Cast like cotija-topped manna across Long Island, tacos may be just as countless as bagels or pizza, but still get short shrift when it comes to icon status. In recent years, though, Long Island has become a lodestone for talented makers of tacos who labor in delis, taquerias and food trucks, in coffee shops and cantinas, in the highest-tier kitchens and sometimes even behind pizzeria counters.
Hunting these tacos down in the zillions of places they are made is an almost endless task, one I tried to make a dent in this winter as I assembled a list of the best. There so many tacos that you could probably eat at a new spot every day for a year and still never try them all, and by the time you're done, a few new places would have opened, a few would have closed, a favorite food truck may have moved on and you’d have to start all over again.
The dynamic, mercurial nature of Long Island’s tacoscape makes it an endless adventure to explore. A deceptively simple construction of meat, seafood or vegetables layered onto tortillas with garnishes, cheese and salsas, they are the perfect snack — when they are well-proportioned and prepared with care. What elevates tacos to the realm of the gods, though? I tried to drill to the heart of that question while eating many dozens of them at wobbly tables, marble bar tops, and the front seat of my car, where bits of salsa spilled onto the passenger seat.
As the weeks wore on, I learned that trying to dissect that x factor of taco greatness takes away the pleasure. A freshly pressed tortilla, a filet of flounder from a fish caught yesterday, greens grown down the road or pork butt sliced from a spit (as is traditional for al pastor) all contribute, for sure. But what makes a taco transcendant is how the elements come together in harmony, usually evident on the first bite. Ineffable balance is as present in tacos as it is in sole meunière or memorable bowl of ramen.
Some of those who prepare our best tacos are from Mexico, some are not. Some work from family or regional recipes, some forge entirely new pathways; all dispatch with gimmicks and unnecessary largesse.
No conversation about the current taco moment would be complete with a mention of birria tacos, or stewed meat (usually beef, but traditionally goat) folded into tortillas that are fried in beef fat until crisp. Hailing from the Mexican state of Jalisco, Americanized in Los Angeles and popularized locally by Queens’ Birria Landia food truck, birria has exploded in the last three years or so. Almost every place I visited now has its own spin, usually quesabirria, a version with melted cheese blended into the meat.
Choosing a dozen of the very best places is hard, but it boiled down to a basic criteria: The ability to elicit momentary rapture, usually expressed in a monosyllable (ooo, mm) and which would compel me to eat past the point of fullness. I wish I could say those moments were evenly distributed geographically, but the truth is that Suffolk aces Nassau when it comes to tacos. And if you live in Riverhead...lucky you!
Birria Tacos of Valley Stream (104 Merrick Rd., Valley Stream): The sign outside says Mamma Gina’s Pizzeria, but the clanks and hisses from behind a stack of pizza boxes is the searing of birria tacos. Quesobirria tacos have been a years-long passion for Carlos Aguilar, who has owned Mamma Gina’s for three decades and devoted much of the last four to perfecting crisp tacos for which he stews short ribs stewed for six hours, then shreds the meat and melts mozzarella across the edge — a reflection of his blended Italian and central American heritage — before pressing. Crisp and luscious, they are served with house-made salsas and hot sauce, as well as a drinkable, garlicky consommé made with the broth from the beef. Besides the birria, the kitchen also turns out a sublime shrimp taco, and has chicken tacos as well. More info: 516-568-1333, valleystreamfoodtruck.com
