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Associate editor Samantha Garbarini ate 50 tacos(!) in one week to discover why this Mexican staple is one of the hottest dishes in Westchester.

Above photo of chicken-chipotle tacos from the Taco Project by Andre Barnowski; food styling & props by Chef Kersti Bowser

 


A silver tray of tacos showcases the variety (not all of it traditionally Mexican) at Port Chester’s bartaco. Photo by Tom McGovern

 

By 6 p.m., things have really started to ramp up at bartaco.

The dining room, with its basket-shade pendant lights, was virtually empty when I arrived about an hour ago. Now, bartenders furiously squeeze limes behind the bar for margaritas; waiters bustle back and forth as order cards call them to tables; and the whitewashed patio is full of families grabbing an early dinner and Millennials taking advantage of happy hour at benches with striped blue cushions. This isn’t one of the kitschy Mexican restaurants I went to as a kid in Westchester, nor is it as unassuming as some of the authentic spots I’ll visit over the next week. In a word, bartaco is cool.

When it opened in 2010 at this Byram River-fronting location in Port Chester, bartaco was the first such taco joint in town, a place that transformed the everyday street food into a blank canvas for culinary creativity. Since then, more trendy taquerias have popped up throughout the county, while traditional spots have grown in popularity as food culture pushes diners to look for real-deal hidden gems.

I’m not at bartaco to eat citrusy cochinita pibil or chorizo (yes, you’ll find both on the menu). The appeal of grabbing tacos here is in trying something different — and delicious — like lacquered cubes of fatty pork belly, marinated in brown sugar and seared on the plancha; rich strands of duck meat with crispy edges (think of it as high-brow carnitas) tucked into corn tortillas; or tempura-battered fish with vinegary slaw. There’s even a secret taco — seared mushrooms and pickled coins of asparagus nestled into a smear of sweet-corn purée — that changes seasonally, so you could be eating wild boar in winter or having lobster with a glass of rosé in summer.


 


Restaurant Tecalitlan is known for its birria (left), a regional speciality from the state of Jalisco. Photo by Samantha Garbarini

 

Today, I’m looking for a taste of authenticity in New Rochelle.

Nearly 9,000 residents, about 11 percent of the city’s population, self-identify as Mexican, and more than half of those were born there. Just outside downtown’s burgeoning redevelopment zone, Union Avenue’s blocks — lined with Mexican grocers, delis, bakeries, and markets — constitute a taco-lover’s restaurant row.

The first stop is Restaurant Tecalitlan, a white building with red-trimmed windows, near the corner of Charles Street. The owners hail from Jalisco, a coastal state on the Pacific where the specialty is birria, tender shreds of beef stewed with chiles, garlic, and spices. The beef almost melts into the taco, seeping pepper-and-clove-scented broth onto a double layer of corn tortillas. Unexpectedly, my order comes with a complimentary appetizer taco perched on top, a slick of velvety refried beans and a spoonful of crisped chorizo so good, I wonder if I could order just that.

From there, I pop into Taqueria San Antonio, just a few blocks away. A distressed-wood accent wall and mirrored backsplash make the space feel more modern, but the tacos are still delightfully traditional. Five dollars buys two smooth corn tortillas — warm and pliable, with slightly crisp edges (I think they must be fried) — piled high with toppings and served with caramelized onions. The steak taco is so beefy, it reminds me of eating the crisped fat cap on a roast, while the fragrant chorizo, made with an intense dose of cinnamon, packs just a little heat.


 


A plate of tacos, featuring pork belly, chorizo, and a Mexican riff on Peruvian lomo saltado, at Taco Shack. Photo by Andrew Dominick

 

“Vibrant” and “fun” is how Luis Aguilera describes the breadth of tacos in Port Chester.

Born in Mexico and raised in the US, Aguilera opened Halstead Ave Taqueria in Harrison in 2014. Today, I’m visiting him at Taco Shack, his new, full-service restaurant on Main Street in Port Chester. The common threads between the two restaurants are freshness (nothing canned, ever) and an undercurrent of memory that draws upon on the food Aguilera ate as a child.

