371 New York Ave., Huntington
SERVICE: Cuts to the point and delivers quickly
AMBIENCE: Enveloping, trendy and kinetic, with lots of brick, industrial touches and a Dîa de los Muertos mural
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. First-come, first served; credit cards accepted; street parking; wheelchair accessible.
Eating tacos in 2019 is like a choose-your-adventure game: Do you want an al pastor taco with a sliver of pineapple, or pineapple salsa and prickly-pear sauce? A straightforward carne asada taco, or one lined with dark-cherry chimichurri? Tiled floors and Telemundo blaring overhead, or dim industrial lights, hip-hop, mezcal cocktails and a Day of the Dead mural?
Those who chose “b” to those questions will likely feel at home at Mission Taco. At Huntington’s nouveau taco joint, these messy folds of protein are propelled from their humble roots into elaborate versions of themselves: stuffed to bursting, dressed with complex sauces and draped with microgreens.
Mission Taco is a partnership between Andrew Affa and Steve Squitiro, and a stylish one: In the front is a modish, backlit bar with industrial-pipe shelves loaded with tequila and mezcal. Beyond that, a dim dining room with exposed brick and that intense calavera mural, plus comfy leather booths. A neon-pink sign reads “Feed me tacos and tell me I’m pretty.” Of the tacos, there are a baker’s dozen to choose from — traditional (shrimp, chicken), sure, but also au courant (jackfruit carnitas), cooked by chef Andy Nasifoglu. They cost $5 to $6 each.
Efficient servers cut straight to the point: A drink to start? Don’t pass. Cocktails are superb and sometimes slyly executed, such as the signature margarita, served in a coupe glass, that’s finished with a tuft of salty egg-white foam shot from a nitrous gun. Salt slips into the drink as you sip, maybe too much so, but it’s still novel.
The quieter drinks are artful, too, such as mezcal with pineapple on the rocks, tempered by walnut bitters, or a highball of blanco tequila with grapefruit and chili salt on the rim. The tequila-mezcal list is a study in breadth, and beers have been thoughtfully matched to this kind of food (Mexican and local, IPAs, ales with peaches or blood orange).
That’s all to say, on the drinks front alone, Mission Taco is a standout. Most first-timers, though, are probably here for the tacos, generously scaled, double-wrapped in corn tortillas and so overfilled parts will fall away as you eat. After a while, despite their largesse, you may wonder if the soul of the thing got lost in translation.
The shyly spiced chicken tinga, with avocado and cotija cheese, was the most straightforward, best for unadventurous eaters. A juicy barbacoa (brisket) taco with the clever addition of smoky roasted tomatillo salsa was among my favorites, as was a peppery and succulent octopus taco with crisp, wispy apple slaw. (During another visit, though, the octopus was tough).
Other tacos reached high but tripped, such as a mealy chicken confit taco in a romesco sauce with little oomph, or an overly cloying carne asada with that dark-cherry chimichurri. A chorizo taco assaulted with salt; and a fried dorado fish taco was bristly, as if the fish had mummified; and the jackfruit carnitas lacked texture (the mushroom taco is a tastier choice for vegans). The tortillas of a shrimp taco were so stiff they rebuffed human teeth. And then there was the finger-length bone that ran through the center of carnitas taco — a puzzler. (“I’ll let the chef know,” the server said chirpily, nonplused).
Fortunately, some of Mission Taco’s sides saved the day: A silky avocado tostada; charred street corn that’s shorn from the cob and sinned-up with piles of cotija; a lime-spritzed salad of corn, tomatoes and avocado; and a chunky, earthy chickpea and pumpkin seed hummus, served with chips, cauliflower spears and slivered carrots. Tostadas, though, were parched and crumbly, and tomato-strewn guacamole tasted super-fresh but needed more lime, aka vibrance. My dining companion found an avocado stem in one bite, too.
Mission Taco’s dessert field is strong: A featherlight tres leches cake; gelato in inventive flavors (strawberry-basil has a feisty jalapeño kick) and what could be described as churro munchkins, served with three sauces: Deep, dark melted chocolate, creme anglaise and dulce de leche. It’s the sweetest form of choose your adventure.