Bronx Eats: Tacos and Great Horchata Near the Bronx Zoo at Actalan, Pelham Parkway
Two summers ago, we put together a list of some of the best bites around the Bronx Zoo, highlighting several places that remain some of my favorites in the borough: Estrellita Poblana 3 for Pueblan, Ebe Yie Ye for Ghanaian, and Dukagjini Burektorja for Albanian-style burek. Since then, we've gotten to know the neighborhoods around the zoo even better. For those who want to grab their cemita or sopes, without the bus ride necessary to get from Estrellita, we present Actalan Restaurant, a worthy neighborhood dive just off Lydig Avenue.
Wedged into a tiny storefront next to a barber shop, the restaurant is run by a pair of women know their customers well. I was first drawn to the restaurant by the promise of pambazos—the word written on a neon sign posted out front—but the famous sandwich, available at only a few places in the Bronx, seems to have disappeared. (Whether for good or not, I don't know.)
It should be pointed out, too, that the large menu fastened to their front window is at least partially inaccurate. There are no, to my chagrin, tacos arabes. Keep asking, though, and maybe they'll give in!
What you will find are picaditas, sopes, and tacos placeras ($3), or "market tacos," which are often meatless and can be seen with hard-boiled egg. Here, the pre-made tortillas are wrapped around charred strips of serrano pepper, thick rings of charred white onion, orange rice, and chopped squares of beef. We could've done without the meat, given how badly the beef, a bit overcooked, was lacking salt. A sprinkle of salt helps, but you'll be better served by slathering on guacamole. Despite these misgivings, the taco placeros are hearty enough to justify a recommendation for a quick, on-the-go meal before a long day gawking at giraffes and otters.
If you have time to sit, though, we do recommend you order the costillas entomatada ($11). Rather than the fried and stuffed tortilla shells bathed in tomato sauce the latter part of the name suggests, what you get is a plate of pork ribs swimming in tomato sauce. Initially disappointed, I found myself rejoicing.
The meat is deliciously plump, well-seasoned and fork-tender, but the star of the dish is the sauce. Built on a foundation of garlic, onion, serrano peppers, and minimal spices, the tomatoes mingle with the juices cast off from the pork ribs as they cook, creating a sauce that you'll want to sop up every last drop of with your tortillas.
In a town where horchata made from mix runs rampant, it is worth noting how fine a glass
($3) Actalan puts out. Deliciously milky and just sweet enough, its only fault is that the cinnamon registers as a mere blip. This is a transgression, though, that we can forgive. You won't find yourself complaining.
About the author: Chris Crowley is the author of the Bronx Eats column. Follow him on Twitter, if you'd like. In person, your best bet is the window seat at Neerob, or waiting in line at the Lechonera La Piranha trailer.