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Interview Tue Oct 05 2010
We've asked Chicagoan-turned-NYCer and freelance writer Rachel Z. Arndt and NYCer-turned-Chicagoan (and GB staffer) Lori Barrett to compare notes on what foods make each city. Their findings on tacos below. You can find their thoughts on bagels, too.
In the few years I've lived in Chicago, I've done my share of complaining: the pizza is cut in squares; there aren't enough magazines to hire all the out-of-work editors; and a shocking number of people don't clean up after their dogs. But I've always bragged to my New York friends about a few things, especially the fact that you can buy wine at Target and you can find authentic tacos on nearly every street corner.
I've fallen in love with Chicago's tacos--from the nondescript and gritty Taco Burrito Expresses and Palaces and Houses to restaurants like De Cero and El Cid. The fillings vary widely, from the quality of the meat to the toppings. The marinated beef and pork have devoted fans, but for someone who reads too much about factory farming and negligent inspectors, the veggie versions taste just as good as the marinated meat smells. Fillings can include grilled vegetables, beans or avocado. On top you might find cheese, sour cream, onions, cabbage, cilantro or lime. Never all of it. These tacos are good because of their simplicity. The other special treat that comes with Chicago tacos is the pickled vegetables. Who knew carrots could taste like that?
It's surprising that there aren't more authentic tacos in New York. Or, there weren't when I was there. Several years ago the New York Times outed a taco stand in the back of a deli on Hoyt Street in Boerum Hill, and for a while it was a weekend lunch destination for my family. But for the most part, we had to rely on the Dominican joints for our marinated meat and rice and beans.
I came upon the mysterious taco truck while wading through hordes of crowd-blind tourists and mango vendors in SoHo. Tribeca Taco Truck stood in the distance like an oasis, the hallucination of a delirious and dehydrated traveler. I say this because I could not find any record of its existence. But a fellow food-truck enthusiast came to my rescue with the truck's Twitter (it turns out you have to take out the spaces between the words), which revealed its age when I first spotted it: two days.
I was skeptical at first. Tribeca, let alone Manhattan, is not known for its tacos. But I remembered the first good (not great, mind you, but good enough for a homesick Chicagoan) tacos I'd had in New York were at one of the two Pinche Taquerias in SoHo. I took the risk. I was rewarded. Chicago tacos these are not, but they're close, and close seems to be as good as New York City can do on the Mexican food front. For $2.50 you have your choice of pork, beef, chicken, or tofu (wouldn't there be a texture problem?). There are also burritos, but that's just silly. The pork in the carnitas tacos was mostly moist and entirely flavorful, and the pale pink hot sauced added a nice sweet-spicy kick. The truck offers corn and flours tortillas, which you may call choice, but I call blasphemy. Luckily, the corn tortillas--which can make or break a taco--were just crisp enough, still soft, and entirely delicious. And the handful of queso fresco was a subtle but welcome finishing touch.
Tribeca Taco Truck is no Allende, and it's certainly no Big Star--where the al pastor taco is perfect, with intricate flavors beyond heavy-handed pork--but it'll have to do. And if you're in the mood for something that doesn't move, go to Oaxaca Taqueria--at least it's not so ephemeral.