Editor's note: Please welcome Scarlett Lindeman, who will be writing about Mexican eats across the boroughs. Got any recommendations for her? Let us know. Take it away, Scarlett!
It's hard to miss taqueria Piaxtla es Mexico once you turn onto 51st Street off of 5th Avenue in Sunset Park. There's the vertical sign attached to the facade, glowing "Ricos Tacos" in fluorescent pink; there's a painted mural with a fat pig in a steel cauldron, proclaiming "Ricas Carnitas" across the wall. There's also a man marching the block, advertising both sentiments into a bullhorn.
Piaxtla es Mexico is a carnitas restaurant, specializing in the wonderful alchemy that occurs when pork is cooked in its own fat, becoming a mix of wet and crunchy shards of pure pig. Inside, it's dim and dank. The humidity of the hot kitchen covers the room with a mist of porkiness. There are rows of formica booths and a large window that opens onto the sidewalk on summer nights. On the counter beside the register, a young employee is stabbing a block of frozen fruit with an over-sized Phillips screwdriver. The blender next to her is also working at full speed, liquefying chunks of mamey and mango into batido milkshakes, which customers sip out of plastic quart containers.
The menu is straightforward and centered on meat. There's a long wooden cutting board in the kitchen for the cooks to hack whole animals into manageable bits--bits to fry or stew into taco fillings or buried under drifts of crema on tostadas. You can get any part of the cow or pig here: skin, face, neck, stomach, tongue, and intestine are all given their due. Though carnitas are their speciality, it is the supple lengua, crisped on the plancha, that wins me over. The tiny tacos, dressed with just cilantro and lime, are the things to get, though the torta milaneses, with paper-thin fried cutlets of meat, beans, cheese, avocado, and pickled jalapenos, don't disappoint. There's also an impressive version of chilaquiles in a scorching green sauce whose burn builds exponentially with each bite, until the alarm trips. That's when you'll need a full quart of frozen pina colada.
The jet-black flat-top in back glimmers with a lustre created by years of seared meats and melted lard; it has a sheen better than any properly seasoned cast iron pan. A line of tortillas and piles of shredded meat steam away in front of a cook working through orders. He's flipped over two aluminum trays on the flattop to hold a hotel pan full of simmering water, a makeshift double boiler to keep sauces and stews warm. This is guerrilla-cooking, tricks of the trade no cooking school can teach. Besides tacos, there's a couple of larger plates like grilled meats, pork chops, enchiladas, and a mojarra frita, a whole fish that the cooks fry in a an improvised deep fryer: they place an aluminum to-go container full of oil directly onto the flattop. The fish bubbles away until crunchy, head and tail propped slightly out of the oil like it's enjoying a jacuzzi bath.
Piaxtla es Mexico
505 51st Street, Brooklyn NY 11220 (map)