Ah, taco – how we love thee. Let us count the ways. Does a more perfect food exist? A warm tortilla outside. Tender grilled and roasted fillings inside. Crisp, fresh onions sprinkled on top, with a flash of bright green cilantro. Then, ah yes, a purposeful squeeze of lime above it all, and a steady trickle of salsa that extends from food to mouth to dripping hand. The taco is ripe with poetry, dear friends.
The New York of 10 to 20 years ago, though, was a virtual taco desert. The old saying for Texan and Californian expats used to go, “Good luck finding good Mexican food up there, buddy. We’re going to be stuffing our faces with carnitas while you cry on the A train.” (Or something like that.) Nowadays though, we’re seeing new taco joints pop up all over the city.
We found it high time to chat with the founder and managing partner of Oaxaca Taqueria, David Schneider, about the taco takeover on our horizon. “I think that with the influx of more and more people [to New York City] from South America, and Mexico in particular, the level of authenticity increases because there is more of a demand for good tacos,” he says.
And he’s right: by population, the number of Mexican Americans living in New York City has skyrocketed over the last three decades years. The most recent census put the number at 319,263, while in 2000 the number was little more than half that at 187,000. In 1980, it was barely 24,000. So, it’s no surprise the cuisine is beginning to woo the city far and wide.
Since David opened the first incarnation of Oaxaca four years ago, the restaurant has expanded to five different outposts in Manhattan and Brooklyn. So far, their tacos have made their way to the West Village, the Upper West Side, the East Village, Park Slope, and most recently, BedStuy.
But tortilla-bound meats weren’t always the first thing on the menu. Oaxaca started as an offshoot of a juice bar business David and his partners were running at the time. “The premise was to have a commissary [or commercial] kitchen produce food to be served at different locations,” David explains. “And tacos are a style of food that lends itself to be made earlier and kept — and even better when reheated and served later.” Fast forward to 2014 and his team is turning ‘em out fresh as the star of each Oaxaca restaurant.
When it comes time to eat, in those languorous moments between ordering and devouring, we’ve often wondered what goes into making the kind of taco we chase after in our food dreams. (Unfulfilled nightmares?) According to David, it’s all about stripping the whole thing down to its elements: simply prepared ingredients that are served with care. “We make all our salsas and fixings from scratch and use proteins that are not fed hormones,” David says. “All of these highly flavorful ingredients when assembled together create a taco that is truly complex with many layers of flavor.”
For David, classics are the most appealing. Unadulterated exemplars of tacos past. “I tend to lean toward the more traditional flavors,” he says. “And always on a corn tortilla — and with different textures and flavors.” At this point, our brains flood with visions of juicy tacos al pastor sharing the plate with smooth, spicy guacamole.
Our favorites? Read ‘em and weep salsa tears. First things first, the barbacoa taco, filled with tender pasilla braised beef tenderloin, pickled red onion, salsa roja, avocado salsa, crumbly cotija cheese and cilantro. And for our second helping, the Ceviche De Pescado Taco with citrus marinated fish, mango slaw, shredded cabbage, salsa verde, cilantro and avocado salsa. Then, if we’re feelin’ fiesty, another time-honored treat to accompany it all: the elote, or corn of the cob, comes topped with all the usual suspects, including chipotle mayo, cotija cheese and chili powder. Oh, yes.
So will the taco empire conquer further ground? “Definitely,” David says, adding that Oaxaca, too, is looking to expand. They’re currently taking aim at Morningside Heights and Williamsburg as future nabes for new locations. “We are true foodies who care about serving lovingly prepared and economical food that tastes great,” he says, heartily emphasizing, “The revolution will be edible!” And we’re very glad it is.