We've gone on record time and again about the solid Mexican food to be found at El Tenampa, a Mexican grocery and taqueria just past the northern reaches of Sunset Park. Add in swift service, a hanging garden of pinatas for sale, and an unlimited condiment bar (free guac!), and you get one of the more satisfying places to get a quick taco—not quite a destination, but a place I wish would set down roots in my neighborhood.
Look, we know our limitations: New York isn't San Francisco or Los Angeles or Mexico City, and by any reasonable standard our Mexican food is comparatively not all that. But that doesn't mean we can't appreciate what we have. So in a fit of curiosity to see just how much El Tenampa could do, we stopped by and ordered most of the menu.
The results were mixed, from the surprisingly good to the inedibly bad with a wide range in between. Part of that problem, I suspect, comes from the hazards of asking a kitchen to make over a dozen different types of tacos at once; the rush to do so may explain the relative absence of patient charring that I normally find on my tortillas there. But it doesn't explain why those tortillas were a little stale to begin with, or why some of the meaty fillings came out overcooked and underseasoned.
Here's our rundown on the menu to make the most of your visit.
Our favorite dishes at El Tenampa have nothing to do with tacos at all. First up is Costillas en Salsa Verde ($12) an enormous portion of pork ribs stewed in a spicy tomatillo sauce that combines the best of lipsmacking braised meat with a fresh green salsa. This is meat that falls off the bone with a gentle tug, and though it's stewed seemingly forever, it doesn't lose its porky character. Pinto beans on the side are no slouch, either.
Another pleasant surprise: soups ($10), of which El Tenampa serves a few. A briny seafood soup is mostly head- and shell-on shrimp, though some tender mussels come along for the ride. The base is a seafood stock that tastes more complex and concentrated than you'd suspect at first glance, and it stays with you long after the soup is gone.
By contrast, a tripe soup is gentle and sweet, the stomach's organ funk tamed by a dose of red chili and long simmering. If you're not sure whether tripe is the offal for you, this makes a fine introduction.
Sopes ($3.50 to $4.50), fat discs of masa cooked in fat until their edges crisp up, are usually an afterthought at New York taquerias, but at El Tenampa they're awesome: just doughy in the center but well-toasted on their exteriors, dressed simply with your choice of salsa, some cheese, and chopped lettuce.
Don't overlook El Tenampa's sauces, offered for free from a serve-yourself cart next to the counter. The red and green as well as a minimalist smooth guacamole are all bright, crisp, and clean. Scoop some up and don't leave a taco without them.
The Mixed Bag
After a number a visits we've come to prefer El Tenampa's sandwiches ($7 to $8) to their tacos. The cooks sometimes overcook and underseason their meat, and on a tortilla there's nowhere for lackluster proteins to hide. On the tortas and cemitas, fat hunks of always-ripe avocado, tangy crema, and (in the cemitas' case) a smoky chipotle sauce offer contrast and flavor of their own. These are messy, unwieldy sandwiches, big even by torta standards. Are they the most balanced, expertly assembled things? No, and some of our table didn't love them, but they're surely hefty and satisfying gut-bombs.
Most of our tacos ($1.75 for a small, $3 for a large) were left half-eaten on plates, but if you just have to have some, opt for harder-to-screw-up meats like suadero (veal flank) and carnitas. El Tenampa also has a way with cooking tongue, too.
Beyond the tacos there are some items you should avoid, like bland, mushy tamales with overcooked fillings, a burrito that's 70% rice by volume, and meats that dry out and overcook easily, such as steak, pork al pastor, and chicken. El Tenampa's chorizo is also unfortunately pedestrian—skip it. And pass on the horchata, too, which is overly sweet and grainy.
How Does it Compare to Sunset Park?
So why go to El Tenampa when just 20 blocks south you'll find yourself in Sunset Park's Mexican food hub? For starters, gems like goat stew in a Greek coffee cup aside, we've encountered plenty of bad with the good in the neighborhood. As a one-stop shop, El Tenampa offers a tempting mix of filling sandwiches and tripe soup with all the Mexican groceries and snacks (Takis included) that you could hope for.
Does El Tenampa serve the homey Mexican food of our dreams? No, but as a cheap eats spot it's just the thing—if you order right.