Monday, December 15, 2008

Pinche Taqueria

Zócalo detail - José Cuervo posterBefore going corporate and becoming a traitor to my kind, I coached collegiate rowing for many years. This past September I was asked to fill in for a friend who was going out of town for a week. It was blast to get behind a megaphone again and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. By way of saying thanks, my buddy Andrew wanted to take me out to dinner. I thought to myself, "Hey, I have a food blog, and this guy wants to take me to dinner. Let's kill two birds with one stone." Needless to say, I had a few suggestions at my fingertips.

I have been searching out authentic Mexican food since arriving in New York some nine years ago. It's been a hit-or-miss affair. I am a stranger in a strange land here, and am accustomed to something completely different from our neighbors to the south. But the NY Times had just raved about several Mexican restaurants in its Under $25 section of the Dining pages so I thought I'd see for myself what all the fuss was about.
Zócalo's chips & salsa Andrew and I met up at Grand Central Station where we had some time to kill before his assistant Leo showed. Where I come from, "time to kill" is code for beers.

Usually, I'll blow right through Grand Central leaving the eateries to the tourists and commuters, but there is a Mexican restaurant on the lower level, Zócalo, that has several Mexican beers and awesome chips and salsa. They make their own corn tortillas and fry them up regularly for chips. Their salsa is smoky from the roasted peppers and has a nice kick to it. So Andrew and I threw back a couple before meeting up with Leo downtown.
I mentioned the NY Times Under $25 section earlier, and I simply couldn't believe my eyes when they reviewed a fish taco, and actually liked it. I didn't think anyone east of Riverside, CA knew what a fish taco was. After several repulsed looks when I tried to describe the concept, I gave up trying. So when the paper of record graced their pages with a mention, well that's all I needed to know.
Exterior - Pinche Taqueria, Lafayette Street Interior - Pinche Taqueria, Lafayette Street
Pinche Taqueria has two locations in Manhattan: 227 Mott Street (at Prince); and 333 Lafayette (at Bleecker). They are the offspring of an original in Tijuana, Mexico. We met Leo at the Lafayette location. Here was a taqueria the likes of which I'd grown up with in Orange County. No frills, barely space to order and sit, and a straight-forward menu of tacos, burritos and side dishes. I'll bet I could have predicted what was on the menu and been off by maybe one or two dishes tops.
Frida kept us company First things first: beers. There's a selection of 4 or 5 Mexican cervezas, but midway through ordering, we were sadly informed that the Lafayette location did not as yet have its liquor license. BYOB was encouraged though, so off to Han's Bodega on Broadway. Han wasn't actually there, but the man behind the counter identified himself as Ha. Close enough. Six Pacifico beers under an arm and back to Pinche.

We sat at a tiny table in the back and caught up on all the gossip. Leo had just finished up a fifth-year Masters program and had a job lined up. Andrew was getting ready to enter grad school. There was talk of meeting up over the holidays or maybe in Italy later in summer. Nobody was really keeping notes. Two beers in, it was time to order. I had given this some thought and my two companions gladly allowed me free reign.
Tacos de pescado, carnitas y carne asadaI'd come there for the fish tacos but surely any blogger worth his salt is gonna try more than one dish, and so it was with me. Pescado (that's fish, you gringo) would be our starter, followed by carnitas, or braised pork; and finally, carne asada, grilled steak. One of each for our party of three.

The fish, a mahi-mahi, is very lightly battered and the sweet buttery flavor of the flesh comes right through. Just like back home, it's topped with shredded cabbage and crema, or Mexican sour cream and a dollop of vinegary tomatillo sauce. Tangy and delicious.

Carnitas, or braised pork, has to be slow-cooked for hours, otherwise you get a stringy, dry meat. This was neither. There was a beautiful caramelization on the outside and the chunks were moist and tender throughout. These tacos came with raw onion, cilantro and guacamole on top. The guacamole tasted fresh and salty and wonderful. Raw onion, cilantro and avocado are the Mexican equivalent of the classic French mirepoix. Trust me.

Well, I was already sold, and we hadn't even gotten to the carne asada yet. Grilled steak, perfectly seasoned, not charred, and again: onion, cilantro and guacamole. There was a lull in the conversation. People were attentive to signals originating at the palate and racing towards the brain. We had three serious Pinche Taqueria converts on our hands.

This is as close as I have come to home so far in my Mexican food search. Again, the NY Times has gotten there ahead me, but I've always considered them Lewis & Clark to my Thomas Jefferson anyway. So forge on ahead my brethren; I'm right behind you!

Pinche Taqueria chef de cuisine
Thanks for taking the time - Blog O. Food

No comments: