Category Archives: Mexican

Dorado Tacos

A grilled-steak taco from Dorado Tacos

Here’s a hot take: Because they’re such a flexible, malleable, all-purpose food, tacos are the ideal lunch option. Lunchtime is unpredictable, and when I’m sitting in my morning class, paying full attention and definitely not idly wondering what’s for lunch, there’s not all that much I can know in advance. I don’t know how hungry I’ll be come lunchtime, nor do I know what sorts of flavors I’ll be in the mood for. All I know is that my class will end, and I will leave, and then I’ll be on the sidewalk, seconds tick-tick-ticking away as I scramble to figure out where the fuck to go before I run out of time and have to resign myself to, like, on-campus Chick-fil-A.

With tacos on the agenda, though, the Problem of Lunchtime Unpredictability sort of just evaporates, because like the Room of Requirement, the taco has this magical ability to become whatever it is I need most. A light lunch? One taco, maybe two, and probably a Coke, since I so little self-control. If I’m starving, though, it’s easy enough to scale up: add another taco or two, some chips, some guac—still an appropriate portion, still a reasonable price, still a meal I’m not ashamed to order.

Plus, even your lamest taquerias offer a handful of options for proteins, garnishes, and salsas, so it doesn’t exactly matter what sort of thing I end up wanting. Chunks of steak? Slow-cooked pork? Grilled shrimp? Beer batter? By the time I’m ordering, I’m generally hungry enough to make some choices—and then I get to weigh in on salsa, on crema, on guacamole. It’s all there, and it’s all being offered to me, and if I’d rather not decide, I don’t even have to. Tacos are small, after all. Why not get one of each? (And yes, I do realize that this theory I’ve just spent 300 words explaining is nothing more than a system I’ve crafted to enable my own indecisiveness. Leave me alone.)

A grilled-chicken taco from Dorado Tacos

That said, the taquerias I’ve found within a mile or so of NYU just aren’t doing it for me. There’s Taqueria Diana, home of some tacos that are so lame, so boring that they actually threaten to put me to sleep. And then there’s Otto’s, whose wet and drippy one-note tacos I think I might’ve outgrown. Los Tacos and Los Mariscos continue to spoil me, but Chelsea Market’s just too far away to make my lunchtime list. And Chipotle‘s an option, I suppose, but even pre-shark-jump, their tacos were hardly passable as such.

For the most part, then, I’ve gone without. Which means I’ve had to make a hell of a lot of decisions.

All this to say that I was excited to find Dorado, a Baja-style taqueria—with no nuts in the kitchen!—that’s only a few blocks from NYU. To tell you the truth, though, my initial hopes weren’t all that high. Those Chelsea Market tacos really have cursed me, and because of them, I’m stuck with this ridiculously high standard that keeps me from enjoying myself at most other taquerias. I like Los Tacos, and I like Los Mariscos, and I like Taco Mix, up on 116th Street. That’s about it—and most days, that’s plenty. But I desperately wanted more lunch tacos. Travel-free tacos. So even with my hopes low, I was eager to give Dorado a try.

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I don’t regret it. Dorado’s nowhere near as good as any of those taquerias I just mentioned, but it’s not terrible, either, and it’ll certainly do the trick when school resumes and I resume salivating at my midday taco bell. They offer eight sorts of tacos, seven sorts of quesadillas, and a number of salads, soups, and sides, too. And if that’s not enough variation for you—because it isn’t always enough for me—there are usually a few daily specials, too.

Anyway. I don’t love the grilled-steak taco (pictured at the top of this post), nor am I the biggest fan of the grilled-chicken taco (second above), but I’ll eat the latter, at least. Both are topped with queso fresco (which I like) and guacamole (which I love), but both are made with an underwhelming, heatless habanero salsa that doesn’t appear to serve any purpose beyond making me acutely aware of just how important a decent salsa really is. The steak’s too dry, too flavorless, too boring. But the chicken’s moist, juicy, and tender, and it has a nice, smoky flavor to it, too.

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On the other hand, I do actively dislike the Baja original. Made with beer-battered whitefish, cabbage, crema, pickled onions, and Dorado’s own salsa fresca, it’s incredibly similar to the fish tacos at Los Mariscos. I have no gripes with that similarity—that’s what a Baja-style fish taco is, after all—but given what I know a Los Mariscos fish taco tastes like, I just can’t get on board with Dorado’s version. In every way, it’s just slightly worse: the batter’s soggier, heavier; the fish itself is less flavorful; the cabbage doesn’t make as much of a textural contribution; the salsa keeps to itself, hangs in the corner. As a whole, the taco is disjointed—and it’s heavy, and it’s unsatisfying, and I refuse to eat it. Same goes for the shrimp taco. But perhaps I’d feel differently if I’d never eaten at Los Mariscos.

What do I like, then? Of the tacos, only two: the grilled fish (third above), and the salmon (immediately above). Both the mahi-mahi and the salmon have just the right amount of fishy flavor to them, and both are rather creamy, too (which is a must-have quality of grilled fish, if you ask me). But on the whole, these tacos are average, at best. They, too, come off as disjointed pile-highs (piles-high?) of components, rather than as cohesive, unified, respectable wholes—but their fish bases makes them rewarding enough, I think. Some days.

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I really ought to mention, though, that I absolutely adore Dorado’s chips. They’re unusually hearty (read: thick, but also hearty), and they come dusted with the perfect amount of salt, which is surprisingly rare in the world of homemade chips. Truthfully, they’re the highlight of each and every one of my Dorado meals. The elote’s missing something—I think that something is halfway decent corn—and the rice and beans are rather ho-hum, as far as I’m concerned, but those chips, man. Good on their own, and good dipped in both the guacamole and the particularly onion-heavy salsa fresca they’re served with, those chips are one worthwhile side.

So. It’s not as if Dorado will ever become one of my favorite restaurants. The tacos are just too mediocre—and in the time I’ve spent on this post, I’ve decided that their mediocrity has nothing to do with that high standard for tacos that I mentioned above. Dorado’s food is mediocre because it’s mediocre, plain and simple. My standards and I have only one role in that mediocrity: we took notice. And so the search continues. Though I’ll probably continue to frequent Dorado in the meantime.

Find it at 28 East 12th Street, between University and 5th.

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Los Mariscos

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Blogging, like everything else, is a Sisyphean task: for some reason—hint: it’s self-hatred, or maybe ongoing personal growth—I can tolerate only my last six months’ worth of posts. I scroll any further back and I’m cringing at my writing, which means, of course, that in six months’ time, I’ll have found some reason to hate this whole cohort of posts, too. Whatever. I’m just trying to issue a disclaimer before I even think about asking you to read a retro post of mine—from 11 months ago.

The oh-so-retro post in question is this one on Los Tacos No. 1, one of my all-time favorite taquerias. (Actually, it might just be my favorite. It and Taco Mix trade places regularly.) But as much as I’d like to go on and on about Los Tacos, that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to talk about its seafood-counter cousin, Los Mariscos—fellow Chelsea Market resident, and home of some of the best fish tacos I’ve ever had.

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Given how much I (and most other reasonable people) hate venturing inside Chelsea Market, I’m always a little hesitant to send people to Los Tacos/Mariscos. But these two places are so goddamn good that I’m going to have to insist you bracket, for a day, your aversion to tourists and get yourself over to that cesspool of congestion, because neither of these places’ tacos are to be missed. And anyway, Los Mariscos isn’t really in Chelsea Market. I mean, it is—but it has its own entrance, its own (totally separate) space, and even its own set of (way-more-reasonable!) hours. If you try hard enough, you can almost convince yourself you’re somewhere else.

The food helps. Los Mariscos offers tacos, ceviches, aguachiles, and a whole lot of drinks. (There’s a bar. It gets loud.) There’s not much else on the menu, so I originally figured Los Mariscos would be more-or-less nut-free—and it is, according to each of the employees I’ve asked. And the folks behind Los Mariscos are actually pretty allergy-aware, too. There are, for example, signs posted on the registers that bear warnings for other allergens—fish and shrimp are stored together, one help-yourself salsa contains peanuts, there’s gluten all over the place, etc.—and the fact that someone even thought to post those signs in the first place goes a long way toward making me feel like I’m at least in semi-competent hands.

Two shrimp tacos from Los Mariscos

Food-wise, this place is undoubtedly as good as Los Tacos, which is just about the highest compliment I can offer. Pictured at the top of this post, the fish tacos—house-made tortillas, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage, salsa, mayo, and, uh, some of the best fried fish I’ve ever had—are actually perfect, and the shrimp tacos (immediately above) are almost as tasty. For real, though, that fried fish is good: reasonably crispy, decidedly fried (but not overly greasy), and…creamy. So creamy. God, how I love creamy fish. (The other toppings are good, too, by the way. I’m usually pretty cabbage-averse, but this cabbage is crucial, texturally—and the whole taco’s plenty citrusy, which keeps it from being sickening.)

The shrimp tacos are essentially the same, and so are essentially just as good, but I can’t say I like the shrimp itself quite as much as I like the fish. (The fish is somehow both subtler and fishier. I don’t know. Also: It’s one chunk, as opposed to a bunch of little pieces of shrimp, which means less breading, which means happier me.) Still, the Los Mariscos shrimp taco is one formidable taco, and I’m sure to order one each time I stop by.

A shrimp ceviche

The ceviches, too, are worthwhile. Again, I prefer the fish (below) to the shrimp (immediately above, in Sam’s hands), but both are rather good. (I haven’t tried the especial, which is made with shrimp, oysters, clams, scallops, and octopus.) I like these, I think, because they offer a clean ending to an otherwise batter-heavy meal. The tacos aren’t offensively heavy, but they’re significantly heavier than your average (batter-free) taco—so ending the meal (or perhaps breaking it up) with a $4 ceviche feels like the right thing to do. Served atop a tostada, and topped with a just a little mayo (it works) and a few slices of avocado, too, this sort of ceviche functions almost as the Los Mariscos version of a palate-cleanser. A fishy, citrusy palate-cleanser, but…you get my point.

Should you, after all that, have any room left in your stomach, consider tacking on some chips and guacamole. (40% of the time, the guac is good. The rest of the time, it’s ridiculously good.) Or maybe not—maybe a drink or two, seeing as I’ve just turned 21 and am now, uh, allowed to acknowledge the existence of booze. Whatever you do, though, don’t miss the built-in freebies: shrimp broth (ask the cashier and you shall receive), and the extra tostadas and individually wrapped saltine crackers that hang out at the center of every table. (Hey. Don’t knock the saltine. Or the hustle, for that matter.)

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Anyway. I wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend that you—nut-allergic or not—get yourself over to Los Mariscos. And Los Tacos. Though maybe not back-to-back. Unless you’re into that sort of thing. (I am. Here’s some literature. And here’s an article I really wish were tongue-in-cheek, but that I’m secretly delighted to have found. American maximalism is fucking disgusting. I’m so excited.)

Find Los Mariscos at 409 West 15th Street, between 9th and 10th. Or—if you hate yourself—take a minimum of three deep breaths, enter Chelsea Market, and make your way to Los Tacos No. 1, then turn left (into the blue-and-yellow tunnel) and follow the arrows till you start seeing buoys.

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Taquitoria

Three classic pork taquitos from Taquitoria

[Edit: Taquitoria is no longer in business. Blame the rent.]

One of the first places I ever went on my own as a kid—well, other than school—was the 7-Eleven a few blocks from my childhood apartment. Not one for variation, I’d buy the same thing every time: one (1) pre-paid RuneScape membership card, one (1) bag of Rips, and three (3) gross little taquitos. Admittedly, those taquitos always tasted exactly like they’d just come off a hot-dog warmer at some godforsaken gas-station convenience store—and they had, of course—but I didn’t care. That was just…what I did.

Maybe that’s why I hate taquitos so much. I mean, if I’d grown up on 7-Eleven hot dogs, I’d probably hate hot dogs, too. There are good hot dogs out there, though—I’m already well-aware of that. But good taquitos? I’m not so sure. I wasn’t sure pre-Taquitoria, and I’m certainly not sure post-Taquitoria. At the very least, though, these taquitos are worlds better than 7-Eleven’s—though this place doesn’t sell RuneScape membership. Definitely a downside. (Listen: I’ve quit, okay?)

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I found out about this place a long time ago—almost a year ago, actually, right around when I first started this blog—and back then, I was pretty excited about it. Why? Because—as if single-item-menu restaurants weren’t themselves enough of a boon for those with food allergies—Taquitoria’s menu proudly declares the restaurant nut-free (and gluten-free, and soy-free, and shellfish-free, too).

Now, for me to categorize a restaurant as “truly nut-free,” that restaurant must either (a) openly identify itself as nut-free, or (b) attempt to use only ingredients that are free from cross-contamination—and as I said, Taquitoria meets the first criterion, so I’ve gone ahead and categorized them as “truly nut-free.” Still, they do not require allergen statements from their vendors, so there is, I suppose, a chance that some of their ingredients may have come from facilities that do handle nuts.

…Then again, that’s true of almost every single restaurant ever, and there’s a chance of a nut trace in pretty much every dish on the planet, regardless of whether there are any nuts present in the kitchen it was made in. (If you’re eating in a restaurant, it’s just not feasible to insist on its being confirmed for you that every single ingredient in every dish you order is free from all possible nut traces. Think about it: flours, sauces, seasonings…it’s unlikely that everything will have come from a nut-free facility.)

Eating out is always going to involve some degree of uncertainty. It’s a risk–reward thing. And I happen to believe that Taquitoria’s about as safe as these sorts of places come. Let’s move on.

Some artwork on display at the back of Taquitoria

Despite all the good things I’d read about Taquitoria, and despite my initial excitement at its being nut-free, it took me a while to get myself over to Ludlow Street. My excitement, I think, was purely theoretical. And it wasn’t exactly easy for me to work up a motivated craving for taquitos and taquitos alone. A year later, I’ve still only been by twice—but I’ve ordered from them a handful of times, and I’ve tried pretty much everything on the teeny-tiny menu, too. Finally, I’m ready to blog.

And you know, I’m ready to be honest, too. So here goes: I don’t like much of anything about this place. Everything about it—its “graffitied” walls, its oldish-but-not-old-school hip-hop music, its been-done dueling Biggie and Tupac tip jars, its gimmicky single-concept menu, and even its ever-so-Chill™ business hours—screams “I’m not like a regular restaurant. I’m a cool restaurant.” And it drives me fucking bonkers. Admittedly, that’s a little weird; classic Kanye, gimmicky food, and late-night hours are all usually right up my alley. But when Taquitoria does cool, it just…doesn’t strike me as cool. Think of a fedora (or is it a trilby? I can never tell): it’s cool when Justin Timberlake rocks one, but some random (less-cool) dude? Not so much.

Between Timberlake and the random trilby-sporting guy guy, the difference is…well, a whole lot of things. But between Taquitoria and any of its less-eye-roll-inducing kin? The difference is just the quality of the food. I don’t think Taquitoria would have any trouble pulling off its attempt at cool if the taquitos were good. And don’t get me wrong—they’re all right. (They’re certainly the best taquitos I’ve ever had. But they’re also the only taquitos I’ve ever had that didn’t come out of either a 7-Eleven or a José Olé box.) They’re nice and crispy, with some formidable fillings—all three meats (chicken, pork, beef) are wonderfully juicy—but the toppings they come with are just so ridiculously underwhelming that they’ve soured me on the whole restaurant.

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As for those toppings, there are three pre-set options—Classic (“guac sauce,” shredded lettuce, cotija—which is the style option pictured throughout this post), Cheesy (nacho cheese, sour cream, pickled jalapeño relish), and Chronic (a combination of Classic and Cheesy)—and not one of them is good. Where do I start? The guac sauce is watery and lame, and the shredded lettuce is McDonald’s-tier. The nacho cheese is inexcusable (I firmly believe that nacho cheese has no place in this world), and the jalapeño relish might as well not be there. Oh, and there’s never enough sour cream on them—and the red sauce  is totally useless.

In short, these taquitos leave a whole lot to be desired. They’re okay, but they’re definitely not good.

And anyway, how hard could it really be to improve these toppings? As long as they’re covered with some respectable sauce, cheese, and veggies—and as long as they’re properly fried, which these are—bland-ish taquitos would be a non-issue. But covered with this nonsense, any taquito would fall flat. And there’s no excuse for these toppings, either. There are so many appropriate options out there: a better avocado salsa, a reasonable amount of crema, some pico de gallo, a little onion and cilantro, even just a little lime…but no. The folks at Taquitoria have chosen to limit themselves to the likes of nacho cheese and shredded iceberg. Great. Thanks, guys.

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As if it even matters, the sides are lame, too. The rice & beans—which are topped with tortilla chips (???)—are boring, even for rice and beans. And the chips & salsa are mediocre, too. The Chronic Fries—waffle, crinkle, and shoestring fries, mixed together and topped with all the nonsense I shit-talked above—somehow manage to be at once both boring and overzealous, and the same applies to the “nachos,” too.

