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Queens has enough Mexican restaurants, tortillerias and taco trucks to last a lifetime. With Cinco de Mayo just a day away, I thought I’d share with you three of my favorite spots: a real deal tortilla factory in Corona, Woodside’s best-kept secret, and the taqueria that ate Jackson Heights.
104-05 47th Ave., Corona
When Fernando Ruiz and Shauna Page opened Tortilleria Nixtamal in 2009, the couple thought the Corona storefront was going to be more of a tortilla factory than a restaurant. These days, both sides of the operation are in full swing, with a packed house and a wholesale operation selling to more than two dozen restaurants around New York City, including April Bloomfield’s Salvation Taco, the storied 21 Club and Rosa Mexicano.
Nixtamal’s 11 types of tacos including entraña (skirt steak) with cilantro and onions, fried skate with pico de gallo, tender lamb barbacoa steamed in maguey leaves and guajillo chiles, and shrimp with chipotle mayo salsa topped mango, cucumber and cilantro offer something for everybody in your Cinco de Mayo crew. If you can get everybody to agree on a taco type, as I was fortunate enough to have happen this past weekend, you’ll want to get a molcajete. The centerpiece of this DIY taco fiesta is a piping hot stone vessel that gives the dish its name. It overflows with the filling of your choice—in my crew’s case barbacoa: nopales (pickled cactus paddles), quesillo cheese, lime, onion and cilantro. For good measure there’s a portion of orange-hued Mexican rice at the bottom of the whole lot. Grab a tortilla and dig in.
While you’re munching on your tacos you might detect the wonderful earthy flavor and aroma of fresh corn. That’s because Nixtamal makes its own fresh masa daily from maiz. After your meal, check out the gigantic vats of kernels being cooked before getting soaked in calcium hydroxide, otherwise referred to as cal or lime. Thousands of years ago, the Aztec would grind corn against the limestone found in the riverbeds. It’s only fitting that a statue of Centeotl, the Aztec maiz god, presides over Nixtmal’s corn processing operation.
2. La Flor
53-02 Roosevelt Ave., Woodside
Chef Viko Ortega’s La Flor lies some 20 blocks south of ground zero for Mexican street food on a sleepy Woodside corner underneath the 7 train. Working from an open kitchen, the classically trained Chef Ortega blend the flavors of his native Puebla with those of France and Italy. The menu includes such lovely dishes as pan-roasted Atlantic salmon over potato cake and sauteed spinach, with roasted tomato and white wine caper sauce.
Ortega honed his craft with the likes of Larry Forgione, but he owes his mole recipe to his Abuela Rosaura. The palate-warming, complex sauce that graces his “hometown chicken enchiladas” features five kinds of chili peppers: mulato, pasilla, guajillo, dried poblano and chili de arbol. Ortega’s use of chocolate in the sauce is subtle: “We just put a little bit of chocolate for flavor. You cannot go crazy with chocolate,” Ortega says. Other Mexican specialties include lovely tacos de carnitas and tacos de camaron with roasted red peppers and jumbo shrimp. Ortega began his culinary career as a baker, so don’t miss his tres leches cake for dessert.
76-05 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights
Many of my first Mexican meals in Queens took place at Taqueria Coazingo. Typically I’d order a trio of tacos—usually al pastor, gyro-style cooked pork with pineapple and spices; carnitas or fried pork; and lengua al vapor, tender stewed beef tongue—and several cans of Tecate beer. Along with the excellent house-made chips and salsa it made for an excellent meal.
In the 20 years since I first started going there, Taqueria Coatzingo has spawned two smaller locations, a neighboring bakery, and doubled the size of the original location to annex the neighboring El Calfornia Bar. While I still love the tacos, these days I order off the specials menu which includes such dishes as colita de res en pacilla, tender stewed oxtails, in a ruddy sauce made from pacilla chilies, and the soup known as pozole rojo.
The latter, pozole’s redder cousin is available daily. The broth gets its red color from lots of chilies. Unlike its tamer cousin, pozole rojo employs chicken rather than pork as a base. It comes with the standard seasonings and pair of tostadas that are part of every complete pozole experience.
Happy Cinco de Mayo!
Read more from Joe DiStefano’s food column: