“Good-bye Rooooosie, the Queen of Corona, see you, me and Julio down by the school yard,” played on repeat in my head as I walked down 104th Street in Queens on a quest for the best tacos in New York City.
My culinary adventure began with a simple gchat conversation with my friend, Steve. “Challenge, I would like to find the best, cheap Mexican place in Manhattan.”
However, the answer is, you really can’t find great Mexican food on the island. But Queens is a different story.
My friends and I met at Grand Central Station for a long ride on the 7 train. Our destination would be 103 Street/Corona Plaza, just two stops shy of Mets/Willets Point. The four of us got off the subway stop, raised high above the hustle of Corona, Queens below. We walked down into a completely new, unexplored territory, realizing we had never been out this far.
We walked down 104th Street to our destination, past the sweet smell of freshly baked bread, lots of 99 cent stores and barber shops. Finally on the corner of 47th Street, we saw the bright, flashing lights of Tortilleria Nixtamal.
We entered inside to the brightly decorated restaurant, taking a seat at the bright red and yellow booth with a TV playing soccer games on the wall. Mexican music played in the background, transporting us from Queens into the heart of Mexico. Their slogan appropriately reads, “Experience the essence of Mexico, without going to the airport.”
Our waiter told us we had come at the perfect time, right between the lunch and dinner rushes. The clientele is a mix of local Mexican families and Manhattan-ites on the hunt for authentic, inexpensive food.
Nixtamal has perfected the art of making fresh, corn tortillas, adding to the lure of the restaurant. The owners imported a machine from Mexico that creates additive-free tortillas, made the classic and native way. Many New York City restaurants purchase their tortillas and masa from Nixtamal, realizing that they themselves will not achieve the same level of perfection.
We glanced over the menus, as my friends Mike and Steve ordered Mexican bottled Coca-Cola, made with cane sugar, thrilled that the glass bottles contain a sweeter version of the classic drink. We started off the meal properly with guacamole, while we debated over which of the Mexican delights we would each choose to try.
The guacamole seems to be an after-thought, overshadowed by thick, unsalted chips freshly fried in corn oil. While the guacamole was delicious, chunky, full of cilantro and clearly made in house, the chip really continued to be the star with each bite. I found myself eating the chips plain, with the green and spicier, red sauces on the sides of the chips and guacamole. The waitress brought out more of the light, fresh chips when we had run out, to keep eating while we decided on our orders.
Tacos are ordered individually (with a few exceptions), giving the ability to mix and match the combinations. After much debate, I decided to order the Carnitas taco and Barbocoa (lamb) taco. In addition, I ordered the mole tamale.
The tacos and tamale arrived together on a red tray, designed to hold our three treats.
I started off with the Barbacoa taco, which consists of seasoned lamb steamed in maguey leaves, giving it a rich, fatty texture. The tacos are topped with generously with cilantro and onion, wonderful crunch and further intensity of flavor. All of the ingredients are held together by the wonderful corn tortillas that add a sweetness to the taco. While the insides could stand on their own, the tortilla really brings and holds everything all together. The barbacoa was my favorite of the day.
I then devoured the carnitas taco, which is beef slow cooked in pork fat. By cooking the meat into the pork fat, another level of flavor is infused into the beef. It really makes a radical difference. The meat is paired with onion, cilantro, and fresh lime juice.
Next, I learned the art to unwrapping a tamale with the assistance of our waitress. Mike, Steve and I struggled a bit with this process. You do not want to eat the corn husk, removing the two layers to reveal the masa inside, mixed with the filling of your choice.
Mole is a rich, spiced sauce usually made with the subtle addition of chocolate. At Nixtamal, my tamale was made with masa made in house, which is the rich corn mixture cooked inside the corn husk. The tamales are perfectly smoky and spicy. The masa acts as a binder for the mole and chicken, making it almost like a complex corn bread. It’s a Mexican comfort food and Nixtamal creates an amazing version, once you figure out how to open it.
My friend Vildana, who doesn’t eat meat, enjoyed the bean and avocado taco, as well as the vegetable version and the shrimp.
After raving about the Shrimp taco, I had to try. We both ordered a single taco, serving almost as a dessert. If we came all the way to Queens, we were going big before going home.
This taco was awesome, and our waitress’ favorite. The combination of the spice marinade on the shrimp and the sweetness of mango worked perfectly together. It made me question whether I loved the barbacoa or shrimp taco more. They were both wonderful in different, unique, flavorful ways.
We ended the meal in proper fashion, with an espresso. I was happy to see the bright pink color of Sweet ‘N Low placed on the table adjacent to my little coffee.
In under an hour, I developed a weakness and a craving for more tacos. Plus, the entire meal (4 tacos, 1 tamale and espresso) cost $16 (including tax and tip). It doesn’t get much better then that. Plus, with an unlimited MetroCard, the transportation into the outskirts of Queens was easy and inexpensive trip. With all of these factors in mind, there really is no excuse except maybe laziness to be unwilling to take this trip for the best tacos in New York City.
After we left Nixtamal, we were all in a complete and utter food coma, realizing this place surpassed our expectations. I knew going in there was a reason why a little taco place scored a coveted 26 from Zagat’s and left knowing exactly why. All of the ingredients are fresh and complied with simplicity and care. The corn tortillas, whether eaten as a taco or a delightful, fried chip beats all other products. The same corn masa used for the tortillas, creates a wonderful, sweet and hearty filling for the tamales, that retains a beautiful smokey flavor. Everything here is absolutely delicious and made with such extreme love and care. The passion for Mexican food is seen in every bite.
I’m already planning my trip to return.
Tortilleria Nixtamal – 104-05 47th Avenue – Corona, Queens
Location: Corona, Queens
Perfect For: Authentic Dining, Cheap Eats, Impressing Foodies, Borough Exploration
Reservations: Not Accepted
Favorite Dishes: Shrimp Taco, Barbacoa Taco, Guacamole