“[In Port Chester] there’s a variety of every kind of flavor,” he explains. “Here, we have the flexibility to be a little more authentic.” That flexibility translates into brick-red shrimp cooked with chiles; crispy cubes of pork belly topped with guacamole and shards of chicharrón; and vegetables (in this case, parsnips and chard stems) on an inky layer of refried beans. Where I really find his childhood, however, is in the pork chile-verde taco, tender chunks of pork shoulder braised in tomatillo sauce until the meat is yielding and the sauce becomes unctuous and porky. With each bite, Aguilera talks about his mother, about how this recipe is based on the pork chops she stews in tomatillo sauce and serves with refried beans, about how she gently criticizes his attempts to measure ingredients, about the friends’ homes they’d eat in growing up, until it seems as if she were sitting among us.

At Taqueria La Picardia (above), owners Azael Vargas and Pedro Najera (below) serve popular al pastor tacos (below) to hungry Deadheads. Photos by Ken Gabrielsen

All my pre-taco research convinces me that Taqueria La Picardia is a must-visit. Situated across from The Capitol Theatre, the walls are lined with Jerry Garcia memorabilia; the ceiling is canopied with brightly colored tissue-paper garlands; and the music is just a little too loud. Both the shrimp and the fish tacos, loaded with pico de gallo, are muy bueno, but I agree with the concertgoers who come here after the show that the headliner is the al pastor, bits of achiote-stained pork studded with pineapple.


A giant taco al placero at Kiosko. Photo by Ken Gabrielsen

 

At Kiosko, they’re making tacos al placero, a style I’ll admit I’d never heard of before. It’s the Hungry-Man taco, a two-hands, elbows-out behemoth — seasoned rice, chunks of potato, chicken milanesa, and a mountain of blistered jalapeños, piled into an oversized corn tortilla — meant to keep you full during a long day of work. Eaten at a table flanked by the Mexican flag on one side and posters of bullfights on the other, it’s heavy yet satisfying, the kind of dish you keep picking at long after you’re full.


Photo by Heather Sommer

 

Across the street at Las Brisas, the interior looks like a retro luncheonette: a counter with red-vinyl-topped stools, a handful of booths, and pink-and-green tile on the walls. Though the vibe calls for egg creams and patty melts, the menu, written in Spanish on three whiteboards behind the counter, is all cemitas, burritos, and tacos. Aguilera instructed me on what to order, and the tacos — crispy-edged, marbled carnitas and fiery chorizo that stains the corn tortillas with red-orange oil — topped with a fistful of white onion and cilantro, are exactly the kind of simple, authentic interpretations I was hoping to find in Port Chester.


 


Smoked brisket (think Texas barbecue) is the base for this taco with crispy fried onions at Taco Dive Bar. Photo by Enormous Creative

 

In Peekskill, the diversity of taco joints is a metaphor for the city itself.

There are places that cater to the artsy-hipster crowd and affordable authentic spots that embody another side of the city. Louie Lanza’s Taco Dive Bar is the former, a gluten-free interpretation of the California dive bars Lanza grew up with. At lunch on Sunday, the vibe is laid-back cool, with diners wearing sunglasses as they down tequila-spiked Bloody Marys. The tortillas are from La Milpa De Rosa, Chef Chris Vergara’s Yonkers tortilla factory that employs nixtamalization, an ancient Mesoamerican technique for preparing masa, to create better-tasting tortillas. The fillings are playful: meaty Portobello mushrooms with local feta and truffle vinaigrette, blackened mahi mahi topped with fennel slaw, and hunks of smoked brisket with pickled jalapeño, fried onion strings, and tangy, spiced Mexican crema.

