The “New York” taco
New York has put down its own taco roots, but it’s still in the early stages of coming into its own. Olvera says he doesn’t go out for tacos here, ever. “Can you imagine a Japanese person searching for the best nigiri outside Japan?” he explains by way of comparison.
The city has been figuring out its taco identity with plenty of experimentation. Chefs like Alex Stupak are bringing diverse traditions that have nothing to do with Mexico, like barbecue rubs, molecular gastronomy, and French techniques, to the New York taco scene. In 2011, a 30-year-old Stupak -- who had previously worked as a pastry chef at Alinea and wd~50 -- opened Empellón Taqueria in the West Village. It may have seemed like a strange move, but “going from modernist pastry to Mexican food, what I loved to eat most, was an attractive, compelling idea,” Stupak reflects.
“I'm an outsider, a white boy from Massachusetts,” he adds. The food he cooks is inspired by Mexico, but he doesn’t call it Mexican -- “it’s not in my interest to copy.” His menu of tacos made with chicken wings, pastrami, and lamb tartare have helped him build an Empellon empire. After opening the taqueria, Stupak opened the more upscale Empellón Cocina in 2012, and Empellón Al Pastor, a laid-back bar/taqueria near Tompkins Square Park in 2013. Last month, he opened a Midtown flagship, Empellón, which, at 8,000sqft and 150 seats, is his biggest and most ambitious project yet. There he’s serving more inventive dishes, like a falafel taco with grasshopper hummus and Wagyu fajitas with peppercorn mole.
At Cosme, Olvera churns out 2,500 tortillas a day from masa made with imported single-source landrace corn by the ancient Mexican process of nixtamalization. “Tortillas are vital,” Olvera says. “With a good tortilla you can make a wonderful taco just with a piece of avocado and a pinch of salt.” However, Olvera’s creations are rarely so simple. His menu may be “Mexican-inspired,” but he also uses local ingredients from the Hudson Valley and stuffs his tortillas with flavors from around the world, like black garlic-rubbed NY strip steak and fried shishito peppers.
It’s not just these upscale takes that make New York’s taco scene so unique. It’s the fact that they exist alongside more affordable and traditional versions. Tortillería Nixtamal in Corona, Queens, grinds corn for its own masa. In Long Island City, Casa Enrique makes traditional lengua (beef tongue) tacos with meat that's slow-cooked and almost creamy. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, there’s Tacos Matamoros’ porky chorizo tacos, Tacos El Bronco’s stewed head meat and chewy pig’s throat tacos, and Ines Bakery’s chipotle-drenched tinga tacos. For a great taco al pastor, there’s Taco Mix on 116th St in East Harlem. In Ridgewood, Queens, Guadalajara de Dia II is a grocery store that doubles as taqueria, and its pollo asado is somehow both rich and fresh. Los Tacos No. 1 in Chelsea Market makes its own tortillas and a balanced, zingy pico de gallo. Having such a strong base of the traditional alongside alternative, out-there variations is what truly makes New York a taco town.