Are you getting my point yet…? Anything topped with Taquitoria’s signature slew of accoutrements is going to suck, whether or not you decide to drown the creation in hot sauce. And for what it’s worth—probably nothing—this isn’t a matter of my having highfalutin tastes. I eat at McDonald’s at least twice a week, and if there were a Burger King nearby, I’d be there even more. I have a perverse love for KFC’s mashed potatoes. I sprinkle a little MSG on all my frozen meals, and I dump at least four pounds of French’s atop all my Hamburger Helper.

It may come as a bit of a surprise, then, given how critical I am of a lot of the restaurants I write about—but at my core, I have no standards. And Taquitoria still manages to let me down, not because their food is intolerable, but because it’s marketed as something it isn’t: notably better than the likes of mass-produced fast food. And maybe it is, but not by much. So I’m sorry, I guess, but I’m not a fan. The guys behind the counter are nice, though. I’ll give them that.

Find Taquitoria at 168 Ludlow Street, between Stanton and Houston.

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Chipotle Mexican Grill

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For around three years of my life, I ate at Chipotle with absurd frequency. Part of the reason why was that it was one of the only safe restaurants I was aware of, and I felt (and still feel) entirely comfortable eating there—but I also just liked the food. A lot. It was my go-to lunch, my go-to after-school “snack,” and my go-to travel food. Once, I spent two weeks in Michigan and ate at Chipotle for almost every single meal, breakfasts included. I’m past that stage now—I’m way less phobic about eating out with my allergy, at least—but I just realized that I’d never written about Chipotle, so I figured I should.

For those with nut allergies, Chipotle’s a pretty safe option. According to this page on their website, there are no (intentional) eggs, mustard, peanuts, tree nuts, sesame, shellfish, or fish in any of Chipotle’s food. (Of course, they don’t guarantee that their food is 100% free from trace amounts of any of the above, but a lack of nuts on-site is generally good enough for me.) Plus, if you’re into Food with Integrity, Chipotle has you covered; their meat comes from pasture-raised animals, and they’re very into their commitment to “real” (i.e. farm-sourced, organic, and/or non-GMO) ingredients.

But enough about all that. (Seriously. Enough.) For me—and for most, I assume—Chipotle’s real appeal lies in its unusual mix of ubiquity and food quality. These days, Chipotle is about as common as McDonald’s (not really, though it does often feel that way; McDonald’s has, like, 36,000 locations to Chipotle’s 2,000-ish). But Chipotle’s food is actually pretty good, which is practically unheard of for a chain of its size. It’s omnipresent enough to be dependable, but it won’t leave you feeling sick. And that is why I spent so long eating so much Chipotle.

I should probably explain, then, why I’ve slowed my Chipotle consumption to a measly once a month, if that.

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It all started with Chipotle’s 2015 E. coli outbreak—but it’s not what you think. I never got sick from their food, nor did I stop eating there out of fear of falling ill. But after the outbreak (which followed outbreaks of norovirus and Salmonella, and which did a lot to sully Chipotle’s wholesome image), the chain made a bunch of changes in the name of safety.

Among those changes was a shift to the use of central kitchens to allow for frequent ingredient-testing. Cheese now arrives pre-shredded, a bunch of ingredients (tomatoes, lettuce, cilantro, peppers, etc.) now arrive pre-chopped, and steak now arrives pre-cooked. Onions don’t arrive pre-chopped, but they’re now blanched before use, along with lemons, limes, jalapeños, and avocados—and all of the above (aside from lemons and limes) are now marinated in citrus juice before they’re used in anything else.

Now, none of those changes have made much of a difference—except for the switch to pre-cooked steak, which is the sole reason I’ve become so disillusioned. Chipotle offers six protein bases: steak, carnitas, chicken, barbacoa, chorizo, and sofritas. I’ve only ever been able to get into the steak, and I’ve always been silently skeptical of anyone who swears by any of the other options. The carnitas are bland, and both they and the barbacoa are mushy as hell. The chicken’s dry, and the chorizo might as well be ground chicken, flavor-wise. Sofritas are vegetarian, and I’m heavy into meat. That’s left me with steak.

I never minded, though. I loved the steak, in all its medium-rare glory. On a good day, it was juicy, soft, and bursting with flavor—never dry, never crusty, and hardly ever overcooked. Now, the steak is cooked sous-vide, cooled, and then shipped to Chipotles everywhere for marinating and further cooking on the grill, and for whatever reason, this process never seems to end well. These days, Chipotle’s steak is almost always dry, tough, and bland. On its best days, it’s just a little overcooked—but usually, it’s inedible.

A steak burrito bowl from Chipotle

Before the outbreak, I had my order down pat: a steak burrito with white rice, fajita vegetables, chili-corn salsa, sour cream, cheese, and lettuce—or a bowl with the same ingredients, with their (free!) honey vinaigrette drizzled on top and a (free!) warm tortilla on the side. But without good steak, my order falls apart. I tried switching to carnitas. I tried switching to chicken. When they introduced chorizo, I tried switching to chorizo—but it just wasn’t happening, so I gave up. Perhaps the steak will improve. Perhaps the grillers will get used to grilling pre-cooked steak, and perhaps it’ll start tasting better.

In the meantime, Chipotle has done a lot to un-tarnish its reputation. They’ve given out free burritos, introduced a summer rewards program (Chiptopia), and released an animated short—but if you ask me (and why would you?), their customer base, fickle as any other, will have no reason to return until the food’s good again. For me, at least, it isn’t about E. coli; it’s about the food, and the food’s demonstrably worse.

But even if the steak never gets better, I’ll probably never get fully clean. Chipotle’s too big, too easy, too dependable for me to remove it from my repertoire. So I guess I’ll just continue to eat their food on occasion, taking every chance I get to talk about my dissatisfaction with their new steak, promising myself, with fresh conviction each time, that this will be my last Chipotle meal, that I won’t be back.

