Sunday, July 25, 2010

Rockaway Taco

Even though I write a blog that talks about food, I don't really read other food blogs.  So I was surprised to learn that a much-hyped taco stand stood but minutes from my cousin's place in the Rockaways.  Fortunately, my cousin's on top of the blogs, or I never would have discovered this place.

The neighborhood

A beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Note the rooftop plants.  Those plants
supply Rockaway Taco.
The Rockaways of Queens, New York are a strange mix:  part beach-side bedroom community, part dense urban jungle slowly undergoing a for-better-or-for worse gentrification.  Rockaway Taco shares a street with a condemned, boarded-up tenement.  Take a guess at their side of the tracks.

But there is nothing too worrisome about the neighborhood or the people, particularly those in line in front of you who, as my cousin pointed out, are most definitely not locals.  Should you find yourself here on a warm, sunny summer day, you will undoubtedly rub elbows with Brooklyn hipsters, Manhattan surfers (the water is not even a five minute walk down the street), and simple, plain curious foodies such as myself.

The wait will be surprisingly long, though.  Not Shake Shack or Grimaldi's long, but even after you surmount the perhaps 8-10-deep line out front, you will find yourself in an adjacent, almost makeshift, outdoor waiting/dining room shoulder-to-shoulder with another 18-20 noshing and waiting patrons.  Use some of this time to grab one of the house-made salsas .

But do not lament the hold-up, for the food here is surprisingly good.

An important aside

"Fresh and local ingredients fill many
of the plates expedited from the
kitchen...plantains may be an
exception to the rule."
When in the every part of the USA except Southern California, the thought of Mexican food conjures up notions of pools of refried beans, kilos of shredded cheddar, and cinder blocks in the intestinal tracts of all who dare partake of its goodness.  Now, I use "goodness" with purpose, for I enjoy Tex-Mex food as much as any red-blooded American.  But it is important to realize that Tex-Mex is not the same as Mexican.

What are the differences?  There are probably two, maybe three main differences between Tex-Mex and Mexican food:
  1. The first doesn't apply here, but it is probably the biggest distinction:  Simply put, there is a greater variety of Mexican dishes than Tex-Mex dishes.  Just as you can go into nearly any Italian-American or Chinese-American restaurant and order one of a dozen dishes, so can you at nearly any Tex-Mex restaurant.  But on US menus, you generally won't find the sour orange chicken or pork dishes pollo pibil or poc-chuc from Yucatán, where citrus grows wild, or huachinango (red snapper) a la Veracruzana, from the ocean town of Veracruz.  In fact, Mexico has six distinct culinary regions, each taking from its geographic surroundings and seasonal bounties.  The food is diverse; to paraphrase Mexican celebrity chef Rick Bayless, that from one region to the next you'd hardly believe you were eating food from the same country.  (By the way, there are also a few Tex-Mex dishes that Mexicans don't eat.  Nachos are one; they were invented in Mexico in 1943 for American military wives.)
  2. Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes of the same name don't often contain the same ingredients. The most obvious example:  the hard taco was invented in New York City.  (New York City?!)  Ground beef in tacos?  Gringo-style.  Contrary to the picture American chain restaurants may paint, you won't find cheddar on a Mexican menu; in fact, you will find a large variety:  queso blanco, queso fresco, asadero, manchego, oaxaca, and cotija, to name only a few.
  3. This is sort of a corollary to number two:  Mexican and Tex-Mex dishes of the same name may contain different proportions of the same ingredients.  Americans eat twice as much meat as Mexicans, so clearly their cuisine contains higher proportions of non-meat ingredients.  Another example:  Americans think of mole as a chocolate sauce.  While Mexican mole certainly contains chocolate, it plays a much subtler role in a team of several dozen ingredients in the moles found in Oaxaca (wa-HA-ka) and Puebla, two adjacent states known for their moles.
What does this have to do with Rockaway Tacos?  The stand's chef spent four years in Mexico.

The Food

Visible from the street, chef Andrew Field's rooftop garden tomatoes and peppers are emblematic of the approach he takes to food.  Fresh and local ingredients fill many of the plates expedited from the kitchen...plantains may be an exception to the rule.  Of course, a rooftop garden's tomato and pepper yield cannot nearly fulfill the needs of a taquería, particularly one as popular as this.  The Atlantic tells us that he sources additional tomato and peppers from Red Hook, Brooklyn's Added Value, and organic cabbage from Blooming Grove, NY's Blooming Hill Farm, and eggs from urban locavore Manny Howard and Knoll Crest Farms in Clinton Corners, NY.

Think outside the Bell. These are real
This short radius mirrors what Mexico, and quite frankly, most of the world, practices out of necessity.  The result?  Peak freshness in every bite.

Though Andrew Field may have spent years in Mexico perfecting the optional Puerto Vallarta recipe for salsa negra (says Cool Hunting), to me the real star of his famous fish tacos is not in the spicy mayonnaise, the optional guacamole, or hand-pressed tortilla -- all good things.  Rather, the crispness of the red cabbage and the snap of the red radish steal the show.  Gone is the Tex-Mex I-swallowed-a-boat-anchor feeling; roughly-chopped fresh cilantro and a squeeze of lime add a brightness to the delicately-battered and fried tilapia.  Afterward, one feels that they have eaten an entrée salad; not surprising considering the amount of green and red drapery over the fish.


Some people complain about the price.  $3 for a taco?  $1 extra for guacamole?  Some may find it to be nothing more than pretense.  They are entitled to their opinions, but the fact is that organic food simply costs more to the consumer.  Current laws on the books favor big agribusiness, leading to a seemingly paradoxical condition:  produce picked underripe on a large pesticide-spraying farm, pumped with ripening ethylene gas, and trucked across the US can often cost less than one grown organically next door.  Labor accounts for some of this difference.  Another factor is that consumers do not pay for the externalities associated with conventional farming, for example, groundwater pesticide runoff and truck pollution.  Eating locally and organically means shouldering more responsibility for one's actions; in many cases, it also means a superior product.

Rockaway Taco may be one of the few New York joints to momentarily convince homesick Southern Californians that Rockaway Beach sits to their west. The most negative thing I could say about their food is that I want more of that mayonnaise on my taco.  Perhaps if it were offered as an extra in the salsa bar.

There is little profound in what they do; I believe that the secret to their success lies in their ingredients.  Ironic that a breakthrough concept in the United States can be so banal elsewhere.  I'm glad that Americans are waking up to it.

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