Who says the boroughs are barren when it comes to authentic and well-priced Mexican food? New York City is teeming with options; but finding the good stuff takes a bit of persistence. Though we’ve recently seen a few inventive, sophisticated additions to the Mexican culinary scene—think Empellón Cocina in the East Village or DUMBO’s Gran Eléctrica—far too many mediocre restaurant chains serving up bland, unimaginative Tex-Mex still outnumber the keepers.
Luckily, the smaller establishments are going against the grain, serving up authentic Mexican fare while staying shockingly cheap. Enter the food trucks, the non-descript take-away stands, and the taqueria joints of New York City. Not for the faint of white linen loving heart, and located a little off the beaten path, these spots are sure to make you reconsider. We promise; there is good, cheap Mexican food to be had in New York City, and we’ve done a bit of reconnaissance to prove it.
Yes, this is a small chain, and yes, it might remind you of stripped-down Chipotle reclaimed by hipsters, but it serves undeniably good grub. With simple, industrial décor and an equally condensed, efficient menu, Dos Toros seats about 10 people at a time, and exudes a cool hole-in-the-wall vibe. The menu is straightforward, with basic choices of proteins and fillings divided into four main categories: Burrito, Taco, Quesadilla, Plato. We chose the carnitas taco, and highly recommend you do the same. Though the taco looked underwhelmingly tiny on a single corn tortilla, it was packed with tender, tangy pork, braised low and slow, and was topped with a bold, bright green jalapeño sauce. One taco was surprisingly satisfying—albeit a bit messy to eat. $3.90 per taco.
El Idolo Taco Truck
Praised by Yelp reviewers for being one of the best cheap Mexican food trucks in Manhattan, our trip to visit El Idolo did not disappoint. There were simple, effective touches of authenticity here, from the bushels of fresh cilantro lining the kitchen window to the fragrant, house green sauce. We ordered the tinga (spicy chicken) taco, and it arrived smothered in a tangy, spicy marinade, resting atop two perfectly chewy corn tortillas and garnished with a delicate balance of cilantro, white onions, radishes and limes. The serving size was more than satisfying and the quality exceeded our expectations. We’d definitely stop by again if we were in the neighborhood, and hopping on/off the L. $2.50.
In the heart of the predominantly Mexican neighborhood that stretches along Sunset Park’s 5th Avenue, this modest sit-down restaurant is a local favorite. With a straightforward and incredibly cheap selection of burritos, quesadillas and other standard Mexican fare, they also dedicate a small section of the back counter to quick take-out orders. We went with a chorizo (Mexican sausage) taquito, and we were pleased, but not completely bowled over. Though the consistency of chorizo differs (quite drastically) from place to place, Matamoros’ was a bit fatty, making some of the bites texturally unpleasant. The flavor of the meat packed a robust amount of spice, and the corn tortillas—doubled up—actually made up for the inconsistency of the chorizo. Topped with a generous helping of cilantro and elevated by the house red sauce and a hefty squeeze of lime, this taco was a bargain. $1.75.
Tacos Ricos y Antojitos Mexicanos
Adorned with a giant mural of a cartoon pig bathing blissfully in a pot, the entrance to Rico’s is a testament to what it does best: pork, pork, and more pork! Nestled just off the main drag of 5th Avenue, Rico’s is perhaps the most authentic in Sunset Park, with an extensive menu featuring unique taco offerings like buche (stomach) and cueritos (porks skin). Delightfully kitschy Mexican-flag-themed décor made us feel like we stepped into a street-side taqueria in Rosarito, Mexico, and the spicy pork taquito here was the best that we had sampled in the city with a balanced meat-to-veggies ratio, and double corn tortillas that were just slightly crisp at the edges with a softer, chewier middle. In terms of condiments, all three of the house sauces were bright and bold, but the red sauce was the standout. $2.50 (and worth every single penny)!
Tortilleria Mexicana los Hermanos
Hyped by the media and made famous by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, this tiny restaurant adjacent to its parent tortilla factory is definitely a no-frills culinary experience. Walk in, decide what you want, write down your order on an index card, and wait. Effectively ignored by the hard-working (but somewhat scary) women behind the counter, you are seduced by the inner-workings of this Mexican Willy Wonka factory where delightfully cheesy pop videos play in Spanish on the television. The offerings here are standard, simple, and undeniably fresh. We ordered the chorizo and vegetable taquitos, and the chorizo alone was worth the trek. The spicy, tender cubes were infused with just a touch of cinnamon, adding a certain depth and warmth we hadn’t previously experienced in a New York City taco. Though the generic shredded iceberg lettuce, diced tomato and crema seemed superfluous, the house medium green sauce combined with the freshly churned-out double corn tortillas made up for this. $1.50
Endless Summer Taco Truck
While it’s no secret that customer service is not the priority here, the tacos are tasty and won’t give you any ‘tude. Serving up a range of choices from marinated chicken and pork to fish and veggie options, Endless Summer has a loyal following, especially when it comes to the post-midnight crowd. We ordered the daily fish taco, which happened to be tilapia, and it was seared fresh as we watched. Sadly, the tilapia was a bit too fishy, and could have been seasoned better. That said, the pickled cabbage, generous cilantro, cotija cheese and sour cream camoflaged that fishy flavor quite a bit. Would we head back? Well, maybe…but only if we were really, really hungry, and a bit buzzed. $3-$3.50.
El Diablo Taco Truck, 484 Union Ave. at Union Pool (Williamsburg, Brooklyn)
Like drunken moths to a flame, the youth stumble over at 1 AM to gather around Union Pool’s backyard taco truck. For good reason! Despite its genius location, this truck serves up tacos, tortas and a standard list of reliably good dishes. Though slightly over-priced—most items listed as $3.50—the late night convenience factor is unrivaled. One of the crowd favorites is the al pastor, with juicy pineapple chunks interspersed between tender roasted pork, garnished with cilantro, onions and the classic accoutrements. With a cheap Tecate beer in one hand from the outdoor bar and a tasty El Diablo taco in the other, you’ll definitely trip home happy. $3.50
Another pocket of Brooklyn known for good Mexican food, Williamsburg’s South Side has a smattering of legitimate options. In a nondescript white brick building on a quiet street is La Superior, and it certainly lives up to its namesake. With a simple, roadside diner feel, this tiny hole-in-the-wall serves up beautiful Mexican street food that is vibrant, straightforward and fresh. The camaron al chipotle (spicy shrimp) taco was served unadorned, with just a single wedge of lime, but the intensity and depth of that garlicky red chipotle sauce carried the dish. The cochinita pibil (pork slow-roasted in banana leaves) taco was hands-down the tastiest dish we tried anywhere in Brooklyn, with piquant, beyond-tender pork topped with a fresh pico de gallo. If you’re looking for authentic Mexican street food, your search ends here. $2.50
This little gem was made famous by a nod on the Food Network show, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and locals have sworn by Tortilleria Nixtamal since it opened in 2009. Born out of owner Fernando Ruiz’s dream to bring fresh corn tortillas made purely from masa—or a dough made from soaked and ground corn without any added preservatives—to New York City, the restaurant became an overnight success. With taco offerings including al pastor and orange juice-sweetened carnitas, this made our final cut, too! $2.75