But let’s not kid ourselves.

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Taco Mix

A tripe taco from Taco Mix

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another nut-free taco place. This time, it’s Taco Mix in East Harlem—and this time, the tacos are undoubtedly worth a special trip.

I’ve been enamored with tacos al pastor since Los Tacos No. 1 won me over a few months ago. But I hate going Chelsea Market, and as much as I love Los Tacos, I’m sure there’s even better al pastor out there. In an attempt to find some, I did some research (read: I Googled “best al pastor in NYC”), and that’s how I found Taco Mix. I’d never heard of it, but apparently, it’s a neighborhood favorite that serves up some of the city’s best al pastor—so of course, I had to look into it.

I didn’t see anything iffy, nut-wise, on Taco Mix’s menu, so I figured I had pretty good shot at being able to eat what Robert Sietsema had called “the best al pastor taco in town.” Sure enough, it was good news all around when I called: Taco Mix doesn’t use any nuts or nut products in any of their cooking, and they’re open until 5am. And with that, I was on my way.

Tacos al pastor from Taco Mix

Google describes Taco Mix as a “snug” and “no-frills,” which is apparently code for “there’s a counter to eat at, but standing room is minimal—oh, and there’s a single table, but it’s always taken, so don’t get your hopes up.” Around dinnertime, it’s always crowded, and I imagine the same is true of lunchtime, too. Everyone moves at full tilt, speaks Spanish, and knows exactly what they want—and you’ll be expected to be in and out pretty quickly, because there’s no room to loiter. (Do I sound like I’m complaining? I’m not. Spoiler: I love this place.)

The first time I went, I tried way too many tacos: al pastor, carnitas, pork ear, beef tripe, beef tongue, and carnitas. (Almost) all were good, but the al pastor (pictured immediately above) was my favorite, by far. The pork, soft and juicy, was on par with that at Los Tacos—a high compliment—and there was plenty of pineapple, which I really appreciated. Plus, the taco wasn’t spicy in the slightest; at Taco Mix, the salsas are do-it-yourself, and I was glad to have 100% control over the heat level of my food. I used plenty of their sorta-hot avocado verde, and with its addition, the al pastor was absolutely perfect.

The carnitas and the tripe were tied for second place, with the tongue coming in third and the pork stomach a distant, distant fourth. The carnitas had a stronger pork flavor than I’ve come to expect, and the crispy bits could’ve been crisper, but it was pretty good nonetheless. (I prefer the carnitas at Otto’s Tacos, but still.) The tripe (pictured at the top of this post) was very crispy—too crispy, even—and so salty that it had me reaching for my drink every few bites, but I didn’t dislike it. In fact, when I smothered it in the avocado verde, it was actually pretty great. (Heads up: There’s very little that doesn’t taste good once it’s been topped with that lovely, lovely salsa.)

The tongue taco was all right, but I couldn’t deny that the meat itself tasted like a mushier, less flavorful version of carne asada. By then, though, I knew the drill: salsa, and lots of it, would probably save the thing—and it did. So I wouldn’t order the tongue again, but it isn’t as if I minded eating it. (Mostly, it made me wish I’d just gotten another al pastor. I’ve since learned, though.)

Unfortunately, the pork ears (pictured below) were beyond saving. I’d never eaten a pork ear before, so I had no standard to which I might’ve compared this taco—it could’ve been incredible, as far as ears go—but I can say with confidence that I hated it. Slimy and gelatinous, the ears were just very unpleasant to have in my mouth, and Sam and I together couldn’t make it through the single taco we’d ordered. Honesty, though, we hardly cared; we had plenty of other (less slimy) tacos to distract us.

A pork ear taco from Taco Mix

Anyway, I should probably stop with the play-by-plays. I really like Taco Mix, though—enough that I don’t even mind making the way-too-many-stops-on-the-6-train trek to 116th street. I like their meats, their tortillas, their salsas (well, the one I can handle), and pretty much everything else I’ve eaten of theirs, too. Even the chimichangas are decent—and chimichangas are one gross creation, if you ask me. And they stock, like, 80% of the Jarritos flavors. What more can I ask for?

Nothing. Taco Mix just doesn’t leave me wanting for anything. My official recommendation is to get your ass up there, order some tacos al pastor (…and maybe a few more things—their menu isn’t small), squirt some salsa on there, and then devour everything on the go.

Seriously: Go. You won’t regret it.

Find Taco Mix at 234 East 116th Street, between 2nd and 3rd.

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Taqueria Diana

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I know, I know. This blog is filled with posts about nut-free taquerias; how could I possibly have found another? Well, I actually have an answer: I found Taqueria Diana here, where I ended up after a Google search of “best nachos in NYC.” 30 minutes later—after I’d called and made sure the folks at Taqueria Diana don’t use any nuts in their kitchen—it was time to go.

I went pretty late in the day, and they were out of both carnitas and elote—which, to be honest, had me pretty disappointed—so I got a tray of nachos al pastor and Sam got a burrito (also al pastor). I tried his burrito, and…it was pretty bad. The filling was mostly rice and beans, and when Sam gave up on holding the burrito together and let its contents spill into onto his tray, I couldn’t deny how much what fell out reminded me of a cockroach infestation.

Unnecessarily mean comments aside, the burrito was undeniably mushy and bland, and I probably won’t ever eat another. The nachos, however, were a different animal entirely. (Not literally. Same meat.) For $12, it’s a huge portion—and it’s really good, too. Seriously: I can’t stop ordering them. It’s becoming a problem.

The chips (homemade!) are strong enough to hold the toppings: cheese, beans, guacamole, crema, salsa, jalapeños, carrots, salsa verde, and the meat of your choice. There’s plenty of cheese, always fully melted and well-distributed—and there’s a whole lot of guac, too, which I can’t help but appreciate. The salsa verde isn’t all that flavorful, but there are squirt-bottled salsas of various heat levels all over the restaurant, so the verde’s a non-issue, really. Even the beans are good (and I’m unashamedly anti-bean).

