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TACO TOUR

food and-drink

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Fordham University

culture

TACO TOUR

Food Network, if you're reading this, I'm ready for my big shot.

Jennifer Clark

2.8.18

Read time: 10 min.

I spent my winter break much like many of you did, binge watching the Food Network as a means of ignoring the responsibilities that accompany my impending graduation. After reminding Netflix for the umpteenth time that I was in fact “Still Watching”, I had one major takeaway: I could do this. Hosting my own food program and spending my days eating delicious morsels? Hell yea I could do that.

Unfortunately, my numerous letters to the Food Network went unanswered. I even sent a personalized email to Francis Mallmann (of Chef’s Table season 1 episode 3). The man lives on a remote island and only accepts apprentices with zero restaurant experience. With no experience and no prospects, I sounded like his ideal candidate. In a shocking and unfortunate turn of events, neither he nor the Food Network have responded to my inquiries. I personally find it hurtful that nobody was willing to take a chance on an inexperienced, unqualified, undergrad. Nonetheless, I decided to take matters into my own hands and create a food series of my own.

Below is tangible evidence that I am, in fact, qualified to be a world class food critic.


The most recent craving that seized my soul? The quest for a decent taco. However, what began as a search for a good taco soon became an exploration into the culinary limits of just what could be considered a"taco". My goal was to hit up each of the following: a classic taqueria, an Asian fusion place, and finally whatever the strangest taco interpretation being peddled on our New York streets I could find.

After perusing many recommendations, Yelp ratings, and foodie blogs, I settled on three places that were the highest pinnacle of culinary excellence. Okay, in actuality, they just happened to be conveniently located close enough to one another.

There are only three rules I’ve established for these tours:

  • Choose one food for which you have a big fucking hankering
  • Restaurants must be within a 5 mile radius of each other, unless you’ve got a whole day to dedicate
  • Bring a pal to assist you in consuming as much food as possible


Empellon

Location: 510 Madison Ave
Price: $$$
Crowd: Business Bros
Rate: ⅗ stars

I started off my trip at an establishment called Empellon, located on Madison Avenue and East 53rd Street. Empellon opened only last year and is self described as a trendy spot serving up innovative Mexican fusion eats and creative drinks. A little full of yourself, no? Based on my research and Empellon’s position as a Midtown bar, I expected a swanky interior full of after hours business bros. I was not wrong in this assumption, as I spent the first part of my evening listening to the group of suits next to me talk about their adventures in bottle service and saying things like, “Well I knew Michael’s son wasn’t the most qualified candidate for the internship, but of course I gave it to him because ya know, that’s just what you do!” Damn you Michael’s son. Goddamn you.

However, I was willing to look past this for the promise of Empellon’s pastrami tacos. $22 will get you Empellon’s fusion style love letter to New York’s Jewish Delis. Many of you may be thinking: “Pastrami Tacos? What kind of violent afront on the beautiful architecture of the beloved Mexican dish is this girl making?” To that I say, this is a taco-positive zone where we are willing to try all versions no matter how Frankenstein they may be in construction.


These babies come with a generous serving of tender pastrami on a bed of fresh slaw, topped with a mustard seed salsa, all piled high on top of a classic flour tortilla. Their ambitious goal of recreating these epitomal New York flavors in a bite was accomplished. The pastrami was delicious enough to have me questioning whether I was actually in Katz Delicatessen rather than an overpriced fusion joint. Although, as I see food as a vehicle for transporting more sauce into my mouth, I would have preferred more mustard salsa. Overall the effect of the dish was rather strange. I felt as if I was eating the bizarre creation of a stoned 16 year old at WAWA...and I was loving it.

Would I recommend these tacos? If you’re willing to pay $11 a piece for a Kosher riff on a Mexican classic as you battle for elbow room with the afterwork finance crowd, then this is the place for you.


Tehuitzingo

Location: 695 10th Ave
Price: $
Crowd: Neighborhood Regulars & Drunk People Stumbling Out of Bars
Rate: ⅘ Stars

The next stop on my trip took me to my favorite stop of the night, a Hell's Kitchen bodega and taqueria called Tehuitzingo.

