We've been on a taco kick at Serious Eats, and while Kenji checked out the scene in East Harlem, I've been eating my way through Sunset Park. So far, I've found three more-than-recommenadable places—but none that does everything right.
A spacious, friendly Sunset Park restaurant with groups and families almost always filling its tables, Tacos Matamoros has quite a lengthy menu, but just going with tacos (most $1.50) is a fine way to make a meal. Large tacos come with guacamole and there are flour tortilla-based "Super Tacos," but we liked the smaller version. They're made with a double stack of soft, flaky corn tortillas that they warm on the griddle; not the best we've ever had, but more than good enough to eat and enjoy on their own.
Of the five fillings we tried, some were merely passable, but others were memorably good, easily worth a trip back. Our plate of tacos was divided by color—paler meats with a thin green salsa, darker meats with a slightly thicker, slightly spicier red one. In this case, the lighter-colored meats were the weaker. Carnitas were soft and tasty enough, but lacked any crisp whatsoever, the meat mushy and wet; suadero was even softer, a little puddle the tortilla; lengua was chewy rather than tender. But the other two were excellent. Tacos al pastor, the meat shaved from an enormous spit turning in the back, were faintly sweet and intensely juicy, but the chorizo was the real standout. Each little bit you'd bite down on would have a slight crunch and immediately dissolve into sweet, porky fattiness, warmed with cinnamon. I would've liked a little more of a vinegar flavor, but a squeeze of the lime provided gave all the acid this needed.
Whereas Matamoros has hits and misses, Tacos Xochimilco is all hits—though none as awesome as Matamoros's best. Their own chorizo wasn't quite as deeply spiced or crumbly-juicy; their pastor didn't have the same tender sweetness. Still, I'd eat either one again in a minute. The barbacoa was the most intensely savory and full-flavored, if a bit limp, and the carnitas were fantastic: every bit as crisp and porky as we'd want. Points for the tortillas, too, corn-y and flaky and properly warmed. (Being across the street from each other, I wouldn't be surprised if Xochimilco gets their tortillas from the same spot as Matamoros, though neither restaurant would tell me where theirs were made.)
If you asked where to go for lengua or carnitas or cabeza, I'd have to point you to Tacos Ricos. This lengua in particular was the single best meat of our mini-tour, well-salted with a great sear on one edge, a little bit of crunch before the impossibly tender meat underneath. The cabeza was just as much fun, with some fatty bits and some lean, some crisp and some chewy.
But on our visit, the tortillas were almost inedible—stale, stiff, and lifeless, they tasted about three days old. Our visit was on a Sunday evening, so perhaps they hadn't gotten fresh ones in a few days, and they're better during the week; still, ours were so sad that they sat on the plate uneaten, as we devoured the meaty fillings but left the tortillas behind.
So we've found three great taquerias but all of them lacking in some area—some great tortillas with fillings hit-or-miss, some great tortillas with consistently good meats (but no spectacular ones), some fantastic meats with sub-par tortillas. As of now, we're not sure which one we'd return to first.
Where do you get tacos in Sunset Park?
4508 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11220 (map)
4501 5th Avenue, Brooklyn NY 11220 (map)
505 51st Street, Brooklyn NY 11220 (map)