Best of all, these nachos are entirely free from that nasty-ass, movie-theater-tasting slop called “nacho cheese” that everyone and their mother seems to need to drizzle over tortilla chips. (Ugh. Ugh.) They’re missing pico de gallo, too—but I’m willing to accept that as long as nacho cheese stays out of the picture, too.

The pork itself—which is the one meat they never seem to run out of—is pretty dry and boring, but that’s my only real complaint. The earlier I go, the better the meat is—so perhaps it’d actually be good if I could manage to show up around lunchtime. (Or perhaps they won’t be out of carnitas. One can hope, right?) Meat aside, though, these nachos are pretty solid, and I’m grateful to have found them.

Two tacos— from Taqueria Diana

I’ve tried the tacos, too—al pastor and chicken, both pictured immediately above)—and while I prefer those at Los Tacos (and Otto’s, too, on a good day), these definitely aren’t bad. There’s plenty of crema to go around, and I’m a sucker for anything with a bunch of cilantro sprinkled on top, so it wasn’t all that hard for these to keep me chewing. Still, the tortillas were sort of shitty, and both meats fell totally flat. The al pastor was as described above, and the chicken was mushy-soft, in a tuna-fishy sort of way.

Via delivery—and only via delivery, because I can’t seem to ever get out the door before 3pm—I’ve actually been able to get my hands on both the carnitas and the elote. Though everything got a bit soggy in transport, I can still say that I liked the carnitas a whole lot better than the al pastor. On the other hand, the elote fell a bit flat. It had way too much mayo and not nearly enough cheese, and the corn itself was pretty bland—though perhaps it would’ve been better if it hadn’t just traveled a few miles in a tin foil cocoon.

Anyway. I’ve done a fair amount of complaining in this post, but I do like Taqueria Diana. The tacos are good, the nachos are great, and the elote’s all right, I suppose, though it’s not as if I’ll ever crave it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to get my hands on their carnitas in-store—or maybe not. Either way, I’ll probably continue to eat at Taqueria Diana. That’s kind of just what I do.

They have three locations: one on 2nd Avenue, between 7th and 8th (129 2nd Ave); one on 6th Avenue, between 17th and 18th (601 6th Ave); and one on the corner of 9th Avenue and 39th Street (524 9th Ave). It’s not McDonald’s, so they’re all a little different. I’ve only been to the 6th Avenue location, but I look forward to trying the others, too.

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Dos Toros Taqueria (or, That Time I Was Really, Really Wrong)

A carnitas bowl from Dos Toros

All right. Let’s say you’re like me, and you’ve eaten at Chipotle too many times in the past month to count, and you’re starting to feel a little ashamed. You still want Chipotle, but shouldn’t you…you know, eat something else? The answer is yes. Yes, you obviously should eat something else. And Dos Toros is your key to doing so—but, you know, without ever having to actually eat anything else.

Dos Toros is remarkably similar to Chipotle, though die-hard fans of either will probably try to convince you that they’re, like, totally different, dude. But the fact remains: they’re both Mexican-ish fast-casual chains that offer customizable burritos (and bowls and tacos, too). And like Chipotle, Dos Toros is pretty much nut-free. According to their online menu: “There are zero nuts in anything at DT. There is however sesame oil in our smokey hot sauce and our salad dressing.”

With regard to potential cross contaminants, a Dos Toros representative told me the following via email: “I just talked to one of the founders and it’s probably not fair to say we ensure that there are no contaminants, but we assume something like onions or peppers is not being grown next to peanuts.” Some may not be satisfied with that answer, but it was enough for me, so to Dos Toros I went.

The first time I went (to the Union Square location, in late February), I ordered a carne asada burrito with rice, corn, cheese, and sour cream—and to be honest, I absolutely hated it. It was soggy and bland, with mushy rice and funky-tasting steak, and I promised myself I’d never return. Come summer, though, I read that a brand new Dos Toros location was having a a Friends and Family event—basically a free food day—in celebration of their June 13th grand opening. If I was ever going to give the place another chance, it had to be then.

Fast forward to Sunday, June 12th. The Dos Toros in question was the chain’s 11th restaurant, located at 52 West 52nd Street, between 5th and 6th. The Puerto Rican Day Parade was in full swing (and only half a block away, at that), and Dos Toros #11 was crowded. Like, snaking-line, no-tables crowded. No surprise there, I guess. There’s a lot of hype surrounding Dos Toros—and who doesn’t love discounted food?

I figured I should switch it up, so when my turn came, I ordered a carnitas burrito with rice, peppers and onions, tomato salsa, corn, verde sauce, guacamole, and sour cream—and, of course, some chips and guac (why not?). As promised, everything was free. And the employees were absurdly friendly. With my last Dos Toros experience still fresh in my mind, I was ready as ever to hate everything about the place—but I couldn’t. Everything was perfect.

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I’ll just say it: My burrito was better than anything I’ve ever eaten at Chipotle—including those meals I’ve eaten when Chipotle was at its peak, which it certainly is not anymore. (Have you tasted their steak lately? It’s pretty terrible these days.)

My burrito wasn’t bland. It wasn’t soggy. Nothing tasted funky. All the ingredients were fresh-as-could-be, and the burrito as a whole was flavorful and cohesive, without any of the mushy homogeneity of my first Dos Toros meal. Above all, it was good. Great, even. So: I’m sorry, Dos Toros. I misjudged you.

I maintain, though, that their rice sucks. (I’m sorry. Maybe I suck. But I just don’t like it.) It is mushy and bland—but it definitely isn’t as offensive as I’d originally thought. And while I liked the carnitas better than the carne asada, I must admit that both were pretty boring. But I remain convinced: Overall, Dos Toros is pretty damn good.

