The bar for tacos in Manhattan is not set very high, and the fish taco bar here is set even lower. So when Pinche Taqueria owner and Soho Films partner Jeffrey Chartier announces to the world that he is opening a branch of his Tijuana taqueria in part to show other downtown taquerias like La Esquina how to make a proper fish taco, it sounds like a plenty plausible throwdown.
227 Mott Street, New York NY 10012 (between Prince and Spring streets; map); 212-625-0090; pinchetaqueria.com
Service: Friendly but surprisingly slow for what is basically a self-service operation
Setting: Your basic unairconditioned taco counter with a few seats inside and a bench and a two-person counter outside
Compare It To: La Esquina, Pampano Taqueria, Bonita
Must Haves: Fish tacos, shrimp tacos, carnitas mulita, huevos con chorizo, aguas
Grade: A for the fish tacos and the shrimp tacos, B+ for the carnitas burrito or tacos, and a B- for the rest of the food
I had fish tacos from Pinche and La Esquina within minutes of each other. One bite in at Pinche and I could tell that these folks knew exactly what they were doing. They make a killer fish taco. Chunks of crisp fried fish are tucked into a house-made tortilla and topped with cabbage, a spicy cilantro-spiked mayonnaise, and guacamole. These tacos are crunchy, flaky, spicy, and creamy. What more could you want from a taco? It really is the first good fish taco I've had outside Southern California or Mexico, though the one I had at Bonita in Williamsburg was damn good. And the shrimp taco (both the fish and the shrimp tacos are $3.75) may be even better, as the crisp, small-but-not-teeny shrimp have some actual shrimp flavor.
Meanwhile, over at La Esquina, just watching the guys in the kitchen make my fish taco, I knew it was going to be no contest. The cook took what appeared to be a pregrilled fish kebab out of a fridge and put it on the grill. It was a lame, half-hearted fish-taco-making effort.
So Chartier wins this hyperlocal fish-taco throwdown handily. But what about the rest of the food?
Among the other fillings here, the best are the carnitas, long-braised, tender pork that stays moist even with most of the fat rendered, and the al pastor, spit-roasted pork carved from a vertical tower of pig that looks like a gyro spiral. The carnitas make a wonderful filling for the burritos here ($6.95), which come stuffed with dull rice and beans, guacamole, salsa, and cilantro. The other fillings I tried, beef and chicken, were dry and dull. Stick to the fish and the pork and you'll end up a happy serious eater.
Besides the fish tacos, my other favored items on the menu are the huevos con chorizo (chorizo and two barely scrambled eggs, $5.65), served with the ubiquitous rice and beans and a stack of tortillas, and the mulita ($3.90), a diminutive hard tortilla shell filled with meat, cheese, onions, cilantro, guacamole, and salsa that is topped with another steamed tortilla. There was almost as much chorizo as egg in my order, which, to my pork-centric way of thinking, is just the right ratio.
The tortas ($6.75) are ruined by the cottony rolls that overwhelm the filling. Quesadillas ($4,95) are clearly an afterthought at Pinche. The house-made yucca fries ($4.25) are crisp, greasy, and golden brown, and they sit ever so firmly in your stomach after eating them.
Noteworthy are the house-made aguas ($2.75). The Jamaica is a sweet iced hibiscus tea that is truly refreshing. Even better is the canteloupe juice. Horchata, made with sweetened organic rice milk, cinnamon, and nutmeg, tastes like a thin rice-pudding shake.
All right, all right, Pinche Taqueria wins the Nolita fish-taco throwdown down by a lot. And props must be given for just how delicious the fish tacos (and the shrimp tacos) are. Chartier can also talk smack when it comes to his pork, as well. He'll run into trouble only if he tries to crow about the chicken, beef, rice, and beans, all of which need work.