I get lost looking for Mercado Azteca. There’s a sign on a side door (it’s not the entrance), and it takes me awhile to find the front, tucked into the back-right corner of Crossroads Plaza. The Mexican flags outside signal that this isn’t a standard corner deli. Next to the blocks of Swiss cheese and Boar’s Head Ovengold turkey, there’s a giant bowl of guacamole and a drink dispenser full of violet-pink agua de Jamaica. The crowd is mostly Spanish-speaking families, the little children restless and running around, having a hearty meal at a handful of tables. The menu has all the classic fillings, including tongue and pig’s ears, but I’m particularly fond of the barbacoa, stewed goat meat seared on the flattop until crispy, and the house-made chorizo, delicately spiced with a subtle vinegar tang, served on supple corn tortillas.


At TRUCK, the “local veg” taco features a seasonal mix of fresh vegetables, many sourced from nearby Bedford farms. Photo by Andre Baranowski

 

From Peekskill, it’s a 40-minute drive to TRUCK. The vibe is quintessentially Bedford — it’s the only place I’ll visit offering valet parking — with a community feel, rustic-chic décor (gray wood, sliding barn doors, and a longhorn skull that reminds me of a Georgia O’Keeffe painting), and hyper-local, farm-sourced taco fillings on organic and/or nixtamal tortillas.

First up is a deep-red Berkshire pork carne adovada taco. Braised with ancho and guajillo chilies, it’s inspired by the special-occasion party food chef/owner Nancy Roper grew up eating in New Mexico. Then comes a stunningly fresh “local veg” taco with cubes of sweet butternut squash and sautéed greens that add just a hint of mineral bitterness. The chorizo tacos can be topped with eggs that come to the restaurant as surplus from local families with chicken coops. But the taco to try is the crispy, briny fried oyster (seriously, just order it), harvested just a short drive away, in Westport.


 


At Tacos El Poblano, owner Alfonso Alvarez spit-roasts lemon-marinated pork to make tacos arabes, a little-known style from his home state of Puebla. Photos by Ken Gabrielsen.

 

I’m on the hunt for tacos arabes.

Specific to the state of Puebla — and recently featured on Chef David Chang’s Netflix documentary Ugly Delicious — this regional, melting-pot-style of taco might as well be called “Mexi-schwarma.” The place to get it in Westchester is Yonkers’ Tacos El Poblano, opened by Puebla native Alfonso Alvarez in 1990. “It’s a traditional taco,” says Alvarez. “We had a huge immigration from Lebanon. They created the taco [arabe], and it’s become very popular.”


Photo by Ken Gabrielsen

 

Marinated in lemon, vinegar, and oregano, the tangy, spit-roasted pork tastes not quite Mexican, not quite Middle Eastern. It’s served in a traditional flour tortilla (think of it like a Mexican pita), with a generous drizzle of earthy chipotle salsa.

Owner Val Morano commissioned a colorful mural for the exterior of Cafe La Fondita (below), his Mexican takeout joint situated in an industrial area of Mamaroneck. Above: al pastor and crispy fish tacos at Cafe La Fondita. Photos courtesy of Cafe La Fondita.

Thankfully, it’s not too busy today at Café La Fondita in Mamaroneck. Val Morano bought this former luncheonette in 2015 and converted it into a breakfast-and-lunch-only Mexican joint where seating — just a few outdoor tables in view of the one-story building’s colorful mural — is seriously limited. All the tacos (and everything else on the menu) are inspired by Morano’s travels through Mexico and Latin America. There are crispy fish tacos, chorizo flecked with caramelized onions, and a stellar al pastor. A cousin of the taco arabe, it’s traditionally spit-roasted, so the meat bastes and crisps in its own fat. Despite not having room for a spit, the rendition is the best I’ve had so far in Westchester, fantastically crispy and piled high on a soft corn tortilla with caramelized bits of pineapple.


 


At Med-Mex PopoJito in Scarsdale, the tacos aren’t exactly traditional — and that’s okay. Photo by Yu Matsui

 

Is this even a taco?