From the outside, this place appears to be a quiet bodega in the midst of the Hell’s Kitchen bustling bar scene. However, its interior is loaded with bright colors and wonderfully eclectic decorations ranging from glittering plastic roses in coke bottle vases, to glitzy depictions of Mother Mary. In short, it looked like the inside of my abuela’s heart.


From Tehuitzingo’s loaded menu I ordered a feast of chorizo tacos con papas (deliciously salty sausage topped with potatoes for those of you without a 5th grade understanding of Spanish) and tacos al pastor (spit-roasted pork).
For only $6 you get two tacos of generous portions. Tehuitzingo’s tacos were perfectly seasoned, homemade goodness. Their flavors stood alone, undistracted by simple plating and traditional dressing (none of that sour cream, lettuce, and tomato nonsense found in so many American taquerias). Their menu contains no shortage of other Mexican favorites such as tortas, burritos, as well as more traditional platters. I was especially happy to see tamales and rellenos served , plates more often found in homes rather than most restaurants. Whether you need something to absorb all that liquor after a night out in Hell’s Kitchen, or you’re just looking for a taste of home, Tehuitzingo welcomes you with open arms.


Zen Taco

Location: 522 Columbus Ave
Price: $$
Crowd: As Diverse as its Decor
Rate: ⅕ stars (5/5 for service though)

The final, and most perplexing, stop on my tour was a restaurant called Zen Taco. How do I begin to explain the cultural clusterfuck that is the eatery Zen Taco? Its description as an Asian Fusion joint sounded promising enough, but the restaurant’s delivery was altogether questionable.

Zen Taco’s exterior is lined with Roman columns more fitting for the Pantheon than a fusion restaurant. The confusing decor did not stop there. Upon being seated I found myself next to a mural of, I kid you not, the Irish flag covered in flowers. Alright, I thought to myself, that’s strange but at least the walls are lined with sports bar style flat screen televisions. Thank god, thought I’d miss the big game. I sat down and ordered a medley of tacos and a caipirinha (a drink made from hard liquor distilled from sugarcane, served with sugar and lime). Fun fact: this cocktail is actually native to Brazil...not Mexico. After ordering I realized that the restaurant had been playing exclusively Maroon 5 from the moment I’d walked in. It was if someone had requested Maroon 5’s top twenty breakup hits; including songs like:

“She Will Be Loved”
“Won’t Go Home Without You”
“Sunday Morning”
“This Love”

Was Adam Levine the owner of this confusing establishment? Who was controlling the aux cord? And more importantly, who had hurt them?

While the interior decor was nowhere as confusing as the Cheesecake Factory’s, it was not enough to distract from the subpar fusion being served. I went with the Mixed Taco Platter:
Noodles or Not Taco (shrimp, green curry, asian slaw, pickled onions, sweet chili, sesame seeds)
Miss Piggy (pork, zesty orange, asian slaw, ponzu, sesame seeds)
Taco Chino (pork belly, korean bbq, pineapple salsa, pickled onions, cilantro, sesame seeds)

Despite their differing ingredients, all tacos tasted relatively the same in their unremarkable mediocrity. The pork buns they were served upon were cold and stale, and the food overall lacked the rich flavor I’d been anticipating. Needless to say, I was disappointed with Zen Taco, especially because I had been looking forward to this stop the most. If you do choose to ignore my review (and hey, if the Food Network and my advisor can ignore me, you probably can too) and happen to go, I hope you get my waitress, Meadow. She was wonderful, warm, hilarious, and provided the best service of the night. Personally, I’d go back just for her and the Maroon 5.


By the end of this emotional journey I felt I had grown not only in my waistband, but also in my quest to obtain my own Food Network series. My top pick of the evening goes to Tehuitzingo because sometimes a classically delicious dish has no need for fancy fusion. They served up the essentials without flair or pretention, allowing the flavors to boldly speak for themselves. If you plan on taking on the responsibility of embarking upon your own taco journey, I suggest you substitute Zen Taco with Essex Taqueria and their fish tacos. I hope you’ll join for me for my next big food tour…I’m thinking pork buns, but am open to suggestions.