Last summer, a friend took Jason Lee, chef and owner of Long Island Pekin in Babylon, to the Birria-Landia food truck in Jackson Heights, Queens, where they waited for nearly four hours to order. “I was annoyed, and not having a good time,” said Lee. “When we finally got our tacos, they were the best tacos I’ve ever had.”
Inspired, the chef decided to make his own version inside Long Island Pekin, which up until then had been known for dumplings, dim sum and Cantonese dishes. “I went through loads and loads of recipes, and I made it for family meal. Everybody said, ‘this is great,’” Lee recalled. He planned to make them for family meal — the pre-service meal that restaurant employees share together — once a month or so, but said his fellow chefs and cooks suggested they pursue birria as a pop-up after regular service closed for the night. Last spring, the restaurant began doing just that. “It was an instant hit,” said Lee, who wrote on Instagram “I fell into the birria underground and my world of tacos changed forever.”
At 8:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, Long Island Pekin is transformed into Long Island Tacos, aka LIT Birria, a birria central of sorts where orders are fielded at the front door for crispy birria tacos (the kitchen uses four cuts of beef, including chuck and brisket) drizzled with crema; crispy birria and cheese dumplings; queso made with Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses; grilled chicken on a stick; and pots of consommé, sans tacos, inside which lurk fistfuls of the birria for a robust, carb-free snack. Diners can tackle their food on site (occasionally with drinks) or take them to go; once Lee has the proper permits, he said that he’ll begin selling them from a food truck, with birria ramen and birria tamales joining the lineup.
The earliest wave of Long Island ghost kitchens — out-of-sight kitchens that accept orders for delivery and takeout only — tended to focus on fried chicken. Now that pandemic-era eating has settled into a new rhythm, the next ghost-kitchen iteration is taking on a new focus: tacos.
An insatiable hunger for birria tacos, for instance, has compelled Lee and other chefs, food-truck owners and food producers to start stewing beef for hours in their kitchens. Some are operating under the radar, from home — while others are incorporating birria, the crispy, unctuous, beefy tacos served with a side of consommé or dipping — into already established business models.
While there aren’t birria tacos at Ghost Taco in Amityville, the ghost kitchen operating inside Park Avenue Grill, the menu combines taco standards such as chicken tinga and carne asada with fusion-inspired tacos such as jerk shrimp, Korean barbecue-style steak, roasted cauliflower, bacon cheeseburger and grilled flounder. Burritos, quesadillas, wings, salads, desserts — the lineup is sprawling and the brainchild of Erin Bevilacqua Gonzalez and her husband, Alex Gonzalez, who own Park Avenue Grill. Long a breakfast and lunch focused restaurant, the nascent taco operation, launched late last winter, now makes up a significant portion of their orders, especially on weekend nights.
”It’s exploded,” said Erin Gonzalez, who said it took about six weeks to hone the concept, and relishes the creative challenge and logistical ease. “I love selling 300 tacos on a Friday night.”
After restaurants reopened after the COVID-related shutdown, the couple added a few tacos to the grill’s menu. By last winter, Gonzalez decided to make tacos the bedrock of a full-fledged takeout business. “They’re gluten-free and easily customizable,” said Gonzalez. The tacos are cooked and assembled from scratch in a dedicated gluten-free kitchen, to avoid cross contamination, and the kitchen uses the same ingredients — from flounder to beef — used in the restaurant’s dishes. “They are elevated tacos, and allow us to use the food we have in house. It’s a way to make sure, for our restaurant, that there is no waste.”
There is no special window to pick up orders — people walk into the restaurant — and the oversized tacos, anointed with salsas, cheeses and dressings, come wrapped in foil and arranged in clamshells, for about $6 each. The couple hired two new employees who are dedicated to fielding orders, which might include margaritas, sangria and mimosas to go.
Recently, the Gonzalez’ son. Brandon Mortati, launched another ghost kitchen inside the restaurant called Long Island Fit Meals. Looking forward, Gonzalez said she sees no waning of ghost kitchens. “Tacos are easy to transport, quesadillas are easy to transport. I believe people still want to eat restaurant food but have it in their own kitchens and backyards, and we [the industry] have gotten so much better at selling and packing food to go.”