Calexico Carne Asada, 122 Union St, 718-488-8226
Price range: $12-$20
Anyone who's had a taco in Southern California knows that most NYC Mexican food ranges from shitty to passable. If you hunt, there are super good taco finds in East Harlem and Sunset Park â�‚��€� which can be transcendent, or terrifying the moment a shard of stray goat bone impales your hard palate, but in terms of a consistent spot convenient to Lower Manhattan and Central Brooklyn, Calexico's two Soho carts have been the go-to for a while now. Now the Vendley brothers have gone stationary, opening a sit-down restaurant where you enjoy hassle-free A+ tacos all day long.
The new spot occupies the former Schnack space in the Columbia Waterfront District. It's just remote enough to keep the crowds away but already draws a steady mix of neighborhood folk and curious taco scholars. The room is small and plain, save a wall of folk art, but most importantly the tacos ($3-$4) kick ass like a Mexican wrestler.
They're served on soft corn tortillas with raw cabbage and pico de gallo. The slow-cooked chipotle pulled pork is rich and smoky with an acidic tang courtesy of pickled red onions. A creamy avocado sauce elevates the juicy pollo asado, while the tofu, bean and carne asada tacos run the spectrum of richness but all come through with big flavor. And make sure to mix and match at the salsa bar, where a few drops of roasted tomatillo poblano, ancho or arbol sesame salsa can pervade your meal with intense blasts of acidity, smokiness or spicy hamburger bun.
On to larger tortilla-bound foods. In the taco vs. burrito debate, I generally land in the taco corner. Burritos tend to be packed with filler that gets in the way of actual flavor. But Calexico has made me a believer. Their burritos ($7-$8) come packed with mostly the same fillings and assembled on a griddle for a slight crispiness. BUT, there's a secret ingredient: CRACK SAUCE. I think it's just Thousand Island dressing amped up on chilies, but it ties the flavor together perfectly and tastes way better than it ever did on salad. Order a side for dipping.
Calexico also grills their patented rolled quesadillas and offers some new items like tortas (the often overlooked Mexican sandwich) salad, and jalapeno grits. For the time being they're BYO.
If there's one problem, it's the delay between ordering and actually having a mouthful of taco. But waits have improved (down from 25 minutes on my first visit to 15 on my third) and you can call ahead to order. A little down time is a small price to pay for an impressive approximation of real SoCal street food. I plan to go at least once a week until I'm sweating chipotle. Or until the crack sauce runs out.