122 N. Carll Ave, Babylon
AMBIENCE: Tiny, bright and immaculate, with a counter and three tables
SERVICE: Young, sometimes puzzled, counter staff
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 11 to 6 p.m.; wheelchair accessible; street and municipal lot parking
Stumbling across a great, previously unknown-to-you taco is one of life’s little bonuses. It happened to me recently, the first time I ate at Mamey, a tiny taqueria on a Babylon side street. A generous heap of fatty, luscious carnitas, wrapped in two sturdy tortillas and showered with fresh cilantro, was as good as any I’ve had.
That was a few days after Mamey opened in late August. Two months later, the salsa-paved road has grown a little more uneven — but this unassuming little place is still turning out some decent tacos worth seeking out.
Finding them is part of the draw. Mamey is a few blocks away from Babylon’s busy main drag, in a strip of shops near the LIRR station. The cafe’s footprint is small — a takeout counter and three tables, animated by a mounted television and a mural along one wall — and it’s definitely quasi-hidden.
It was brave of the Matute family, two generations of which renovated this former creperie, to wade into Babylon’s taco-strewn waters. The village already has two dedicated taco eateries, and the perennially busy Swell Taco is one of them.
While son Eduardo Matute is Mamey’s public face, it’s the elder Matutes — Rosa and Miguel — who hold down the fort. Miguel Matute has spent more than 25 years cooking in New York City restaurants, and it is primarily his handiwork that yields the fleshy innards of nearly a dozen tacos, plus spinoffs such as flautas, burritos, tostadas, tortas and enchiladas. His wife, Rosa Matute, is a serene presence who occasionally appears alongside the teenagers who work the counter, but mostly prepares food, too — as well as laces milk with cinnamon for a rich horchata and steeps hibiscus flowers overnight for a sweet-and-sour iced tea called jamaica.
While Mamey’s spot near the railroad station may seem ideal for disembarking commuters — sort of like a taqueria dreamcatcher — I wondered if that foot traffic isn’t steady enough just yet, as some of Mamey’s meats have a texture reminiscent of long wait times under heat.
Take the lengua taco, cubed pieces of beef tongue that were peppery and moist one night, leathery another. Al pastor, pork shoulder that has been marinated with pineapple and (at least in Mamey’s case) sauteed, was also dried out on two visits, unsalvageable by the juicy cubes of pineapple piled on top. Both shrimp and salmon tacos are underseasoned; much better is a taco loaded with smoky chorizo and diced potato, or the tender steak taco.
Eclipsing all of these are Matute’s carnitas, pork marinated in orange juice, garlic, bay leaf and black pepper, then slow-cooked to velvety effect. It’s luscious wherever it appears — in a taco, on a mayo-smeared torta layered with soft farmer’s cheese, guacamole and shredded iceberg lettuce, or lurking inside a trio of carnitas enchiladas mercifully free of a melted cheese deluge and, instead, slathered in a cuminy red sauce and daintily drizzled with crema.
If you’re missing cheese, though, you’ll find plenty oozing out of a chicken chimichanga with a delicate, deep-fried skin — though the rice inside is distracting. Also fried to an oily crisp are Mamey’s rolled flautas, smeared with refried beans and dotted with cotija, though the chicken inside seemed parched in places.
Mamey’s salsas are not for the faint of heart; though their heat level varied from visit to visit, the red “sauce” harbors serious fire, courtesy of arbol chili, while the green salsa is brighter but still packin’. Their foil comes in the form of Mamey’s almost buttery guacamole, seemingly made to fit Mamey’s super-salty tortilla chips like a green glove.
It’s easy to fill up on those, but don’t: The three desserts here are all worth the calories, from coral-like churros showered in cinnamon (made off-site) to flan, to a tres leches cake dotted with slivered strawberries that, like much of Mamey’s food, is simple but soulful.