaping the city heat every chance we get. A visit to Rockaway Taco at least once a summer is a rite of passage as is the Fish Tacos here. They come piled with crispy battered tilapia, radish, cilantro and lime. There’s standout Chorizo Tacos and even Tofu Tacos anointed with an oddly addictive salsa negra. Wash it all down with an agua fresca.
Address: 82 S. 4th St., Brooklyn
Phone: (718) 384-8282
This Brooklyn sleeper deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting this side of the East River. We’d cross over the bridge just for the cocktails, but the tacos are just as good. Along with Enchiladas and Quesadillas, you’ll find a large selection of tacos, like the Camarón with sautéed garlic-chipotle shrimp, the Pollo Rostizado with shredded chicken, salsa verde and crema, or the Puerco, with pibil-style pulled pork and a house-pickled habanero salsa so good we’d buy it in bulk to-go. Pair that with one of Cariño’s cocktails, like the cilantro margarita with Corazon blanco, fresh cilantro, ginger, and lime juice, or the Mezcalita, a mix of Monte Alban mezcal, lemon juice and honey.
Address: Various locations
We couldn’t write about tacos without nodding to the Korean taco trend. The ingenious combination of kimchi, Korean barbecue and tortillas have caused us to reconsider and embrace fusion. Korilla BBQ lets you customize your own tacos, so you can design your dinner. If that sounds like too much work, there’s several great dishes already conceived by the brains behind this thriving truck empire. Our favorite is easily the Ribeye of the Tiger, tender marinated ribeye, topped with red kimchi, korilla sauce (a spicy aioli), Korean hot sauce, and finished off with salsa, cheese, and lettuce. With different proteins, kimchis, and sauces, feel free to mix-and-match until you stumble on a favorite creation. Any day that we find ourselves near the Korilla BBQ truck at lunchtime is a good day in our book.
Tehuitzingo Mexican Deli
Address: 695 10th Ave., nr. 47th St.
Phone: (212) 397-5956
If you didn’t know better, you might dismiss this Hell’s Kitchen Mexican as just another dingy bodega. But make your way to the back of the store and you’ll find tacos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches) as good as any you’d find on the street in Mexico. How often do you find goat tripe or pork ear tacos? This place takes traditional to a whole new level. Grab a stool and try some of our favorites, like the Tacos Al Pastor with spoon tender roast pork, the Barbacoa filled with goat meat, or the Bistec (steak). You’ll be glad you didn’t pass this bodega by.
Hecho en Dumbo
Address: 354 Bowery, btwn. Great Jones and E. 4th Sts.
Phone: (212) 937-4245
What started as a pop-up restaurant in Dumbo has moved to Manhattan to a more permanent home on the buzzing Bowery. Danny Mena’s menu pivots around antojitos, which translates to “little cravings.” His small plates pay homage to his native Mexico City, while showcasing luxe ingredients, the likes of bone marrow and wagyu. Start your meal here with the Esquites, local corn deliciously slathered with lime, epazote, queso añejo, and chile piquin or the Picaditas de Jaiba, corn medallions topped with Dungeness crab, avocado and jalapeno oil. Then move on to the Tacos de Tuétano – Roasted Bone Marrow topped with caramelized wagyu beef tongue and a sweet sherry-avocado salsa. Don’t neglect the taco selection, especially the Tacos de Costilla, stuffed with short ribs, onion and cilantro (with the bone on the side so you can get every last bit of flavor!). To wash it all down, there’s a great cocktail menu with fresh, citrusy drinks, like the Esmeralda, Farmer’s Botanical Gin or Ilegal Mezcal Joven with muddled cucumber, basil and lime juice.