The Underground Gourmet might have worn glasses since the third grade, but is not so blind as to blithely mistake a Nolita garage for Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. That, however, is the sleight of hand the owners of Fonda Nolita are attempting to perpetrate at their new taquería, a Stateside facsimile of a beachside operation that launched five years ago in Playa del Carmen. The Manhattan branch is artfully and somewhat theatrically housed inside a lofty, concrete-floored space outfitted with tropical plants, a flat-screen looping an endless surf video, and dozens of folding tin-top backgammon tables. An open kitchen is camouflaged as a surf shack in the back, and front and center a retrofitted VW bus functions as a taco stand. Dario Wolos, who jettisoned a career in finance for the taco-bus lifestyle, has christened the vehicle—one of a fleet of three—a Tacombi (Taco plus Combi, the VW model), and he himself has gained some social-media notoriety as Señor Tacombi. (In New York, he’s partnered with chef and Food Network personality Aarón Sánchez, who devised the menu.) While the accumulated effect doesn’t quite conjure the sound of the surf or the scent of sea air, it does make for a somewhat transporting change of pace on the downtown dining circuit, not to mention a nifty destination for a laid-back taco binge.
The unconventional venue baffles at first. An unsuspecting passerby might wonder whether he’s stumbled into a private social club, or inadvertently crashed some sort of backgammon convention. The carnival-style ordering procedure does nothing to dispel the feeling. Corn-tortilla tacos are sold at one station, flour-tortilla ones at another, drinks somewhere else. American dollars must be exchanged for the local currency (blue poker chips worth $4 each, the price of a taco), but you do this at a station that also sells tall glasses of aguas frescas, like sweet horchata and tangy Jamaica, for cash, though, not chips. (When the beer license arrives, taps will dispense Mexican-style beer from a local brewer.)
Once you’ve secured your poker chips, step right up to place your order at the Tacombi, which will likely be swaying with the balletic exertions of the taco cook. Before assembling your taco, he’ll blanket the griddle with tender, flavorful corn tortillas from the estimable Tortilleria Nixtamal (the Corona microfactory that grinds corn for its own masa), then fill them with each taco’s specific combination of slow-cooked meat, deftly seasoned sauces, and crunchy, fragrant toppings. They’re served on small tin plates, each double-tortilla’d taco sporting enough filling to subdivide into two. You’ll want at least one cochinita pibil, the achiote-marinated pork shoulder swaddled in banana leaves, cooked until tender, and garnished with house-pickled jícama and chayote. Also compulsory are the rich and juicy barbacoa tacos, made from wine-and-ancho-chile-marinated brisket, in the style of Jalisco, the Mexican home state of Tacombi manager Oscar Hernandez, the guy who keeps the Tacombi running and sauces simmering while Sánchez is off on official Food Network business. Of the remaining lineup, the mole poblano chicken taco is distinguished not only by its remarkably moist thigh meat but by the novel inclusion of mashed sweet potatoes, and both vegetarian varieties (corn and poblano with tomatillo salsa, and black bean and nopales) outshine the lackluster griddled haddock, which perhaps shouldn’t be penalized for the U.G.’s unequivocal preference for the crunchy fried variety. If it’s crunch you want, though, we recommend the tostada, topped simply with avocado and a vibrant tomatillo-avocado salsa. The bus also vends a trio of plump tamales (pork, chicken, or huitlacoche and corn). But you’ll want to save some chips for a trip to the makeshift kitchen in back, which serves northern-style breakfast tacos made with a larger flour tortilla crisped up nicely on the griddle. The meat version features a good housemade chorizo with potatoes and chile de árbol salsa, and the vegetarian combines egg with poblano pepper and nopales. Both are hot, satisfying, and served all day—a breakfast requisite in Mexican beach towns and converted Nolita garages alike.
Address: 267 Elizabeth St., nr. Houston St.; 917-727-0179
Hours: Sunday through Wednesday 8 a.m. to midnight, Thursday through Saturday to 1 a.m.
Prices: $4 per antojito (corn-dough-based snacks, like tacos and tamales).
Ideal Meal: Chorizo breakfast taco for breakfast; cochinita pibil and barbacoa tacos for dinner; horchata for dessert.
Note: Coming soon: seviche, hot chocolate, Mexican breakfast pastries, sangria, and beer.
Scratchpad: While the whole idea is a little kooky, it wins you over with food that’s fresh, vibrantly flavored, and satisfying. Two stars for the grub, another for the congenial, laid-back vibe.