I’ve been around Mexican food for as long as I can remember. Over the years, Mexican fast food chains popped up in my neighborhood faster than I could eat at them all. To me, tacos, nachos, quesadillas, burritos, are just as a part of American culture as football or turkey on Thanksgiving.
My solid standing with Mexican food started when I developed an affinity for chains like Chipotle but upon trying the Dos Toros that opened later on that year, I unashamedly switched teams. As far as preference goes, I just love their food much more. Although my family is as Jamaican as it gets, my mom buys the Old El Paso taco kits and we make our own tacos for dinner. (I’ve also liked soft taco shells while my brother ate up the hard shells. To me, nothing beats a nice warm tortilla.) But of course, our Friday dinner is as common to us as it is to other families.
Tacos and Burritos are so common that no matter the ethnicity or part of the world, they have tried it. It’s as iconic as Michael Jackson and makes its presence in every pun and pop culture reference. (Check out my Holy Guacamole post on the Avocado madness that’s sweeping our nation.) The current appropriated-turned-hybrid foods taken from Mexican culture are always sought out. As Gustavo Arellano speaks about in Taco USA, there’s more of a push for “authenticity”. The phrase itself is finicky as the foods that we know as stables in Mexican cuisine are mongrels of their own nature, taken and morphed into taste buds of a more American audience.
At the beginning of this class, I started my food venture at Taco Bell, a chain restaurant the class really dived in on (Check out the Some So-so Queso post for more of a Taco Bell focus). In my own “authenticity” search, my roommate Ruth, my stomach, and I went to Taqueria Coatzingo. Ruth had such nice things to say about this place’s tacos and especially after seeing my classmate Pricilla’s own likeness for this restaurant, I had to check it out.
We got off at Jackson-Heights on the F train and made our way a block from the trains station. Already from taking a few steps I felt transformed into a little Hispanic community. It was even more noticeable as I got on the train from a predominately Indian neighborhood. All the storefronts were in Spanish and as soon as Ruth and I stepped foot in the restaurant, I knew I was in for a treat.
The restaurant is owned by the Zapata family, who named it after a town in Puebla, Mexico. It’s where they’re from and a nice way to nod to their hometown. Even from peeking through the kitchen doors, I could see only people of Latino/Hispanic descent. The waiters were all female while the people displayed in the front were all men, shaving the trompo. In the back, however, there were both men and women. There was a rhythm to everyone that came together like a well-oiled machine.
The restaurant was playing Banda, translating into regional Mexican genre. As we sat down, our waitress came over in no time to set us up with some tortilla chips and pico de gallo salsa, a dip made with tomatoes, lime, cilantro, onion, serranos, and salt crushed to perfection. Tortilla chips themselves, have the root word torta, in which can be translated into ‘tart’, ‘little cake’, or ‘omelet’. This responds to the look of a soft shell tortilla. Tortilla chips are also called totopos which comes from the Nahuatl word tlaxcaltotopochtl, which is “compound of the word for a tortilla, tlaxcalli, plus the word for thunder”. Through the Spanish colonization, the direct history of the word gets a bit muddy. The Spaniards couldn’t pronounce the Nahuatl words so just called them all tortillas.
Our waitress came back later to take our order and I noticed how she spoke in Spanish, which I’m glad Ruth was with me to help me with my atrocious attempts at pronouncing the food. You can tell a lot about the demographics of a place’s customers by the language they speak. At seeing me, the waitress didn’t switch over to English, which made the feeling of being in their cultural space even more real. It made me happy as it felt like I was in a cultural home and reminder of their countries being alive and well in Queens.
After falling in love all over again with pico de gallo, my go-to salsa when eating my burritos, we ordered a large horchata. This particular variation of the drink was made with rice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. It was beyond delicious. I could’ve gotten full of this alone. The flavors of vanilla and nutmeg reminded me of my own cultural flavors. My family cooks a lot with these things and so my first thought of this drink was back to Horlicks and Ovaltine. My mom would often add vanilla and cinnamon when she made these for me as a child.
Finally, we ordered food. I decided to try my hand at tacos al pastor and a Verde tamal. Tamal comes from the Nahuatl word ‘tamalli’ meaning ‘wrapped‘.
