The Best Tacos on 116th Street in East Harlem, NYC

[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

The Winners!

#1: El Aguila

‪137 East 116th Street # 1, ‬New York, NY 10029‪ (‬at Lexington Avenue; map); 212-410-2450

#2: Las Delicias Mexicanas

2109 3rd Avenue, New York, NY 10029 (between 115th and 116th; map); ‪212-828-3659‬

#3: Taco Mix

234 East 116th Street # 1, New York, NY 10029 (map); ‪646-370-6769‬

You could say we've been on a taco binge here at Serious Eats. After biking through Brooklyn and Queens last Sunday eating tacos along the way (wait for the video coming next week), I decided that Monday should be devoted to East Harlem, another hotbed of Mexican tortilla-wrapping activity (and yes, we'll be getting out of New York for Project Taco. West Coast, Midwest, South, get your tacos ready!)

The short strip between Lexington and 2nd Avenue in the El Barrio neighborhood of East Harlem has dozens of restaurants, mostly of the Puerto Rican, Dominican, and Mexican variety, not to mention a few grocers who serve tacos cooked on portable flattops and the occasional truck. I decided to drag along a few friends to taste every taco we could find on the strip.

The Contenders

View East Harlem Tacos in a larger map

We limited our search to the strip between Lexington and 2nd Avenue on 116th Street in the Barrio district of East Harlem. We tried to get to every single restaurant that had a taco section on their menu, which included a Taco Bell Express. (To be honest, it wasn't the worst taco we had all day.)

We learned three important lessons from this crawl: a) the average Mexican food in East Harlem is not much better than the average in all of New York (i.e. not that great), b) hole-in-the-wall does not necessarily = automatically great, and c) the very best taquerias are really really good.

Here are the taquerias we visited, in order from West to East.

  1. El Aguila
  2. Taco Bell
  3. Las Delicias Mexicanas
  4. Mexican Grocery at 207 East 116th
  5. Mojitos
  6. Taco Mix
  7. Mildred Deli Grocery
  8. El Paso Taco Truck

The Criteria

The last time I did a huge taco crawl like this (in San Francisco's Mission district), I evaluated the tacos on their tortilla quality, filling quality, and topping quality. I'll be using the same criteria here:

  • The Tortillas (10 points): They need to be properly warmed through on the comal. Cold, brittle, or stale tortillas are not acceptable. They need to be moist and pliable, with the ability to stay intact, despite any amount of juices soaked into them. Ideally, there should be little charred spots here and there to add a touch of flavor, and unless they are of the particularly thick hand-made variety, they should always be double stacked in order to provide both structural support, as well as balanced corn flavor.
  • The Filling(s) (15 points): Whatever the choice of filling, it should be moist and flavorful, well salted, and either tender enough or chopped finely enough that you can bite into a taco without dragging half a cow out from between the folded tortilla. Obviously, the meat should taste fresh and relatively gristle-free. Fattiness is generally a good thing here.
  • The Toppings (5 points): A great taco really needs nothing more than onions, cilantro, lime, and a salsa. And I'm not talking the jarred, tomato-paste based variety, or even a fresh, chopped pico de gallo. Tacos should be topped with a relatively thin, chili-based salsa with intense, fresh chili flavor, and heat. Once these basics have been settled, there's room for a few extras if desired. Fresh crema, perhaps a few beans (if you really want—I'm not too keen on the idea), chopped tomatoes or chilis—anything goes, as long as the cardinal rule is followed: every topping must support the experience, not detract from or dominate it.

In order to set a benchmark standard, we decided that at each location, we'd order at least one taco with carnitas (by the way, here's how you can make 'em at home), along with a couple more filling options that looked appealing. Most served lengua (beef tongue), many served braised goat, and most had chorizo.

If a specific restaurant had a specialty—say a vertical skewer of slow-cooking al pastor—we made sure to order it too.

If you allow me to quote myself here from my explorations into carnitas:

Carnitas. The undisputed king of the taco cart. The Mexican answer to American pulled pork, at their best they should be moist, juicy, and ultra-porky with the rich, tender texture of a French confit, and riddled with plenty of well-browned crisp edges. The most famous version of the dish comes from Michoacán, in central Mexico. Delicately flavored with a hint of orange, onion, and occasionally some warm herbs or spices like cinnamon, cloves, bay leaf, or oregano, all it needs is a squeeze of lime, some chopped onion and cilantro, and simple hot salsa to form a snack of unrivaled deliciousness.

Those are the standards by which we judged each restaurant's version.

The Winner: El Aguila


Tacos from El Aguila

A tortilleria, panederia, and taqueria all rolled into one, their main feature is a giant copper cazo in which pork shoulders slowly simmer.
The Tortilla: 7/10 The tortillas are made on premises and are reheated the right way, with a few little spots of char and a moist, tender, supple texture.
The Filling: 14/15 They reheat their fillings on a flattop in pork fat. While the carnitas were the best, the lengua is no slouch, especially when it crisps up on its edges in the pork fat.
The Toppings: 5/5 Onions and cilantro are fresh as can be, and you've got your choice of four salsas--a verde with legitimate heat, an avocado puree, a bright orange chipotle-based creamy sauce, and a classic rojo. All are flavorful and fresh.
Overall: 26/30

El Aguila, ‪137 East 116th Street # 1, ‬New York, NY 10029‪ (‬at Lexington Avenue; map); 212-410-2450

For a full breakdown of the taco crawl, peep through the slideshow »