We visited El Paso Taqueria, which is chronicled below, in the summer of 2003. It was the first Mexican restaurant we had been to since forming our group. I remember being very surprised as well as upset that soon after Charlie circulated his choice with the other members, the New Yorker magazine came out with one of their restaurant blurbs on, coincidentally, El Paso Taqueria.
El Paso Taqueria
1643 Lexington Ave
Charlie didn’t know that the New Yorker magazine would scoop him on El Paso Taqueria. If he did, he surely would have looked elsewhere to take the group. Once a restaurant is written up by the New Yorker, the kiss of death has been delivered at least for our purposes. A cheap “ethnic” restaurant mentioned by the New Yorker pretty much guarantees that there will be a major change in both clientele and attitude at the restaurant and that was, apparently, the case the night we visited. As a result, our sense of adventure was immediately deflated. But there are other problems: the influx of bluebloods from the neighborhood a few blocks to the south called “Carnegie Hill”, and their incessant questions about what’s on the menu, what to order, how spicy is it, etc., can also breed resentment on a suddenly overworked staff; and resentment can lead to petulance and impatience. Unfortunately, at El Paso Taqueria, that scenario was playing out for us.
Our listless waitress asked if we wanted guacamole to start, as if we had a choice. Guacamole? Now if she asked us if we wanted the “corn fungus,” that was described in the New Yorker or a “flor de calabaza” quesadilla we would have been seriously impressed. Instead, we got guacamole which turned out to be her final suggestion for us. We were on our own, but maybe, in this case, that was okay. Zio wasted no time and actually restrained himself here and only ordered a mere six varieties of tacos, including tripe and tongue. The mention of tongue prompted Eugene, as if he had rehearsed it, to repeatedly state that he only had one preference for “tongue.” His sniggering comment got a minimal chuckle the first time we heard it, but he persisted with his sad routine until it soon became background noise. I delved in with an order of sopes; a thick tortilla covered with various meats and topped with soft cheese. Of the “platos tipicos” or typical plates, we all were interested in the mole poblano, and the “famous puebla stew.” Could we go wrong if it was so famous? Charlie suggested the “adobo de puerco,” spare ribs in a hot and spicy sauce, and Gerry opted for the exotic “cecina asada” salted beef with cactus jalapenos and onion. Was it enough, we asked the waitress? She shrugged.
It was enough. Everything came at once making the table look like one giant open-faced taco. Most of the dishes, certainly the tacos and sopes looked alike, with the meat simmered in a tomato and pepper sauce and sprinkled with cotija cheese. Only by sampling the meats, could you tell the difference between the tongue and the salted beef or the tripe and the spicy pork. The mole poblano was dark and rich with chocolate while Gerry’s salted beef was extremely high on the spice meter. Charlie’s spare ribs were an interesting variation, but at least from this experience, ribs are not what they do best in Mexico. The stew, with chicken, tomatillos, peppers, and potatoes, was hearty and comforting, but we still wondered what made it famous. Dessert was strawberries in whip cream or bananas in whip cream. We tried both. And, though nothing very exciting, they were a refreshing end to the meal.
From the New Yorker blurb, we learned that El Paso Taqueria began as a lunch truck feeding the Mexican immigrants that were new to the neighborhood of East Harlem, offering a quick, inexpensive and authentic taco or two before getting back to work. The lunch truck became so popular it sprouted the restaurant on 104th and Lexington where we were and a new one on 97th between Madison and Park. But after eating in the restaurant, I think the lunch truck, where you can savor one, two, or maybe three or four tacos at a time, is probably the best and most authentic way to enjoy the food and flavors of El Paso Taqueria. And you don’t even have to order the guacamole.
Looking back on what I wrote, I see how I let being scooped by the New Yorker cloud my summary of our El Paso Taqueria experience. I was hard on the restaurant though it was no fault of theirs. All I could do was complain that the guacamole was pushed on us and that the tacos looked alike. I’ve since reformed my ways and even have an El Paso Taqueria take out menu in my possession which my family uses as our first option when it comes to having Mexican delivered to our home.
Like the growing Mexican population in East Harlem—they now are the largest immigrant group in that community surpassing Puerto Ricans and Dominicans—El Paso Taqueria has grown as well. There are now three El Paso Taqueria outlets, including one on 116th Street and another across the street from the original that advertises a “cocktail list” and a “cevicheria.” For the record, there was no ceviche or cockails on the menu when we visited. The original location where we dined has been turned into a take-out taqueria (see photo above). They also have a colorful website www.elpasotaqueria.com and a new, flashy lunch truck proving that, along with a pretty good taco, there’s nothing like what a little publicity from a renowned literary magazine will do for business.