Full disclosure: I am from Southern California. I don't like my tacos doused in guacamole, lettuce, sour cream, and cheese. I like taco trucks, and my ideal taco is served on a corn tortilla and should only contain cilantro, meat, and onions.
Here is the food world's greatest mystery: New York City is the food capital of the country—if you spend enough time on the subway you can find any cuisine you want. So why is it so freaking impossible to find a great taco in this city? Especially since the city is reaching peak taco. And further: why do so many New Yorkers recommend such crappy tacos here? It just doesn't make sense.
The New York Times's Pete Wells attempts to figure out that mystery and has, perhaps, given us the most complete and satisfying answer to date: the basic idea of a taco is diametrically opposed to that of being a New Yorker. Ergo, in order for New Yorkers to find taco nirvana, they have to stop having the demands of a New Yorker. And in order for tacos to survive, they have to morph themselves into some mutant version of themselves. To put it simply: New Yorkers, it's you or the taco.
The problem, as Wells points out, is that the taco is made to be eaten quickly and that the handoff from flat-top to tortilla to diner warrants an Olympic relay-like handoff. And that cannot happen when New Yorkers are having group dinners, are gabbing over gossip, and power-lunching. He writes:
The problem tacos, the underachieving tacos, are the ones assembled on a plate by an overworked line cook and then picked up by an overworked server and ferried across the dining room to your table, where they sit and wait until you and all the people you’re out with stop talking and drinking and begin to eat. All this time, the tortilla has been curling and going brittle like an autumn leaf and the filling has been nosing up toward room temperature.
The best tacos I have had in California were off of a truck. This one. Or they came from hole-in-the-walls where that served nothing but tacos. Like this one. The tacos I had were, if you will, alive. They weren't sitting around in their death spirals waiting for me and my friends to finish up our stories about lives. The only conversations we'd have were about waiting for the taco, and we were more than fine with any interruption.
That just doesn't happen in New York City. The other half of his taco theorem is that New Yorkers have created market where only fancy tacos can survive. New York restaurants have to pay rent and can't charge what trucks do. "This puts pressure on chefs to work in what Mr. Stupak calls 'the ingredient ghetto.'" Wells explains, pointing to Chefs creating things like lobster, scallop, and shrimp tacos which come in at $18 for two — I'd argue could spend $18 at a throw-your-mom-into-traffic-good taco truck and feed three people.
The solution (and possibly the next great concept) is a taco bar, like a sushi bar, where tacos are handed straight to you. Which, if you think about the logistics — waiting forever to be handed a $9+ taco— is just as sad a concept as killing the taco itself.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.