NYC Food Guy’s 200th Post: Revolutionary Sandwich & Authentic Tacos on Sunset Park, Brooklyn Mexican Food Tour
April 6, 2009
Pop the Cristal because it’s a celebration and the milestones are two fold. In just over a year NYC Food Guy has reached the 200 post plateau, a formidable task for one man with a limited budget and an unquenchable appetite. And what better way to bring in the bicentennial than with a delicious discovery: Authentic and affordable Mexican food is alive and well and it lives not in Manhattan but in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It’s the best Mexican food I’ve had since the Red Hook Ball Fields. Read on for a revolutionary Mexican sandwich, awesome tacos and learn how to plan your own food tour in unfamiliar territory…
Tips on Mapping a Food Tour in Unfamiliar Territory
If you’re planning a food tour in New York there are several sites you should check out before embarking. Make sure to copy all the pertinent information you find to a text document, cross-referencing along the way, to focus on suggested dishes that pop up more than once.
- Chowhound (http://chowhound.chow.com/boards) – Click an area and search the name of the neighborhood you’re hoping to canvass. While Chowhound has few photos, the food talk is always flowing. It takes patience, however, sifting through some very long text threads, so be prepared.
- Serious Eats: NY (http://newyork.seriouseats.com/) – Odds are Ed Levine and his team of food hunters have tapped into the neighborhood you’re heading to. Photos are usually a central feature. You can count on this site to steer you to some good stuff.
- Yelp (http://www.yelp.com/nyc) – Once you choose your city, you can get a little more specific in regard to search terms (e.g. “Sunset Park Tacos”, thanks to Yelp’s list feature, should bring up a list of taco places in Sunset Park).
- Eating In Translation (http://www.eatingintranslation.com/) – Dave Cook is a food adventurer unlike any person I’ve met before. If anyone has been to that remote neighborhood you’re venturing to, it’s a good bet that person is Mr. Cook. He always provides photos (and a chance to look further on his Flickr page) but doesn’t usually review places, instead he just offers brief commentary.
If all else fails, feel free to email The NYC Food Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll try to point you in the right direction. Please give me at least a week’s notice.
Our Sunset Park Journey Begins
Warm yellow rays of sunshine beam down upon me as I emerge from the N train subway station at 59th Street and 4th Avenue (Google map) and walk east to 5th Avenue to meet Aaron of Always Eating. Any food tour, no matter where it takes place, is more fun with company; you get to eat more and you can draw on both people’s research, creating a bigger list of eating destinations.
Tulcingo Restaurant & Bakery5520 5th Avenue b/t 55th & 56th street Brooklyn, NY 11220 (Google Map) 718-439-2896, 718-439-2897 Free Delivery, Credit Card Accepted Waitress service, Beer Served
Our first order at this expansive yet informal restaurant featured three tightly wrapped tacos accompanied by room temperature sauteed green onions, mild chiles and sliced radishes. With the exception of the arabes, the other two tacos were double-tortilla, adorned with guacamole, chopped onion and cilantro. The carne asada taco was quality, juicy and flame broiled.
The arabes was the first star of the day. Steaming hot, tender lamb rolled tightly into a tortilla larger and heartier than that of the tacos. The char-broiled meat was the clear flavor in the first few bites but danger was lurking deeper as the ominous single red pepper seed foretells.
Lying stealthily, waiting to pounce on our taste buds is a pasty, deep red chile sauce that’s initial smokey flavor resonates even after the heat from the chile seeds take over. I strongly recommend the arabes taco.
The lengua, or beef tongue taco, was overflowing with juicy, fatty and tender meat with a flavor strongly reminiscent of brisket. The onions cut through the beefiness of the tongue well but I didn’t love this taco.
Ricos Tacos – Piaxtla es Mexico Deli (Open 24 Hours)505 51st Street near 5th Avenue Brooklyn, NY 11220 (Google Map) 718-633-4816 Free Delivery
Ricos Tacos, also called Piaxtla, popped up on most of the lists I referred to prior to our tour. A mural of a pig in a cauldron greets you on 51st street, foreshadowing a pork-filled experience.
The most common recommendation was for taquitos ($1.50 to $2.00), which oddly enough were similarly priced but smaller versions of the tacos especiales ($2.00), the standard full size, double tortilla taco.
The cilantro and chopped onion covering the fatty carnitas taquito ($1.50) wasn’t enough to enhance the underwhelming flavor of the meat.
The spicy enchilada pork taquito ($1.50) was better equipped to offer stand alone flavor although the heat was lacking.
Neither salsa really packed much of a punch either.
After returning home and reassessing our tour, I started noticing praise for Ricos torta, which I will try upon returning. One redeeming characterisitc, other than Rico’s 24-hours of operation, is that only three items on the menu, all involving shrimp, cost over $10.00.
