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Mexican Eats: Getting Saucy at Tacos Morelos in Jackson Heights

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[Photographs: Jake Lindeman]

I was at Tacos Morelos last week, a Mexican restaurant in Jackson Heights, happily watching the sky turn green. When the thunderstorm hits, it's best to be somewhere warm, with flowery bachata music tinkling in the background, sheltered by sturdy walls and good food.

Tacos Morelos is better known for their two taco carts, operating in Williamsburg and the East Village, serving crowds taken with the food truck craze and drunk kids, easily placated by perfunctory tacos and tortas. But they opened a proper restaurant in Queens about two years ago, which is much better than is Manhattan carts. One avenue removed from busy Roosevelt Avenue, it's a home base for real cooking with an ample menu and a full bar, inherited from the dive that formerly occupied the space.

The menu is large, with all of the regular antojitos, flautas, burritos, cemitas and tortas, seafood dishes, and a huge bowl of chunky, à la minute guacamole for $3.50. Their rice and black beans have the musky quality that only comes from the mordant herb, epazote.

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Things get saucy in the larger plates section. Though cooks have traded in the molcajete for the modern blender, the ancient sauces that were once pounded in a rock mortar until smooth and supple still take time and skill to make. When chilies are in the pantry, there's a deftness that comes with managing heat and flavor. All of the sauces at Tacos Morelos are good choices: there's a sweet mole poblano; a mole ranchero that uses a shopping-cart's volume of chiles; chile rellenos in a salsa roja; pipian verde and pipian rojo; and rarest of all, bistec en salsa mora ($11).

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Salsa mora, or "blackberry sauce," refers to the mora chili that the sauce is based on, a small bluish-red pepper that wrinkles when it is dry-smoked, that somewhat resembles a blackberry. Similar to a chipotle but with less smoke and more heat, it's blended into a purée with guajillo chilies, garlic, onions, and broth, to blanket a slip of beef. The sauce is delicious, thick-ish and warm, as smoky and chapped as a ranch-hand's leather gloves. After a forkful wrapped in a corn tortillas, the heat incapacitates, leaving you stunned and breathless, unable to talk to your dining companions, think, or do much of anything else until the roar of heat subsides. Then, it's time for another.

Tacos Morelos

94-13 37th Ave. Jackson Heights, NY 11372 (map)
347-832-0234

About the author: Scarlett Lindeman is a cook, food-writer, and recipe editor of Diner Journal, a food/arts quarterly. E-mail her at scarlett.lindeman@gmail.com.

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