Perhaps my first burrito was only so bad because of my own poor choices, made in the interest of saving money and emulating my favorite Chipotle meals. Or perhaps my second burrito was only so good because it was opening week, and all the ingredients were extra fresh (and the employees extra motivated).

Either way, I look forward to finding out just where your average Dos Toros burrito lies on the spectrum between my first and second experiences. And I’ve certainly learned my lesson—there’ll be no more cheaping out on additional ingredients for me.

[Note: Pictured in the two photos above is not a Dos Toros burrito; it’s a carnitas plato that I ate a few days after writing this post. I’d been wanting to try something other than a burrito—and a plato was way easier to photograph, anyway—so I figured I might as well. Forgive me.]

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Los Tacos No. 1

Two carne asada tacos from Los Tacos No. 1

I really didn’t think I needed another taqueria…until I ate at Los Tacos No. 1. I’d read good review after good review, and I’d heard their kitchen was pretty much nut-free, so I felt like I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t at least give the place a chance—and I’m so very glad I did.

This particular taqueria is located in the heart of Chelsea Market, Chelsea’s perpetually overcrowded, tourist-filled shopping mall. I was really hoping I’d hate Los Tacos just so I wouldn’t have to start wanting to make regular trips to such an out-of-the-way hellhole, but I just couldn’t bring myself to form a negative thought about the place. It’s that good.

First things first, though. I didn’t see anything that looked like it’d contain any nuts on the menu, but to be safe, I did send Los Tacos an email. Within a day, I received the following (very brief) reply: “Los Tacos No. 1 is completely safe for anyone with nut allergies.” I would’ve appreciated some more information, but I suppose that was all I really needed to hear. (Still, I’ve categorized them as “technically not nut-free,” as I don’t think they require allergen statements from their vendors, nor do they advertise themselves as a nut-free restaurant.)

When I arrived, the woman who took my order confirmed what I’d been told via email: no nuts in anything. I ended up getting two tacos—one carne asada taco and one adobada (marinated pork)—and both were absolutely delicious. The carne asada (pictured at the top of this post) comes topped with cilantro, onion, salsa, and an avocado-based cream sauce, and overall, it’s pretty damn good. The beef itself is soft and juicy, and the creaminess of the avocado complements the smokiness of the meat wonderfully.

But as good as the carne asada tacos are, I prefer mine with adobada. The pork itself—which comes topped with cilantro, onion, salsa, and pineapple—is always freshly-carved, and though it’s a little spicier than the beef, I love it just as much. The first time I ate at Los Tacos, the pineapple actually caught me off guard; I wasn’t expecting to bite into anything sweet, but goddamn, those slivers were good, especially as a break from the heat of the pork and the salsa. I had trouble getting a decent photo amid all the Chelsea Market hubbub, but this post wouldn’t be complete without some sort of image of my favorite Los Tacos offering, so here’s (evidently) the best I could do:

Two adobada tacos from Los Tacos No. 1

Despite the location, I can’t stay away from Los Tacos—and fortunately, it never disappoints. Their chips and guacamole are absolutely perfect, and the quesadillas aren’t half bad, either. Though it reminds me a little too much of a Taco Bell Chalupa, I particularly like the the pork especial, which is a lot like a fried quesadilla. (It comes with pineapple, so matter how much resemblance it bears to a Chalupa—ugh—I just don’t stand much of a chance against it.)

If it isn’t sufficiently obvious: I really, really, really recommend Los Tacos. These people sell some of this city’s absolute best tacos, and you’ll be doing yourself an enormous disservice if you let the horrors of Chelsea Market scare you off.

Find Los Tacos No. 1 in section B of Chelsea Market, which is located at 75 9th Avenue, between 15th and 16th. (And as a bonus: Los Tacos is a 30-second walk from Eleni’s, one of New York City’s only nut-free bakeries. [Note from the future: Eleni’s no longer has a Chelsea Market storefront.])

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Korilla BBQ

A bulgoli rice bowl from Korilla

Korilla, painted black and orange, is pretty hard to miss. I’ve been aware of its existence for years, and I’ve always wanted to try their food, but for some reason, I sort of just assumed I couldn’t. (I assume that of everywhere, really. Maybe I should knock it off.)

A few weeks ago, I finally got around to sending Korilla an email. The answer I received was as follows: “We don’t use any tree nuts in our food. The closest ingredient would be sesame seeds.” I sent back a few questions about potential cross-contaminants (as I always do), but I didn’t receive a reply (…I never do). Still, I’m usually down to try any place that can assure me there aren’t any nuts or nut products in anything on the menu—if with a little trepidation, in the case of places that can’t provide any further information—so to Korilla I went.

The first time I went, I ordered a bulgogi rice bowl with sticky rice, a fried egg, cheese, and Korilla sauce (pictured above)—and some Kimcheese Fries, which are basically waffle fries with cheese, pico de gallo, kimchi, scallions, and nori. I wanted to try the Tiger Balls, too (bacon kimchi fried rice balls in a Choux pastry, panko-breaded and deep-fried), but they were out—and they have been every time I’ve been by, actually. At this point, I’m convinced they don’t actually exist. Moving on, though…

The bowl was pretty good. The meat was tender and well-marinated, though it did taste as though it’d been sitting around for a little too long. The Korilla sauce—mildly spicy, but certainly not overwhelming—complemented the sweetness of the bulgogi nicely, and in all, everything went together pretty well. Truthfully, though: It was the fried egg that sealed the deal for me. I wished it could’ve been runnier, but you know what? It was good regardless, and certainly worth the extra $1. (Every time I’ve been since, I’ve asked for two eggs. So worth it.)

