Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Not Quite Tacos

Yes, I am obsessed with tacos. But I also love all Mexican food, particularly because they seem to use the same ingredients rearranged in different ways to produce entirely different flavors. Also, the abundant use of corn (i.e. corn tortillas) makes it easy for me to eat gluten-free.

Empanada Mama
763 9th Avenue
New York, New York

As a counselor for Northwestern University's Project Wildcat, a new student pre-orientation outdoor program, I must be certified in CPR and First Aid. So yesterday, during my 45-minute lunch break from the Red Cross CPR/First Aid certification class, I wandered the somewhat familiar area of 9th Ave between 49th and 53rd looking for a good taco. Scared that the more I searched the less I would find, I ducked into Empanada Mama, a place packed with both businessmen and passersby. I grabbed to 'to-go' menu and although I did not find any tacos on the menu, I was delighted to find they had corn flour empanadas. Empanadas have always been "street food" to me, easy to eat, delicious, and probably not the healthiest option. I had not indulged in an empanada in months and the words "corn flour" made not ordering one feel like an atrocity. The chorizo empanada (Spanish sausage) sounded most enjoyable and daring (I now enjoy being daring with my food). In addition to empanadas, they also serve arepas, small corn cake/patties topped with a variety of ingredients. The shredded beef arepa was recommended to me by the cashier so I followed the suggestions and ordered a mint lemonade to wash it all down.

Unfortunately, due to the busy lunch crowd, I waited quite a while for my food. The tiny restaurant with a kitchen and bathroom shoved behind the numerous two-top tables, counter, and cashier seemed to be handling the national economic crisis very well. After the near 20 minute way for my lunch, I chose to eat an empanada the way I envisioned it -- on the street. Walking back to the CPR class I attempted to gracefully eat the chorizo empanada while dipping in the delicious red and green hot sauces. The grace was quickly abandoned and I thoroughly enjoyed the green hot sauce -- almost a spicy, cilantro pesto -- combined with the spicy sausage. I did not expect such a crispy outside to the empanada and, mostly for ease of eating, I would have preferred something softer (and maybe even sweeter, in juxtaposition with the spicy sausage).

The mint lemonade lacked the minty punch I was craving for, but the sweetness of the drink was on par. I was glad the actual taste of lemon juice was not overwhelmed by sweeteners. But I do not think I will order it again.

The beef arepa was the highlight of my lunch. It was like eating a Mexican Sloppy Joe. The beef was wet and saucy and the arepa "bun" provided the perfect dry compliment to the meet. The green hot sauce went ALL over the meat. I even double dipped -- combining the green and red sauces in one bite.

Although not quite tacos, the food was still good. I doubt I will become a regular, but it is great to know about when in the neighborhood.

Yet I still craved Mexican food...

El Centro
824 9th Avenue
New York, New York

My dad discovered this Cocina y Cantina Mexicana a few years back when we first moved into the neighborhood. Since then it had been my go-to for affordable, reliable, and incredible Mexican food in my 'hood. Yet with the newly established status as Taco Blogger I had not frequented my local. Around 8:30pm my dad and I made our way to El Centro and we were shocked to find that on a Tuesday night it was PACKED! For the first time in my El Centro enhance life, I waited at the bar for a table. Moments after the chips and salsa (with the perfect amount of appetizing heat) were set in front of us a table was ready.

Looking through the familiar menu I knew I wanted to try something new -- not my standard chicken chilaquiles or steak taco. The other tacos looked interesting, but the grilled shrimp chilaquiles jumped out at me. Chilaquiles, a discovery made at El Centro, are the Mexican casserole -- a combination of corn tortillas topped with avocado, pico de gallo, queso blanco, and crema fresca. Because I adored the ease of chilaquiles, the fact that everything was compiled in one bowl with no need for assembly before eating, it was easy to continue experimenting in my love affair with shrimp. To no surprise, I loved it! The mole negro sauce did not overpower and take away from the dish, it added a subtle (and unexpected) hint of cacao. I ate and ate until there was no more, and considering the hefty portions at El Centro, I surprised myself.

It will take a complete and utter fiasco to stop me from returning to El Centro. Just reminiscing on the experience makes me miss it. And not just the food! The decor is bright and fun -- light fixtures made from Corona bottles, tables with caps from different beers, metal trinkets lining the walls -- and the laid-back atmosphere makes it a place tolerable any night.
The picture accompanying this post is of my sister, Julia, at one of our first visits to El Centro. You get a feel for the decor.

Go to El Centro, you cannot go wrong.

Maybe you'll even find me there, too!