El Paso Taco Grill (787 Conklin St., Farmingdale): Year after year, El Paso draws a bustling, diverse crowd for central American plates and exalted tacos built upon recipes from the owner’s Guerrero-born mother: Marinated cubes of beef tongue softened during roasting for tender lengua tacos; shaved flaps of pork butt slathered with guajillo chile sauce for singular al pastor tacos that deliver tiny bursts of pork fat; chorizo tacos vibrating with baking spices and shrimp tacos that light up the back of your tongue with a sour tang. Finished with minced onions, cilantro and slivered radishes, a plate of three tacos starts at $7, and it’s wise to order ahead because this place is usually busy. (To try some of El Paso’s slightly thicker homemade corn tortillas, get some sopes, too, a sort of open-faced taco showered with shredded lettuce and cotija cheese). More info: 516-752-1872, elpasotacogrillny.com
Taco El Chingón (2809 Merrick Rd., Bellmore): This cheerful space is a petite wonderland for tacos that wallop with flavor and are crafted by owner Laura Lucero, a Mexico City native, and her family. They braise pork shoulder in lard, orange juice and sugar for superlative, oven-crisped carnitas tacos. Their handling of lengua tacos tempers the gaminess that beef tongue can sometimes have, so only melting succulence remains. Campechanos, robust tacos that layer pork, beef, chicken, chorizo, vibrate with heat. For $2 apiece, diners can opt for house-made tortillas that puff out in places as they cook on the flat top. There is also a bar of vivid, freshly made salsas, but few seats. More info: 516-809-9102, tacoelchingon.com
Taqueria Marquez (273 Burnside Ave., Lawrence): Perched on the edge of Nassau County — flick a tortilla from the front door and it might land in Queens — this four-year-old taqueria (whose owner hails from Zacateca, Mexico) charms with pumpkin-colored walls, an altar to the Virgin Mary in one corner and pumping ranchero music, plus tacos that surprise with their precision and imply obsessive attention to detail in the kitchen. Tortillas are charred just so, onions and herbs are almost pulverized; and grilled scallions, called cebollin, accompany each order (as do lime wedges and sliced radishes). Wafts of cinnamon swirl about al pastor tacos; carne asada is juicy and rife with pepper; but the powerful draw (for me) are silky lamb barbacoa tacos tinged with smoke and earth. Most tacos fall around $4 each. More info: 516-837-3202
Hermanas Kitchen & Cocktails (136 S. Wellwood Ave., Lindenhurst). Owned by three women partners, this spot is steeped in standout aesthetics, with a pretty marble bar and bleached white-on-white dining room. Chef Edwin Corrado’s tacos exude laser attention to color, texture and composition, and he serves each one flat, not folded (even when they are taken to go) so that their beauty is part of the experience of eating them. The lineup of vegetarian and vegan tacos is strong, from a taco of baby rainbow carrots roasted to subtle sweetness with a racy slaw relish (called curtido) or crisp fried-avocado tacos with a smoky aioli. Pernil tacos show off how roasted pork can become almost delicate in the right hands. Individual tacos start at $4.50. More info: 631-991-8999, hermanaslindy.com
La Fondita (74 Montauk Hwy., Amagansett). Twenty-one years is a hefty stretch of time to stay at the top of the taco game, as this Montauk Highway spot has, with suites of flavors — orange, chiles, cumin, herbs — that taste effortless but mask years of refinement. (The original recipes were created by executive chef Joe Realmuto and his partners after a trip to Mexico, tweaked over the years and are now cooked by chef du cuisine Juan Geronimo; tortillas are made fresh here). If fish tacos are among the most iconic of Long Island tacos, La Fondita’s version occupies the top tier: A hunk of cod sheathed in beer batter (the kitchen uses Negro Modelo) and fried to a shattering crisp, then slicked with chipotle mayo and a tangle of shredded cabbage. Each drop of adobo-stained, citrus-tinged fat beneath carnitas feels deliberate, not gratuitous, the pork having half-melted during an hourslong braise. There are no seats inside, but in warmer weather picnic tables await. Wherever you choose to eat, be sure to grab some of the featherlight tortilla chips. Tacos are $3.50 each, or three for $14-$15.50. More info: 631-267-8800, lafondita.net
