East Harlem, the neighborhood bordered by 96th and 125th Streets between Fifth Avenue and the east river, is referred to as El Barrio because it has been a predominantly Puerto Rican enclave. It literally means “the neighborhood”. Some people would even say it goes all the way to 142nd because Dominicans and other Caribbean groups have assembled in that part of Manhattan. Mexicans have also moved in to take advantage of the still-affordable rents above 116th Street. But with the on and off plans of a giant Home Depot and a Wal-Mart on the east side to match the condos going up, young families driven by rising rents downtown have also called El Barrio home.
Today, an Old Navy, H&M and a Starbucks on 125th Street co-exist with the historic Apollo Theater while juice counters, fabric stores and chicharron shops are struggling to keep their businesses open. The future of El Barrio is iffy and we all just have to wait and see what the rezoning of Harlem brings.
Searching for a good taco in this side of Harlem–I live on the west side–was easier and less contentious than recent events in the news. I knew it as soon as I walked in Taco Mix, tip-toed and caught a glimpse of the big vat of pork simmering next to the grill. I thought I was going to need some of my friends to help me scour the many–and there are many–Mexican holes-in-the-wall in East Harlem, but after comparing several tacos from all four of the stores below, Taco Mix’s buche taco took the cake.
1. La Lomita Del Barrio, 209 East 116th Street, 212/289.8138
I stopped by La Lomita because they had beautiful fruits and vegetables for sale outside their store. I saw my first watermelon of the season, decided against buying and carrying such a heavy load, and instead sat at the tiled counter to eat chorizo and carnitas tacos. The chorizo was crushed and crumbled before the lady put it on the grill. I loved the sharpness of the chiles and the aroma of the cloves, but I would have rather eaten it as a sausage without the tortilla. The carnitas was just all right because some of the bigger chunks were a little dry. A lot of cilantro and onions helped me finish them off.
2. Michelle Deli & Grocery, 215 East 116th Street, 212/828.9097
Just next door was another deli with a tiled counter selling tacos. The tripe was not on the menu but I watched an older man devour a bowl of it while I waited for my order of beef tacos: cecina which is more jerky and therefore chewy, and suadero, or beef stew, which was a little on the dry side and needed some fat content. I sure wish I got the tripe stew instead of their tacos.
3. Cart run by two ladies off the corner of 116th and Second Avenue
I stopped by the cart covered in blue tarp off Second Avenue to ask the ladies what they were selling because the tortillas they were pressing looked like arepas. They were for tacos, they insisted, so I bought a chicken and a beef one. They didn’t hear my usual request of skipping the mayo-like white sauce, so I was forced to eat them like messy gyros. They were bigger and needed to be packed and taken at home to enjoy. Back at home, I realized that the tortillas were thicker and more dense. Though I like that combination for my cakes, it wasn’t the best tortilla for tacos.
4. Taco Mix, 234 East 116th Street, 212/831.8147
I’ve gone back to Taco Mix several times after my initial visit for this write-up. When I go, I always order the buche, or the pork belly, and the oreja, or the ears, for some texture. I’ve since tasted their carnitas, chorizo, al pastor and suadero tacos and must say that all their tacos are far more superior than those of the surrounding delis and stores.
When the lone table in the back is unoccupied, you can sit, eat in and watch the Mexican soap opera blaring from the TV screens. Young men walk in and out, order their dinner and stand over the condiments counter to eat swiftly, while the two guys who work the kitchen chit-chat behind all the meat-smelling smoke. Just another slice of life in Harlem some of us call home.
A nice rewarding bonus–$2.50 for a quarter pound of chicharron from Chuchifrito off Third Avenue: