Authentic Mexican tacos in NYC: Found?

by Emily on May 4, 2010 · 22 comments

in Restaurants

[caption id="attachment_280" align="alignright" width="500" caption="Tender and spicy tacos at El Aguila, East Harlem"]Tender and spicy tacos at El Aguila, East Harlem[/caption] Thing one you should know is that I really don't know jack about good tacos. I only know that I like them, especially fish tacos and ones in fresh corn tortillas with lots of spicy salsa. Thing two you should know is that New York City is universally maligned for being a bad city to find authentic Mexican food. This is curious, because we do have a good-sized Mexican immigrant community. All that said, I figured if anyone could help Mouth Of The Border fans find a good taco, it would be one of my food lover friends. Hagan of Wandering Foodie, asked me a few weeks ago if I wanted to get together with him and J.D., a fellow food writer who was in town from Austin for a few days. [caption id="attachment_282" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Hagan, of Wandering Foodie"]Hagan, of Wandering Foodie[/caption] J.D.'s site, Citizen Taco, is quick, concise hits on where to find good food all over the U.S.. Wandering Foodie is organized around large-scale food projects, like the time Hagan (the author) ate out a different restaurant for every meal for an entire month. Between the two of them, I was sure I'd be shown a great time and maybe even figure out if authentic tacos exist anywhere in this city. [caption id="attachment_284" align="aligncenter" width="333" caption="J.D. of Citizen Taco, going in for the biiiiite"]Going in for the biiiiite[/caption] First, I hoofed it from my home in Brooklyn up to East Harlem. Hagan lives up there and is convinced that his 'hood has got it going on in the taco arena. I was late getting up there, and all three of us were starving. The first spot we hit up was the unassuming but tidy El Aguila on E. 116th St. Hagan and J.D. settled on one taco each of the carne asada (marinated, grilled beef), tongue and carnitas (braised or roasted pork). I sipped on a big cup of horchata (a sweet, cold drink with different variations, but commonly made of rice and milk) and wandered around the small joint while we waited for our order. While admiring the fresh salsa bar, I spotted a certificate on the wall from a Mexican government agency. It basically gave El Aguila props for using Mexican culinary techniques and agricultural products. Street cred! [caption id="attachment_278" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Mexican Stamp of Approval"]Mexican Stamp of Approval[/caption] I hate to ruin it for you, but if you're running short on time and want to stop reading and skip to the next whatever shiny thing just sparkled across the room THESE WERE THE BEST TACOS WE HAD ALL DAY. (Before you go though, um, subscribe please? Thanks.) The meat was so tender in all three versions, and the salsas we loaded on top were just intensely flavorful - like someone came along and sprinkled fresh-plucked, diced tomatoes and hot peppers in my mouth after every bite. The portions were just huge, as I mention in the video below. The next spot we visited was just down the block from El Aguila. J.D. heard about it and wanted to check it out, so we ambled over to a little back garden bathed in sunshine at El Paso Taqueria, also on E. 116th. Here, we had another three types of tacos, cecina (steak cured in salt and lime), more carne asada (the "control" taco for comparison purposes) and homemade chorizo (prepared in-house). [caption id="attachment_281" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Cecina, asada, homemade chorizo"]Cecina, asada, homemade chorizo[/caption] These were perfectly serviceable tacos. The chorizo, in particular, was quite tasty. But they were nothing compared to the juicy, meaty flavor torpedos we'd just enjoyed at El Aguila. I was a little let down by the cecina taco. The meat was skirt steak and just a tiny bit dry. The last spot we hit up that day was recommended to me by a friend just that morning. Cascabel is a more upscale spot located about 20 blocks south, still on the Upper East Side. This place doesn't claim to be Mexican at all, but it's getting raves online and they throw some neat twists into the mix. We ordered one each of the fish, carnitas and vegetarian tacos and each one had something fancy going on. The vegetarian taco (my pick) had slices of fingerling potatoes and oyster mushrooms. The carnitas used juicy Berkshire pork butt and was topped with crisp puffed rice. My favorite, the fish taco, came laden with sliced hearts of palm. [caption id="attachment_287" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Hearts of palm on Cascabel's fish taco."]Hearts of palm on Cascabel's fish taco.[/caption] Cascabel had a really fun vibe to match their somewhat liberal take on the taco. They had fun Luchadores masks all over the place, and a great selection of tequilas. They had healthy sides like salads and quinoa, and work to source locally as much as they can. I can get down with that. But I still think El Aguila had the tastiest, most authentic tacos. (They reminded me of the ones I enjoyed in Mexico last summer, when I vacationed in Isla Holbox. Happy sigh.) What about you? Do you have a favorite taco spot? What defines a great taco? Let us know in the comments, or link to your own post or video on tacos. I'll want a list for when we start exploring Sunset Park, a Brooklyn nieghborhood known for its hole in the wall Mexican joints. You know that's what Mouth Of The Border is all about!