I’m eating New England-style lobster salad in a corn tortilla, and I like it. Though this is my sixth straight day of eating tacos, I’m still not sure if there are (or should be) hard-and-fast rules about what constitutes one. Of course, PopoJito doesn’t subscribe to being just Mexican. When it opened in Scarsdale in fall of 2017, it was the first Med-Mex restaurant in Westchester, blending two seemingly disparate cuisines that find common threads in a reliance on fresh ingredients and deep-rooted
culinary traditions.

Maybe that freedom of experimentation is why it works (though lobster salad isn’t really Mexican or Mediterranean). The rest of the menu raises less taco-defining questions, with fillings that are clearly Mexican-inspired, like mezcal-lime chicken and pulled pork in salsa verde, and riffs that pick up on the Mediterranean, including crispy calamari and organic caramelized cauliflower with tomato relish.


Chipotle-chicken tacos at The Taco Project. Photo by Andre Baranowski

 

I’m pretty sure what I’m eating at The Taco Project in Yonkers is definitely a taco. I know that purists, including co-owner Nick Mesce, often scoff at hard-shell, ground-beef iterations, but I don’t care. It’s crunchy, rich, and topped with sharp, orange cheddar and tangy sour cream — all qualities that are undeniably delicious. “It’s a classic,” says Mesce. “It’s not something traditional, but it evolved because people were asking for it.”

Perhaps it’s a misleading depiction of why The Taco Project is so beloved in Westchester (there’s another location in Tarrytown). As I work my way through the menu, every other taco I try — crispy, tempura-battered shrimp with mango salsa and a squeeze of lime; short ribs braised in earthy mole; a perfect iteration of shredded chicken, doused in chipotle and tangy-spicy aioli — is served on a soft La Milpa De Rosa tortilla, delivered warm from the factory this morning.

And yet, the more I talk to Mesce, an Italian chef who opened a taco joint because he recognized that contemporary diners love Mexican food, the more it seems like having this perennial, hard-shell favorite on the menu makes perfect sense. “I don’t think tacos are a trend or a fad,” he explains. “Tacos [have become like] the way American people eat pizza or Chinese food. I think it’s here to stay.”


 


The newest of Westchester’s trendy taco joints, Mission Taqueria blends graphic interior design with contemporary riffs on tacos. Photo by Amanda James

 

Mission Taqueria has only been open for about a week — and it’s gorgeous. Hexagonal blue tiles create a striking backsplash behind the bar, where the taps sport colorful Día de los Muertos skulls. The banquettes along the walls are blond textured wood with striped, woven pillows. The room is impeccably styled with different-sized cacti and photos of silvery-green agave fields being harvested to make mezcal. I can’t even imagine the time and care that went into designing it, but I’m sure it speaks to how beloved tacos have become in the county.


Photo by Donna Dootan

 

The food is, as the owners explain to me, “modern in execution and presentation,” yet authentic to what a taco is, something sharable and delicious. First to the table is a trio of house-made, blue-corn tortillas topped with butter-poached lobster, garlic, corn, and crispy potato strings. It’s followed by seared Prime New York strip steak tacos, ready to be topped with a raw tomatillo salsa; the charred, tomato-based madre; or caution-sign -yellow habañero sauce. There’s a perfectly cooked shrimp taco, marinated in chipotle and agave, topped with a colorful confetti of mango salsa, cilantro, and neon-pink pickled onions. This is followed by an addictive vegetarian taco filled with crispy Brussels sprouts and buttery pistachio purée.

After an entire week of tacos, I’m surprised how much I can still enjoy eating them.

With so much diversity, it doesn’t feel like I’ve eaten the same food over and over again for seven days. And then, halfway through my chili-rimmed, grapefruit-tequila cocktail, Mission Taqueria creative consultant Sheryl Dennis says something that resonates: “[Tacos] are all about ingredients, the freshness, the flavor,” she says, aptly summing why tacos have become so popular in Westchester. “We want people to go home and think about it. We want people to crave it.”