In theory, the taco is a simple food: tortilla, filling, maybe some garnish, done. But there's an incredible variety of what you can stick in that tortilla well beyond the usual chicken-beef-pork. From eggs (beyond breakfast tacos) to off-off cuts (eyes, anyone?) to fried bugs, the taco comes in many flavors, and if you hunt around New York's taquerias and restaurants, you can find some examples well beyond the standards.
With that in mind we trawled the city for tacos you won't find at your average taco truck. How many have you tried?
Toloache is one of New York's few restaurants to regularly serve bugs. Chef Julián Media fries inch-long grasshoppers and serves them with a dab of guacamole (a chapulin's best friend), onions and jalapeños. These tacos ($15) come in small corn tortillas, perhaps so that the crunchy critters can get the attention they deserve. The chapulines are small enough so you can eat them in one bite but large enough to make you take notice. Thin slices of jalapeno balances their salty crunch—no extra salsa necessary.
Chapulines have been enjoyed in Oaxaca for centuries, and you'll also find them around Mexico City in cities like Puebla, Cuernavaca and Tepoztlán. After the grasshoppers are collected from corn and alfalfa fields during the hatching period, they're cleaned up and cooked on a comal with lime juice, garlic and salt, resulting in a crunchy, salty snack that's also high in protein (56 to 77% depending on the bug's size). For more grasshopper dining, visit El Rey del Sabor, a taco cart at the corner of 43rd and 6th, where the insects are warmly tucked inside a quesadilla when they're in season.
Tasajo and Cactus With Eggs
Cool Lower East Side joint Casa Mezcal is named after Oaxaca's most beloved spirit, so it's only natural that they have standout tasajo tacos ($10), since it's one of the state's specialties. This thinly sliced beef comes from the cow's ribs or legs,and is usually served as a topping on tlayudas (a classic Oaxacan dish that could be described as a giant tostada topped with beans, cheese and meat). For Casa Mezcal's tacos, the tasajo is grilled with cilantro and onions, and the simple yet delicious result is served in what looks like three tortillas but are actually six—and you wouldn't be wrong to un-layer the double-stacked tortillas to get through all the meat.
Casa Mezcal also serves cactus paddles (nopales; $11) with eggs with the same generosity, though it's not a hot ticket item. The folks at Casa Mezcal told us a lot of people are afraid of nopales because they think they have thorns, but grilled cacti are perfectly safe to eat, and the addition of eggs (a rare pairing in New York) tempers their vegetal flavor. Served with tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños, the tacos taste like a homemade breakfast.
The taco arabe is a beloved meal in the city of Puebla, where it was born in the '30s when a group of Lebanese expats started selling their local version of shawarma, cooking lamb on a vertical rotating spit and serving it on pita bread. The version at Los Tres Potrillos is slightly different but equally good. A single large taco ($3) comes mysteriously wrapped in white paper with no filling peeking out. But once the wrapping comes off, there's a whole party of ingredients inside the soft flour tortilla.
It all starts with pork meat grilled until crispy with onions and a little cilantro, then a spoonful of creamy guacamole and another one of chipotle salsa. The chipotle is strong and distinctive, so this taco is best paired with a nice glass of horchata to tone down the heat.
Pastrami and Pork Tongue
Alex Stupak's New York deli nod is this short rib pastrami at Empellon Taqueria ($16 for two tacos, $24 for three). With a mustard seed salsa and crunchy pickled cabbage, it's as close as you can get to pastrami on rye at a Mexican restaurant. Don't ignore the beer-braised pork tongue either ($12 for two, $18 for three), a creative twist on the classic taco de lengua (made with beef or pork tongue). The meat in this taco is melt-in-your-mouth soft, flavored with beer and bolstered by the presence of chorizo and potatoes. It's a clever combination of two typical taqueria classics, topped with a smart, spicy salsa de árbol.
When you find yourself at one Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, of the busiest food corners in Corona, it's easy to get overwhelmed by choices: humitas, churros, arepas... what's a hungry person to do? Find the man selling tacos de canasta from the back of his bike cart, that's what. For $1 a piece, he'll provide you with a small taco made with a flour tortilla and filled with pork, potatoes or beans. A spoonful of salsa verde is all you need to spice up these little treats, which you can mix, match, and order "uno más" until you're satisfied.
Tacos de canasta literally mean basket tacos, but they're also known as tacos sudados ("sweaty tacos") since they're steamed, stored in a basket, and covered with a thick cloth to keep the warmth in. That "sweat" is what softens the tortillas to a comforting smoothness, and since the tacos are so easy to store, they're a practical, popular snack in Mexico, where vendors will set up shop outside schools or office buildings, armed with their big canastas filled with up to 200 tacos at a time.