I used to think of tacos as those dry and tasteless corn shells that broke into a million pieces during your first bite and were filled with generically flavored low fat ground beef that was almost unidentifiable because it was soaking in sour cream, canned salsa, and shredded cheddar and lettuce.
My take on tacos has changed a bit. Although we do not live in the Southwest or Mexico, the taco scene in New York is slowly changing. In fact, just a few moths ago, two Mexican inspired-restaurants opened up a few blocks away on the Upper West Side.
Now I'm not claiming to be a taco expert like some of my California-based friends, but I am slowly realizing those tacos I ate as a kid were an entirely different entity.
As my desire to learn more about tacos increased, I decided to visit the two newcomers to my neighborhood: Oaxaca Taqueria and Cocina Economica.
Oaxaca Taqueria is inspired by the Mexican city of Oaxaca. The restaurant toots authentic tacos with homemade ingredients sourced from local and sustainable farms whenever possible. The restaurant is small (think take out taco joint) with bright walls decorated with textured panels of colorful wallpaper. The space is narrow with communal tables each equipped with a bevy of hot sauces. The menu is broken down by tacos, enchiladas, tortas (sandwiches), quesadillas, sides, and ensaladas. Most tacos are $3.25 each and during the daytime, Oaxaca offers a lunch special for under $7.
I sampled the special Korean BBQ, fish, and carnitas tacos, and also tried the steak quesadilla and elote (grilled corn).
Each taco arrived nestled in between two soft shells. My favorite taco hands down was the Korean BBQ; a taco filled with Bulgogi beef, mango slaw, kimchee, and BBQ sauce. The taco was sweet and spicy—a wonderful “daily special” taco I hope becomes a regular on the menu.
As for the fish taco, I was happy to see the fish was served ceviche-style rather than fried. The fish was bright and fresh and served with lime avocado salsa, cilantro, and pickled onions. I loved the kick of the subtle spice factor paired with the slightly acidic salsa. The carnitas taco was simple; braised pork with cilantro and pickled onions. Although the pork was slightly greasy, a little squeeze of lime with a dash of hot sauce did the trick.
The steak quesadilla was a hefty portion of grilled, charred steak, melted cheese, pickled onion, and crema served with homemade salsa. Every bite was decadent and delicious. I could eat this any day of the week.
The elote was OK. It’s not corn season so I’d like to try this side during summer. I liked the smoky flavor but wished the corn was slightly more charred.
I left Oaxaca excited to return.
Inspired by Land Thai Sous Chef Pedro Hernandez Perez's home-inspired Mexican meals for the chef team at Land Thai, Chef David Banks opened up Cocina Economica, a warm and cozy Mexican restaurant, which features Chef Perez's flair for authentic Mexican cuisine.
The menu is definitely more varied than Oaxaca and offers a variety of ensaladas, tortas , platillos (entrees), antojitos (street snacks), and postres (desserts). Prices for platillos are about $15 for a dinner size portion and tacos are $4. The space is dark and sexy. Votive candles dot each table and bar, and the walls are filled with Mexican-inspired artwork.
I sampled the octopus, chorizo, lamb, and pork tacos and couldn't resist the grilled calamari salad and skirt steak quesadillas. Each taco arrived filled to the brim and was ensconced in two tortillas. My favorites were the octopus; delicate, tender chunks of lightly chewy goodness, and the pork, which almost melted in your mouth. The chorizo and lamb tacos were dry. In fact, almost all the tacos, with the exception of the octopus, could use a little more "au jus" or salsa. The double layer tortilla only added to the dryness factor.
The calamari salad was a rainbow of colors: bright yellow mangos, ripe avocado, roasted pumpkin seeds, and charred calamari. The first few bites were divine and full of flavor. The only hitch was jalapeno seeds that caught me rather off guard and radically changed the flavor of the dish.
The skirt steak quesadilla was my favorite. A homemade crispy tortilla arrived stuffed with Oaxaca cheese, plump pieces of succulent steak, and jalapenos (without the seeds).
After sampling the two spots, I would recommend sticking with Oaxaca for your everyday taco cravings, but exploring some of the other authentic entrees or platillos at Cocina.
You can read this full review at West Side Rag.