Tacos Matamoros4508 Fifth Avenue b/t 45th & 46th Street Brooklyn, NY 11220 (Google Map) (718) 871-7627
Tacos Matamoros has the classiest facade in the neighborhood, so it was a relief to find a typically informal atmosphere inside. Huge platters of food topped every table and it was a surprise to the waitress when we ordered just three tacos.
Tacos Matamoros set themselves apart from the pack again by toasting their double tortillas, adding some welcome structure to a taco overflowing with griddled meat, guacamole, cilantro and onion.
The chorizo taco ($1.75) was delicious. The slightly spicy sausage was crisp but tender and sweet with just a tiny bite.
We also ordered an al pastor taco ($1.25), spit-fired pork with pineapple, but what arrived was closer to carnitas ($1.25, below), griddled, lean pork devoid of any flavor at all, probably due to lack of fat.
Tacos Xochimilco Restaurant – Home of the Pambazo, A Revolutionary Sandwich & My Favorite Part of This Food Tour4501 5th Avenue at 45th Street Brooklyn, NY 11220 (Google Map) 718-435-7600 Free Delivery
We arrived at Tacos Xochimilco quite full but in a true testament to our mission and the power of preparation, I had to investigate an intriguing sandwich called a “pambazo.” I had only seen this pop up once or twice while researching the food tour and I was intrigued.
We know about tortas, pressed heroes with jalapeno, sliced avacado, queso blanco, mayo, lettuce, and meat, and we also know about cemitas, sesame egg buns with chipotle pepper, onion, refried beans, spicy papalo leaf, Oaxaca cheese, sliced avacado, and meat. But pambazo is a totally different breed.
Refried beans, spicy pork, cubes of spicy, soft potato, sharp queso fresca, and lettuce are all wedged between two halves of a club roll that is then painted with red sauce and pressed to create a spicy and sticky outer coating of deliciousness. Intense, and unlike any sandwich I’ve ever seen before or since. Chaos between two pieces of bread finds order upon reaching your taste buds, new flavors and textures abound with every bite. It’s the everlasting gobstopper of Mexican sandwiches.
It was hard to enjoy anything else after this revolutionary sandwich, but we still managed to try a very tasty flame-grilled carne asada taco ($2.50) doused in queso crema and sprinkled with queso fresca, creating a little flavor trip of its own.
Another redeeming characteristic of Tacos Xochimilco is that the hot sauce was actually hot as you can see from the chile seeds floating in the thick, deep red sauce below.
Guerrero Food Center722 5th Avenue at 23rd Street Brooklyn, NY 11215 (Google Map) 718-499-8635
Our post-pambazo food coma put us close to critical mass so we decided to aid our digestion with a little 20 block walk south to the Guerrero Food Center where we opted for a surprisingly authentic take on a classic dish, the quesadilla. Guerrero Food Center is more than just a taqueria, it’s also a marketplace for all types of Mexican ingredients and produce, as you can see below:
We opted for the flor de calabaza (squash blossom) quesadilla ($3.00) which arrived as a freshly fried pocket of dough, stuffed with salty and stringy Oaxaca cheese, queso crema, queso fresca, lettuce, a bright and spicy salsa verde, and squash blossoms. The overly greasy dough lacked the structure to support the weight and moisture of all the ingredients and as a result was pretty soggy in the middle. The only way to attack this quesadilla without making a total mess is fork and knife. The best parts of this quesadilla were the Oaxaca cheese and the salsa verde, I’d be happy with nothing more than those two ingredients next time.
Next time I go to Guerrero Food Center I’ll make sure to leave room for the nortena torta filled with chorizo, steak, lettuce, tomato, jalapenos, onions, mayo and cheese.
And to prove there’s more going on inside the NYC Food Guy’s mind than just food, take a look at this photo peering down 23rd street on the side of Guerrero Food Center. Does that lady in the distance look familiar?
Butcher Shops & Bakeries
There are a multitude of both butcher shops and bakeries lining Sunset Park. We peeked our heads into a few of them and the two shops below really stood out.
New Public Meat Market
This narrow butcher shop lured us in with its window offerings…
But intrigued us with its wide array of meats…
It’s diverse offering of authentic spices…
And its copious amounts of dried poblano and red chile peppers, ideal for making moles, sauces, stews and soups…
If that’s not enough to entice you to buy everything you’d need to make a great Mexican meal, New Public Market will make the meal for you. If you give them a week’s notice, they’ll roast you a 25-pound suckling pig for a little over $100.
Las Conchitas Bakery4811 5th Ave. b/t 49th & 50th Streets Brooklyn, NY 11220 (Google Map) 718-437-5513
The smell of baking bread and cake led us into Las Conchitas like a plume of smoke in a Tom & Jerry cartoon. The smell of delicious breads, pastries and desserts became even stronger the further inside we walked. We didn’t actually eat anything because we wanted to save room for tacos but of the 5-10 bakeries we stepped into, Las Conchitas was the only one that gave off the scent of freshly baked goods.