By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
"Un burrito de pollo, por favor, para mi." I explained to my hermanita that I had ordered a chicken burrito.
"Sounds good," she shrugged, "I'll have the same." Needless to say, the tripe or brain tacos were not enticing.
We asked for an order of guacamole with chips to tide us over while our burritos were prepared. A chintzy portion of chips arrived first, followed by a generous mound of guac served in a crisply fried tortilla bowl. The avocado was cubed, not mashed, and studded with slivers of tomato. Sweet onion, coriander, lime juice, and a dash of garlic completed the savory blend of creamy but not overly heavy dip. The hand-cut chips were crisp and dark without a trace of grease. Within minutes we had devoured them and asked for more. Our waitress immediately brought out another fresh, warm batch.
We resumed munching, but something was missing. Salsa! Our waitress was happy to bring a bowl of the smooth, rich sauce as soon as we asked. Not overwhelmed by tomato flavor, the blood-red concoction instead had a complex and smoky, though not incendiary, flavor, but my companion still found it way too spicy. The accommodating waitress brought another bowl of identical-looking salsa, this one packing a bit less kick, but it still didn't suit the younger set of taste buds at the table.
The oversize burritos, on the other hand, that arrived within a few minutes won big points. "Mmm. Yeah, it's pretty good," my little sister murmured. Folded into the warm flour tortilla envelope were tender strips of grilled chicken, rice, pasty refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, and a dose of sour cream. The mix was seasoned with a hint of chilies, garlic, onion, and cilantro.
On a return visit on a Friday night without my food-critic-in-training, I was surprised to find the place crowded with more than a dozen young Mexicans. My friends and I could hardly hear each other for the sound of a screaming infant seated inches from my ear. (I'm definitely waiting for a new-millennium baby.) Talk about a family restaurant. Once the crying subsided, we discussed the menu.
Being the only native English speakers in the place, we couldn't resist ordering the quesadilla gringa. Frankly, I was expecting an overdone, cheesy, cartoon version of Mexican food. But like most of the other dishes here, it was tasty and subtly flavored, and without all the garish cheeses and sauces so common at Tex-Mex joints. Two flour tortillas sandwich chunks of moist beef and spunky chorizo, which are spackled with white cheese. The salty, slightly aged meat flavor was tamed by the mild cheese and a rich garnish of guacamole. All in all, a surprisingly nongreasy creation.
Also good was a vegetarian burrito: a packet of refried beans and an assortment of grilled vegetables, including onions, red and green peppers, and mushrooms, topped with crisp tomatoes and lettuce. Despite the slightly rubbery mushroom slices that must have been cooked well in advance, this hearty dish is worth a try.
The tacos, on the other hand, were not so great. There are nine types from which to choose, including roast or spicy pork, ground or stewed beef, and the aforementioned tripe and brain. An order of three (you can mix and match) comes in a plastic basket, with a dollop of rice and beans and a few shreds of salad on the side. The CD-size soft corn tacos, each topped with lettuce and tomato, are hardly large enough to contain the mound of stuff inside. The chicken filling was uninspired and dry, but the slices of beef were fantastic -- slightly charred on the edges, juicy and meaty in the center.
As was the case with the soggy mushrooms in the veggie burrito, some of the ingredients served here seemed to have been prepared too far in advance to be utterly fresh. One of the menu choices, the tamales, suffered in part from just such a problem: a chalky and dense corn-meal casing. And yet the filling of succulent pork remained juicy and tender and tasted especially good smothered in a mild red salsa. We asked for a sample of the salsa verde and found it lighter, tangier, and a bit more pungent. We were told these corn cylinders are put together at one of Taquerias El Mexicano's two other locations, both on Eighth Street, then warmed up at the Beach location. It shows.
Grilled entrees are particularly well executed. My choice for the best dish overall is the carnitas platter. Succulent cubes of roasted, then grilled, pork were served with rice, beans, and salad, resulting in a filling and decadent dinner without cheese or sauce of any kind.
After indulging in such a substantial meal, we ordered dessert more out of habit than hunger. Unfortunately, the most appealing option, the burrito de manzana, wasn't available that night. Instead we shared a flan. The prepackaged individual cup of pudding looked as though it had come from a supermarket case. Dense and sweet and riddled with air pockets, the firm caramel custard tasted store-bought, too. Given the fact that the restaurant doesn't serve coffee, you'll probably want to have dessert elsewhere.