Your Guided Tour of Staten Island's Mexican Treasures
As a New York kid, I regarded Staten Island only as a strange place where one visited elderly Italian relatives a few times a year. A place where dimly-lit, doily-strewn rooms had their own color themes and frilly glass dishes of ancient hard candies sat on coffee tables. Eating out on the Island was exotic, in its way—this is where I learned that spaghetti could be a side dish.
Now I'm all grown up and the old ladies have moved on to boroughs in the sky, but I'm still compelled to travel to Staten Island to eat, on occasion—much to my own surprise. The fare is more likely to be enjoyed standing up, though, and without a giant spoon for twirling noodles. Victory Boulevard, in Tomkinsville, a short stroll from where the ferry spits you out in Saint George, is home to a handful of Mexican delis and taquerias well worth the boat ride.
After reading about the Mexican produce at the Saint George Farmer's Market in the New York Times, I had a serious craving for some carnitas, so I ate my way up and down the strip, intending to focus on tacos, but getting distracted by a couple of tortas, a sope, and a quesadilla. I'm only human. The population here, and the cuisine, is Central Mexican—specifically, mostly from Puebla. All the tacos were dressed identically: chopped raw onion and cilantro, with a lime wedge on the side, and bright-tasting, minimally spicy green sauce, made with grilled or roasted tomatillos.
Taqueria El Gallo Azteca
The last time I visited Taqueria El Gallo Azteca, maybe two years ago, the spacious, grimy hangout was standing-room only, (and, until I showed up, men-only as well). On a weekday afternoon, though, there were seats to spare, plus a deafening buzzing noise that I did not recall. But the tacos are, for the most part, still great. Far and away the best is the tongue (lengua, $3). Don't be afraid—the experience is akin to expert-braised short ribs and lacks any gamey, internal qualities first-timers might imagine. The flavor is of fatty beef and the meat pulls apart with zero resistance.
A close second, and similarly delicious, is the suadero ($3), bites of perfect brisket—tender with a salty, seared exterior. El Gallo does a nice carnitas ($2), with a healthy ratio of cartilage-intensive bites of ear. The house specialty, Taco Azteca ($3), is a steak taco mounded with cactus and sweated onion. I like cactus, but it was nothing to blog about. The same goes for the al pastor ($2), and the goat taco (barbacoa, $2), for which I made a second trip (at many places, barbacoa is available only on Sundays). For me (and many other taco enthusiasts I know), the gold standard for goat tacos is Eleazar Perez's version at the Red Hook ball fields, and I was chasing that high, but alas, this goat was only good, not delectably saucy or flavorful enough. The only true loser was the dry, bland chicken ($2); but why would you order chicken, really? 75 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, NY 10301; 718-273-6404
Across the street is Ricas Tortas, a glowing deli with lovely produce (perhaps some grown by the farmer in that Times article?) like purslane, cactus, scallions, cilantro, and jalapenos. Tortas are made on fresh rolls here, and I had a hell of a time deciding between the milanesa (a pounded beef cutlet, which is a typical Pueblan sandwich-stuffer), the cecina (salted beef), and the pierna (roast pork leg—uncured, which distinguishes it from jamon, another option). I did not regret my choice, the Lambada ($6.50), which stars pierna, egg, and chorizo. Maybe the name got to me, but as I watched his careful griddle work, I developed some confusing, vaguely romantic feelings for the young man who prepared my sandwich.
The egg and chorizo were whisked together and cooked into a little omelet, the pork was browned with sliced onion, the cheese was softened on the roll, which was also adorned with avocado, tomato, mayonnaise, and pickled jalapenos. The end result was a balance of salty, spicy, tangy, and creamy deliciousness that prompted me to say, "Oh my God," out loud, to no one, as I devoured it on the street. On Sunday, I went back to try the goat tamale, which is the weekly special, but they had sold out before 10AM. I'll be back. 54A Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, NY 10301; 718-876-6081
The next spot is where I veered off-course a bit. Mixteca Poblana, with tables and counter seats and a full menu, is more than a taqueria or a deli, and I am incapable of passing up freshly-pressed tortillas. For this I don't apologize.
The quesadilla, topped with spicy pork (carne enchilada, $5) was killer. The tortilla itself was hot and perfectly browned, and the marinated meat was extremely tasty. Shredded iceberg lettuce traps the cool crema and funky, salty queso cotija on top, and squeaky, stringy Oaxaca cheese sits underneath.
A sope de bistec ($3) seemed in order as well. The sope is quesadilla's fat little cousin, formed completely by hand and not pressed, and therefore a thicker, denser, delightfully corny little disc not unlike a Salvadoran pupusa. After letting it brown on the griddle for a few minutes, the cook used her fingers to create a moat around the perimeter, which kept the steak, black beans, sweet onions, lettuce, crema, and queso cotija from falling overboard—for the most part.
This place turns out an expert carnitas taco ($2.50) as well, but it was clear, from chatting with the regulars, and from sampling the goods, that the fresh masa creations are the main attraction here. 108 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, NY 10301; 718-720-1221