Ruth ordered Tostadas de Frijol that came with Pozole rojo de Pollo and taco de birria. Tostada is from the past participle of the Spanish word tostar, meaning to toast. Frijol is the singular word for beans which is a derivative of the Latin word phaselus, which is the name for a kind of bean. Pozole which means hominy, a sweet form of corn, which derives from the Nahuatl word pozolli which is maize kernels.
I’ve personally eaten hominy corn porridge a hundred times growing up. Jamaicans make it differently, cooking it with cinnamon, condensed milk, vanilla, nutmeg, and coconut milk. True story- Hominy corn porridge is the actual reason I walked. My mom had a bowl and I wanted some so she told me to come for it and believe it or not that was the first time I got up and walked. To this day, it’s still my favorite food.
I started with my tamal, which was wrapped in a cornhusk and was still steaming when I received it. It was so much better than I could’ve imagined. I never had tamales before so I was genuinely surprised at how much I liked it upon first taste.
The consistency of the masa where it stuck together just enough to not crumble with the slightest of touch but it was crumbly enough that I could scrap the leftover in forkfuls. The chicken was nicely seasoned to where it didn’t overpower the masa but paired well with it.
If you can look closely at the texture of the masa and the slight green tinge, which I’m guessing is why they’re calling it Verde tamal. The internet tells me the green color is from the green chili. However, I wasn’t able to get definite specifics from the restaurant so I don’t want to say if that’s it for sure. You can still see the moisture from the steam on the banana leaf and even some stray clumps of masa that have broken off the tamal. This reminded me of a similar dish I tried in Taiwan. It was rice that was made from being wrapped in a banana leaf and mixed with chicken. It’s a traditional dish and so sticky. As you peel back the banana leaf, it’s useless trying not to get the stickiness from the rice and the banana leaf on your hands. For this tamal, however, there is no stickiness. So I had no problem taking off the leaf and getting to work. Surprisingly I was already getting pretty full from this alone. But like the champ I am, trained to push my stomach to the limit, I was determined to at least finish my taco al pastor.
So, my taco al pastor came wrapped in two tortillas. Whether the intent was to eat them both at once or to further break up my taco into two, I questioned nothing and ate it as served to me. On the side of it, I got two chunks of radish, lime, and pepper. I’m actually a quite picky eater so I didn’t try anything on the side of my dish. Although, I have had radish on different occasions where it didn’t sit well with me.
To eat my al pastor, I first had to mix up the al pastor and guacamole with the other seasoning of onions and cilantro. Upon Ruth’s further instructions I squeezed the lime on top and cupped it. I had also been given a minute long tutorial on the proper way to eat tacos. Not to brag but I will say that I that I did I pretty good job of keeping everything together. I noticed that there was juicy that ran down on my plate which is why Ruth told me to hold it a certain way.
What I noticed as I ate was how the flavors blended. Nothing in this overpowered me but like the tamal, came together to make a happy combination. I usually hate onions and omit them from every single one of my meals. I had a gross encounter with an onion that I won’t get in the details for but our relationship has never been the same. However, the onions in this weren’t too acidic or harsh which makes me want to at least consider reuniting with onions.
Al Pastor, as according to Huffington Post, has origins rooted in Lebanon. This may seem weird but actually, there was a wave of Lebanese immigrants that came to Mexico in the early 1900’s and the al pastor is really similar to the shawarma. Mexican shepherds then took this and replaced the lamb with pork and the rest is history. Just another example of people coming from other countries, bringing their traditions, and adapting it to their surroundings.
The tortillas were still warm by the time I got to this dish. The taste was reminded me of the nixtamal tortilla, I tried in class, but it was by far not as organic. Which leads me to believe that the tortilla is fried but still fairly freshly made. And boy, did I taste a difference between these and those El Paso tortillas my mom gets. Literally couldn’t compare to this Taqueria’s tortillas.
The meat was so nicely cooked, I could go forever about how much I liked it. I was lucky enough to even see the chefs carry a new trompo, translated to spinning top as it rightfully looks that way, to the front of the store where they cooked. I was so full by the time I finished my taco that I was even having a hard time drinking some horchata after.
Would I go back here? Without a doubt. I’m ready to try their things especially their taco de birria. Ruth for one gets them every time she visits this place. This taqueria is just one of the many fabulous places in Queens to explore. After this visit, I can confidently say that these tacos are one in a million.
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