356 W. Old Country Road, Hicksville
AMBIENCE: Bright storefront
ESSENTIALS: Monday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; parking, no alcohol, delivery, takeout, sit-down, no reservations
It’s a score when adventurous diners discover restaurant secrets, such as tortas served in a chain doughnut shop, or a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich available at a gastropub.
In February, Villaggio di Napoli pizzeria in Hicksville was this kind of place, where you could stop for a slice, but end up ordering queso and chips along with superb carnitas tacos.
The split identity had to do with the fact that new owner Will Colon — a Houston native and Mexican-American who is very opinionated about his tacos — wanted to open a place with his wife, Nelly Palacios, an intrepid cook originally from El Salvador. But he did not know if there would be a clientele for Tex-Mex dishes or if anyone would discover the restaurant. But there was. And they did.
By April, Villaggio di Napoli had been renamed Nelly’s Taqueria in a location that still feels like a secret. Tucked away in a strip mall, its hidden gem status isn’t the only thing that makes for a satisfying visit. Nelly’s hits the high notes of what you’d hope for in a cheap eats spot, with a brief yet magical breakfast menu, well-dressed tacos and burritos, and a couple of loco items so crazy you almost forget that there’s no booze served here.
A quick note to point out that Nelly’s Taqueria is different from Nelly’s Corner Store in Hicksville, also owned by Palacios. The latter is a Salvadorean-style eatery with few crossover dishes.
The crowds trickle into the taqueria during the day, such as one visit when it was overrun by tables of police officers here for breakfast. This is primarily a takeout place, but it’s worth grabbing a chair for table service, which often includes chips and salsa.
I feasted on migas, the nachos of breakfast, with fried tortillas layered with scrambled eggs and refried beans — addictive for the fried bits and hearty for the portion of rice and beans. The standard huevos rancheros is a smart order, or go for a lighter bite, such as the Tex-Mex $2 tacos chuchos, with potatoes, chorizo, bacon or ham and eggs. Dressed with onions, queso blanco and a side of salsa verde, they are close to perfect.
The house-made tortillas are key, and they’re reason enough to make your way here. It’s quite a process in that water is added to masa to make dough that’s rolled into balls, pressed and and griddled.
Past breakfast, the English language menu tells a gringa like me that tacos, gorditas, tostadas and burritos are stuffed with a choice of beef, chicken, shrimp, fish or pork, but what’s not listed are the variations. “Pork” includes carnitas, al pastor and chorizo. And a beef taco translates to steak or lengua (tongue).
Steak flautas show Colon’s influence on the menu, says Palacios of the platters. Stuffed tortillas are rolled like cigars and fried, topped with a restrained dollop of sour cream and guacamole, served with pico de gallo, rice and beans. Tortas are heartier, a thick tortoise bread that’s a Mexican variation on a chicken sandwich.
Don’t forget drinks, such as the fine horchata, rice milk that shimmers with vanilla, cinnamon and sugar.
But the locos fruit treat/drink taunts a diner, starting with a halved melon or pineapple. Sliced mango, pineapple and melon are cut to straddle the edges, while cucumber and celery spears stick out from the center like a cartoon character that’s been electrified. Then it’s sprinkled with powdered chili and dressed with chamoy, a wild condiment of fruit pulp, lime, spices and chilies — some of it in silly-string form. The server who delivers it tops the whole thing off with Jarritos grapefruit soda for a spicy, sweet circus of an order.
Be prepared. When it arrives, people will stare, make comments and point, their mouths agape. It is not for the faint of heart.