The Taco Is the Burger
Forget boutique barbecue shacks, chef burgers, and carefully rendered platters of faux-southern-fried chicken served in the Low Country style. These days in the city’s voracious, ever-widening comfort-food community, the lowly taco is all the rage. The trendy late-night dish for off-duty chefs is the ropy, deliciously textured short-rib-pastrami taco on the menu at Alex Stupak’s groundbreaking East Village haute-Mexican establishment, Empellón Cocina, although if it’s a classic corn-masa taco you’re after, you’ll find it at the recently opened Otto’s Tacos, on Second Avenue in the East Village, where it’s a pleasure to perch at the metal counters, devouring one messy, crispy-edged taco after the next (try the shrimp, with crema sauce and fresh cilantro, and a side of masa fries), while watching the cooks stamp circles of yellow corn masa on their gleaming tortilla press.
You’ll find slightly more ambitious recipes on the expanded menu at Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield’s glitzy Murray Hill taco shack, Salvation Taco, including an elevated interpretation of the famous Korean Kogi-truck taco from L.A., which consisted, on the evening I enjoyed it, of grilled beef in Korean galbi marinade, a basket of fresh-made corn tortillas, and five varieties of inventive toppings (pickles, kimchee, etc.), all delivered to my table with a pair of dainty, do-it-yourself bamboo tongs.
Similarly elegant Mexican-themed treats are available at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest foray into the realm of populist comfort food, ABC Cocina, which opened last year on the ground floor of ABC Carpet and Home. None of the great gourmet chef’s taco plates costs under $13, so if you’re looking to justify the lavish sticker price, go with the old favorites, like cubes of chicken breast marinated with chipotle and onions, or chunks of glazed short ribs piled in drifts of frizzled onions. If you’re still hungry, you can complement these dense umami bombs with the more delicate crudo and vegetable selections from the “light and bright” section of the menu, but be sure to save some calorie space for the deceptively deadly house margaritas, which the resident mixologists touch, as in the tropics, with fresh grapefruit juice, sprigs of basil, or disks of jalapeño.
Until the full liquor license comes through, there won’t be any margaritas at Danny Bowien’s latest Lower East Side dining venture, Mission Cantina, although it’s possible to addle yourself with something called a Dirty Horchata, consisting of sweetened almond milk and a bracing shot of Stumptown cold brew. The tall corner space is much brighter and more inviting than the one farther down Orchard Street at Bowien’s original Manhattan outlet, and in this critic’s opinion, the food is brighter, too, in particular the fresh, inventive ceviches (try the scallops with chopped beef heart), the hungry-man masa tacos (the lamb shoulder, the grilled brisket), and the superb, large-format to-share plates (the whole rotisserie chicken stuffed with chorizo and rice), which are big enough to feed a family of prosperous Oaxacan farmers for a week.