Trip Notes

Here's a fun bit of intel: J.D. eats a LOT of tacos (and currently hails from Austin), so I trust his palate. His favorite tacos so far in NYC are at Tulcingo Restaurant (665 10th Ave., between 46th and 47th St.) You heard it here - go forth and taco.

J.D. also has a wheat gluten allergy and can't do dairy. If you know folks who have food allergies or you yourself have a hard time eating out, this taco tour was nearly all gluten- and dairy-free. See the rest of the photos from our taco tour: Click here. Watch me eat tacos like a girl in Hagan's video: Click here. Want to come along the next time Mouth Of The Border does a random ethnic food outing? Join and look for an invite on the MOTB Facebook page: Take the tour: El Aguila 136 East 116th Street New York, NY 10029 El Paso Taqueria 237 E 116th St New York, NY 10029 Cascabel Taqueria 1542 2nd Avenue (at 80th) New York, NY 10075 ~~~ If you enjoyed this post, please comment, subscribe, tell your friends on Facebook, or comment on Twitter using hashtag #MOTB. Also, if you like the site, join the discussion on the Facebook fan page. Thank you! ~~~ Update: Thanks to my friend and fellow food writer Gloria Dawson was kind enough to share this post on her excellent site that covers all things East Harlem. Visit, comment and enjoy the locals' recommendations for more taco spots in the hood in her comment section:
  • NYCraig

    I too am on an never ending quest to find the best taco and taqueria in the city. I’ve just added two new 116th St spots to my growing list of places to go. 

    • emilyspearl

      Have you been to Tulcingo yet?

  • Tflaschen

    Tehuitzingo on 10th ave between 47th and 48th

    • emilyspearl

      thank you, Tom!

  • MargauxZ

    This looks delicious. I must visit. Thank you for the post.

    • emilyspearl

      Thank you, Margaux! If you wind up going to one of these places, or think of one we should check out, please come back and let me know!

      • MargauxZ

        For sure, Emily!

  • Meredith

    I live on E. 116th St., and I've tried almost all of these places. The best one is definitely Taco Mix between 2nd. and 3rd. Ave. They are known for al pastor, but the lengua and chorizo are also very good. The carnitas can be excellent, but they're more inconsistent. I LOVE their huitlacoche or squash blossom quesadillas. They also have the best pickled habaneros and red onions. Oh, and they're open until 7am! I really can't say enough great things about this place!!!

  • Meredith

    I live on E. 116th St., and I’ve tried most of the taco spots. The best place is Taco Mix between 2nd. and 3rd. Ave. They are known for their al pastor but the lengua and carnitas are also very good, and I also love their quesadillas.

    • emilyspearl

      I think this is the second recommendation I've gotten for Taco Mix, so thank you for this. And thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Meredith!

  • DinosAreCute

    Im a little late to the party, but I love Taco Taco (corner of 90th and 2nd Ave) Not only is it the closest restaurant to my house, but it never lets me down.

    • emilyspearl

      Thank you so much for the note! Never too late for more great tacos. I
      think we'll be doing a Taco Tour, part 2, so thank you for the

  • flaco taco

    Ever eaten at Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos in Bushwick?

    • emilyspearl

      I have not – but it's now on the list. What are your favorites there?

  • elizabethonline

    While this ain't diet, I like it!

    • Emily

      I think maybe on an indulgent day, you could totally get down with one of those fish tacos. So Mmmm. Yay comments from EK!

  • ChinaMatt

    I definitely have to check these places out.

    • Emily

      I would love to get up to El Aguila again soon. Let me know if you go what you think!

  • Chris Sterling

    Oh, how I wish I wasn't so squeemish about what kinds of food I eat.

    Those first two tacos look amazing, and I wanted to gobble them up, until the declaration of the cow tongue. You'd think I'd have a stronger stomach considering I grew up on a beef farm and watch live castrations. But, no.

    • Emily

      So you’d skip those and eat the rest. So, so tasty! Maybe you and I can visit next time you’re in town!

  • LaurelB

    Oh my goodness. That taco from El Aguila looks great! Thanks for the post.

    • Emily

      Those tacos are some of the best I’ve had anywhere, ever! Thanks for stopping by!

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