The Vegetarian Option: El Tapatio
A rudimentary knowledge of Spanish will come in handy for anyone eating at El Tapatio, nestled into a dark, narrow space on a busy street in Spanish Harlem. There's a bit of English on the menu, but the waitstaff doesn't speak much. Somehow between my high school Spanish, our server's patience, and some pointing at the menu, we were able to put together a nice little vegetarian feast for lunch.
The huarache ($3.95) represents the best of cheap Mexican fare. Beans, cheese, and fresh vegetables top a crispy, flattened cornmeal cake. One of the best things about it is the mix of temperatures and textures. At El Tapatio they also make versions with meat, so be sure to order yours sencillo, which means "simple" or "plain," if you're looking to go vegetarian.
When I asked our server for something vegetarian, she immediately pointed to the vegetable burrito ($6.95). She also warned me that it was really big, and she was right. Overstuffed with rice, beans, and a few vegetables, this was a burrito to satisfy any appetite. My favorite part was the white cheese sauce slathered on top; it was rich and savory, and unlike any sauce I've had at other Mexican restaurants.
While perusing the menu, I knew I wanted to sample the quesadillas ($4.94 each). Traditional quesadillas barely resemble the flattened tortillas stuffed with rubbery yellow cheese I grew up with. At El Tapatio a quesadilla involves a corn tortilla folded around toppings, then cooked on the griddle and topped with more of that cheese sauce. I wanted to sample both the flor de calabaza (zucchini flowers) and huitlacoche (corn fungus), but our server informed us that they were out of both of those. In fact, she had to go and see if they even had the ordinary mushrooms (they did). The filling wasn't anything special, but the combination of the tortilla and the cheese sauce was great.
You can skip the tacos ($6.95 for an order of three), at least the vegetarian ones. We tried the nopales (cactus) filling, which were tasteless and dry, even after being doused with the provided sauces and fresh lime juice.
El Tapatio may not look like much at first glance, but little places like this often give us great experiences. The food is good and inexpensive, the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and you can take your time over a meal. Decent Mexican food can sometimes be hard to find in Manhattan, but El Tapatio is certainly worth the trip.
209 Luis Munoz Marin Boulevard, New York NY 10029 (map)
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Brooklyn-based Eat to Blog.