DIRTY TACO AND TEQUILA
201 Sunrise Hwy., Rockville Centre
SERVICE: Remarkably efficient given the crowds
AMBIENCE: Funky and fun, wilder as the evening goes on
ESSENTIALS: Open Tuesday through Friday, 4 p.m. to close, Saturday and Sunday 3 p.m. to close. Credit cards accepted. Street parking. Wheelchair accessible.
A sign on the wall announces a place of “No boundaries. No limits. No compromise.” That’s a lot to ask of a taco, you think to yourself, even as you scoot onto a hard metal stool at the bar, bracing yourself for some rabble-rousing. If the questions weighed there do not bespeak a bar full of agitators— Where do I get my hair streaked? Has my identity really been stolen again? Who else hates their iPhones since the last update?— a certain electricity may nonetheless be detected. From near and far they come, people of all tortilla persuasions (corn, flour, lettuce cup) brandishing fine $8 margaritas constructed of agave, lime and little else, passionately defending the right of tater tot nachos — er, tatchos — to exist.
The restaurant, by the mother-son team of AnnMarie and Tom Cataldo Jr. has even become something of a cause célèbre among the churro-challenged. The Rockville Centre outpost of Dirty Taco, which opened in May, is often mobbed from afternoon to late evening, as is the Wantagh DT that opened in July 2018, as will the Woodbury DT presumably when it opens later this year.
The next time you’re waiting an hour or two for a table — yes, that could happen — consider passing the time by asking yourself why every restaurant doesn’t deploy the same winning strategy: creative dishes + fresh ingredients + bright flavoring + reasonable prices = 45-minute waits on Tuesday nights.
In hewing to this formula with a kind of religious fervor, Dirty Taco has done something I didn’t think possible: convince an island already awash in taco joints that it somehow needs one more. And saying that this friendly persuasion starts with a succinct list of just 20 beef, chicken, fish, pork and vegetable tacos — ranging from $4.50 to $6.50 — doesn’t begin to do justice to it. During my visits, several patrons steered me toward the Baja fish taco, a fairly standard offering that here becomes something to exalt, courtesy lightly fried fresh cod, cabbage slaw and drizzles of lime-zested sour cream.
But Dirty Taco really shines in its more original offerings. A flour tortilla filled with ginger-marinated salmon accented by garlic sauce is wonderful. A jerk-spiced chicken taco dressed with tangy chunks of pineapple dances on the tongue as nimbly as a kung pao chicken variant, dusted with bits of crispy wontons and peanuts, and beautifully presented with curls of scallions. Best of all is the Thai meatball taco, a rowdy mix of ground beef, coconut curry and mint. Eating one, you feel as if a brand-new comfort food has been loosed upon the world.
What the Cataldos call an L.A. influence leads to tacos loaded so bountifully with meats — anything from ahi tuna to Buffalo shrimp, tequila-dipped pork to chimichurri skirt steak — you might make a meal out of any one of them. And Dirty Taco’s veggie offerings are equally generous, its vegan chorizo taco so good, you won't mind that someone invented vegan chorizo.
Decor-wise, Dirty Taco is very Day of the Dead meets Mexican Gothic, complete with the garage doors, long communal wooden tables, mounted fans, “I’m a dirty guy/girl” tank tops, and Adidas shorts that such an aesthetic demands. The 110-seat dining room, meanwhile, is fun and capacious, or it would be if this were any other restaurant but Dirty Taco.
Most nights, in every direction its zealots may be glimpsed consuming tacos without boundaries, limits or compromise, although with knives and forks. (Fillings this big are not for the faint-of-tortilla.) Over the course of several feverish evenings, I myself ate no fewer than 18 of the 20 tacos, 4 of 5 sides and 7 of 11 appetizers, demonstrating a rare critical thoroughness such as one only sees when a menu is truly irresistible. The Korean fried chicken wings, avocado toast, cold peanut noodles and Mexican street corn, are all worthy of separate rhapsodies. The tatchos, if I’m being honest, are a hot mess. But such a view might well get me banished from the bar, so I'm not going to be honest. They’re great.