My biggest complaint, really, was that I didn’t have the option to add some scallions (and maybe some nori, too) to the bowl. They do have scallions on-site for the Kimcheese Fries, though—so I’ll usually ask them if they wouldn’t mind throwing some on, and more often than not, they’re happy to do so. In fact, I’ve only run into any sort of friction once. (I had asked whether “it would be possible to get some scallions on that,” and the guy behind the counter stared at me for a few beats before asking whether I had “any other special requests” in a tone that was…less than polite. Whatever—I still got my scallions. Worth it.)

Overall, I tend to like the bulgogi rice bowls. I’m not a huge fan of the Kimcheese Fries, though. They’re too cheese-soaked for my tastes—and truthfully, I’m not a huge fan of kimchi. Maybe they just aren’t for me. The waffle fries themselves were good though, and I really liked the scallions and nori on top. So in all, they were all right, I suppose.

I’m still in the process of perfecting my rice bowl order—so far I’ve dropped the cheese and swapped the Korilla sauce out for the Ko’grette—but I look forward to trying their noodle bowls and burritos, too. And the Tiger Balls. One day. Maybe.

In general, Korilla’s a pretty cool place—especially when you’re in the mood to customize a big bowl of something other than Chipotle. They have a ton of options, the ambiance is low-key and pleasant, and the employees are (usually) friendly and helpful. Not much more I can ask for, really, in the way of fast-casual.

Find Korilla at 23 3rd Avenue, between St. Marks Place and 9th Street. (They have trucks, too!)

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Otto’s Tacos

Two carnitas tacos from Ottos' Tacos

Last week, my boyfriend Sam and I made another one of our regular trips to Clinton Hill for tacos from Cochinita, one of NYC’s very, very few truly nut-free restaurants. Or it was, at least. When we got off the train, Cochinita’s sign was gone, its windows covered. We were beside ourselves. With Cochinita off the table, we were left with…well, Big Daddy’s and Duke’s (and only Big Daddy’s and Duke’s!) on the list of restaurants that will actually call themselves nut-free. Which is a shame, given that those two are hardly restaurants to begin with.

Perhaps, then, it’s time for me to start looking (harder) into restaurants—not major chains, but small-scale restaurants—that don’t advertise themselves as nut-free, but that happen not to use any nuts in their facilities. Strictly speaking, these sorts of places aren’t ideal (and they’re a bit risky for those whose allergies are very severe, as they can’t guarantee the absence of cross-contaminants), but they’re definitely the next best thing. So I’ve begun my search.

One of the first places I came across was Otto’s Tacos, a SoCal-style taqueria with a few locations around Manhattan. Their menu didn’t mention any nuts, but as those with food allergies know all too well, that doesn’t mean much, so I sent an email to be sure, and unlike the vast majority of the (many, many) restaurants I’ve emailed, Otto’s actually responded—with an email from none other than Otto Cedeno himself: “We have no nuts in our facilities so all your worries should be negated.”

Always great to hear. But since his email was so brief, I figured I ought to press a little further, asking whether he had any information about his vendors’ facilities or the potential for inadvertent cross-contamination. He replied: “There are certain items we buy that come from other facilities. To those, we cannot speak of.” Fair enough—and not too bad, really. Most days, a nut-free kitchen at the restaurant itself is good enough for me.

Otto’s sounded promising, so I hyped myself up and took Sam with me to their East Village location for lunch between classes. To be extra safe, I did call ahead, too, and the woman who picked up reassured (once again…) that there are no nuts in the Otto’s kitchen. When we showed up and approached the counter to order, I realized that it was the cashier with whom I’d spoken—and she seemed to have realized, too, because she was sure to double-check on whether I had any other food allergies.

Sam and I each ordered a carnitas taco (two pictured above above) and a carne asada taco. The pork in the carnitas taco was absolutely delicious—moist, tender, and well-seasoned, if a bit salty—and the taco as a whole was lovely, too. The onions and cilantro tasted fresh, and the tortilla wasn’t dry in the slightest. Plus, the salsa complemented the pork wonderfully. In all, that thing was near-perfect.

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The carne asada taco was less perfect, though it wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. There was nothing wrong with it; the salsa was just a bit hotter (but less flavorful), and the steak itself was unimpressive. But it’s not as if it turned us off. It must’ve been all right, at least, because Sam and I ended up deciding that we couldn’t possibly be done yet. So we ordered more: a chicken taco, and a carnitas Gorgon (pictured immediately above—it’s basically an extra-stuffed taco in a deep-fried tortilla, almost like what a Taco Bell Chalupa would be like if it weren’t, you know, abominable).

Anyway. The chicken taco was decent. I preferred it to the carne asada, but I don’t think anything they could have served me would have touched the carnitas. The Gorgon, though…the Gorgon was wild. The deep-fried tortilla was probably my favorite part; it was crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and warm throughout—and it was weirdly creamy, too, which I don’t understand, but which I won’t question. And it was piled high with stuff: lots of pork, salsa, onion, cilantro, guacamole, and serrano cream. I don’t think it’s even possible to take the thing down without a fork. But unruliness notwithstanding, it was straight-up heavenly.

But I ought to stop. Writing this is making me way too hungry, and I can’t quite afford to go back to Otto’s for tonight’s dinner. As if I need to say so, I wholeheartedly recommend this place to anyone who’s (a) in the mood for tacos, or (b) whose heart’s now marred by a hole that only a Cochinita-shaped peg could fill.

Seriously, though. Stop by. Otto’s has three locations: 141 2nd Avenue, between 8th and 9th; 131 7th Avenue South, on the corner 10th street; and 705 9th Avenue, between 48th and 49th. I hear the one on 9th is the biggest, but I can’t confirm. I can say, however, that indoor seating is very limited at the one on 2nd—so go during off-hours, or prepare to sit outside.

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