10560 Main Rd., Mattituck
SERVICE: From a young, spunky counter
AMBIENCE: Landlocked hippie surf shack, with lots of pastels, whale murals and macrame planters, plus an outdoor patio.
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday and Tuesday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday to Saturday 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., closed Wednesday; credit cards accepted; takeout orders can be placed in advance via Mattitaco’s website; wheelchair accessible; parking out front.
If tacos were an asset, they’d make for a superb long-term investment. From their humble roots as street food costing a buck or two apiece, they can now command four or five times that, sometimes more.
Has taco quality risen in tandem with price? Taco lovers may ask themselves that question from time to time. At Mattitaco, a cute, hippie surf-shack of a spot that opened in June in Mattituck, tacos mostly fall in the $5 to $6 range and certainly have solid DNA: They come in organic-corn tortillas from Corona’s Tortilleria Nixtamal, some filled with local veggies and house-made queso. Chef Austin Douglas trained at Hyde Park’s Culinary Institute of America, and borrows from both tradition and kitsch for a menu that bounces between a carnitas-style taco, a cheeseburger taco and a BLT, or bacon-lobster taco.
Douglas returned to his native North Fork to work with Mattitaco owner Justin Schwartz, who also runs the On the Road food truck. They both seem like nice guys, and have created an inviting place to eat. It’s a breezy takeout spot of pastel walls, striped floors and funky touches, such as a mural of a whale wearing a sombrero (it’s Mattitaco’s logo). There’s plenty of counter space for those eating in, plus patio picnic tables in front. Agua fresca, kombucha (from Brooklyn’s Mombucha — try the blood orange) and nitro cold-brew from Ace Coffee Co. are all on tap.
It’s a place where you want to linger, if not for the wildly inconsistent food. For instance, at breakfast, a burrito that weds crumbled chorizo, fried potatoes, more queso and scrambled eggs is artery-clogging joy, but leagues better than its lesser sibling, a corned beef hash burrito filled with leathery hash and parched eggs. Avocado toast is not toasty at all, but instead comes on a squishy roll that quickly grows soggy.
Tacos take center stage at noon, when the breakfast menu halts. For its taco oeuvre, the kitchen seems fond of pineapples, and wields them well — as with the charred, smoky pineapple salsa on a stellar Hawaiian taco, also filled with pork shoulder that’s been stewed in orange juice and Coke until it’s melty and glistening with pockets of fat.
Plump shrimp dusted with North African spices fill the knockout surf taco, as do more pineapples (plus mango, in a salsa) and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds for texture and tartness. The Baja, loaded with a generous helping of fried cod tumbled with pico de gallo and shredded cabbage, is more traditional but equally tasty.
In my mind’s eye, a bacon-lobster taco would sport hunks of warm, buttery lobster. At Mattitaco, the BLT is instead a sorrowful taco of chilled, bland lobster salad with a sliver of desiccated bacon. For kicks, go instead for a cheeseburger taco, a strangely appealing meld of crumbled beef and blobs of Cheddar that improbably works.
I had high hopes for Mattitaco’s ceviche, but when it was handed over — a basket of blue-corn chips with a tiny plastic tub filled with bell peppers — not a scrap of ceviche was in sight. Turns out, you have to excavate beneath those peppers to find a spoonful of bay scallops that tasted as fresh as could be but were dwarfed by peppers and barely dressed to boot. Lacking any sort of acid, as well, was a haphazardly cut watermelon salad, sprinkled with queso, that had the vibe of an afterthought.
Mattitaco’s elote, or grilled Mexican-style corn, has powerful redemptive powers: Shorn from the cob, piled into a cup and drizzled with spices and crema, it’s four or five spoonfuls of smoke and bliss. And whoever created the dirty fries — battered, fried coppery and drizzled with pico de gallo, guacamole and aioli — is an evil genius.
Mattitaco makes its own hot sauces, the mildest of which is based on grilled pineapples (surprise), and the hottest from watermelon and Scotch bonnet peppers. The latter is fiery but not blistering: It pummels you at first but then mellows into summery flavor. If everything at Mattitaco were as finely tuned, the place could take an honored place in the East End taco landscape.