Mi Viejito Pueblito (1687 New York Ave., Huntington Station): A lineup of $2.50 (or so) tacos need not be anything other than what their price implies, workaday sustenance. Yet Mi Viejito Pueblito (and its owners, Eulogio and Emelia Valerio) stands out amongst the crowded taco environs of Huntington Station with tacos that are three or four supernal bites each. At first glance, they seem so simply assembled that you might puzzle over the depth of flavor, but it's wise not to think too hard and just tuck into griddled, slightly puffy tortillas filled with crispy, pineapple-topped al pastor, cumin-scented taco arabes, tender lengua and slightly charred shrimp tacos, all ushered by wedges of lime, sliced radishes and grilled onions. The 20-seat dining room is no-frills but full of bonhomie, and the habanero salsa will quicken the pulse. More info: 631-470-0396
NZgrei Taqueria Gil Mexican Food (134 N. Carll Ave., Babylon). There’s quiet starpower behind the tacos at this unassuming deli across from the Babylon LIRR Station. Owned by Oaxaca native Jose Gil, its front room is filled with handwritten signs and paper flag and its kitchen is manned by chef Santiago Barragan, who got his start at La Esquina in New York City and worked at Queens’ infamous Tortilleria Nixtamal before decamping to Babylon. Those are the corn tortillas he uses as a canvas for his tacos, such as short ribs braised into velvet, then spooned into tortillas that are fried on the grill until hot and crisp for particularly handsome birria tacos topped with pickled onions and cilantro. For the Yucatan specialty cochinitas, Barragan stews pork butt for three hours with achiote, guajillo chiles, oregano, cloves, cumin, tomatoes and orange juice before pulling it into flavor-drenched shreds. The kitchen makes salsas and hot sauces daily, including a signature red sauce made with chiles de arbol. Tacos start at $3.50 apiece, and an order of three begins at $9. More info: 631-893-4333, nzgreitaqueriagil.com
Taco Bout It (40B E. Main St., Riverhead): Colorful and inviting, this is the domain of chef Alejandro ‘Chicki’ Ramirez — originally from Oaxaca — and a draws much of its magic from superlative tacos served on homemade tortillas, from queso-covered birria tacos to grilled mahi-mahi tacos with bits of char, to tender suadero tacos. The house hot sauces run the gamut from demure to blazing, and you can sample them all inside the kinetic royal blue dining room (or in warmer weather, at the handful of tables outside in the alley). Chase them with the tart hibiscus tea called jamaica. Tacos start at $5, and it is cash only. More info: 631-574-8787, tacoboutitny.com
Taqueria Cielito Lindo (29 E. Main St., Riverhead): The second in the killer lineup of Riverhead taco spots, this soulful, folksy taqueria highlights not only handmade soft-corn tortillas but also a super-friendly crew. This engua, taco has a muskiness that will appeal to lovers of offal; the spit-roasted al pastor taco blossoms under hunks of grilled pineapple in its midst, and you can’t go wrong with any of the others. More info: 631-591-0732
Taqueria Mexico (709 E. Main St., Riverhead): This is one of the only places on Long Island for soft, citrus-tinged cochinita pibil tacos — the smoky Yucatacan take on pulled pork — as well as tacos made with crumbled, feisty longaniza sausage, served on homemade corn tortillas and then wrapped tightly in foil, making them snackable while driving (though there is also charming dining room). A few doors down is a Mexican market selling masa, dried hibiscus, dozens of dried chiles and other imported Mexican provisions, making a visit to the eastern edge of downtown Riverhead feel like a quick jaunt through that country. More info: 631-208-2902
Verde Kitchen & Cocktails (70 E. Main St., Bay Shore): Long Island has many a sit-down cantina that trades in tacos and tequila where the tacos are an oversized afterthought. That formula is somewhat reversed at Verde, where the cocktails are seductive but the tacos just as on point. Owner Anthony Tartaglia has spent much time traveling and studying the form, and each one reflects that concern, from silky, sarsaparilla-tinged beef barbacoa — slow-cooked in lager and Mexican Coke — batter-armored flounder tacos or comforting tacos rajas filled with roasted poblano peppers, onions and potatoes with crumbled almonds for crunchy texture. Individual tacos start at $8. More info: 631-665-6300, verdekitchen.com