There’s still no definitive “best taco shop” in NYC and while Pinche, La Esquina and Pampano Taqueria are quality, they’re not supreme enough to keep me from telling you about the delicious skirt steak taco, tilapia taco, unique guacamoles and perfect churros at Mercadito Cantina. Read on to find out which tacos disappointed and which of the six guacamole choices impressed…
Eye-catching tilapia tacos and a simply delicious, cinnamon-sugar covered churro.
A Note on Mercadito Cantina
The third location of the Mercadito Manhattan triumvirate, Mercadito Cantina is billed as an informal dining and drinking destination to catch the overflow of Mercadito Avenue B on the next block. The prices aren’t cheap at any of the locations but what’s lacking in value is made up for with quality ingredients, innovative recipes and great service. Mercadito Cantina is narrow and loud but the atmosphere lends itself to making friends with neighboring diners and shouting questions to your waitstaff. Don’t be put off by the fact that Mercadito Cantina doesn’t have a liquor license, they make up for it with very creative drinks. “Tric-quilla”, a combo of sake, agave nectar, orange blossom oil and assorted spices, is an almost dead-on replacement for tequila and provides the base for several drinks. The $12 “Papa Low” offers a little bite complements of jalapeno combined with passion fruit, papalo, salt and pepper. Open your mind and your wallet and prepare for fun and good food.
Start with the guacamole…
One ($9.50), Two ($11.50), Three ($13.50)
From left to right you’re looking at Chipotle (pineapple, pickled chipotle, tomatillo pico de gallo, mint), Mole Poblano (pico de gallo, plantain, mole poblano, chile serrano) and Calabaza (cinnamon spiced pumpkin, tomatillo pico de gallo, roasted jalapeno, toasted pumpkin seeds).
In order of deliciousness, the Calabaza is number 1, followed by the Mole Poblano and lastly, the Chipotle. The unique taste and subtle cinnamon undertone of the Calabaza separated it from the pack. The sweet flavor and hearty texture of the Mole Poblano surprised me while the Chipotle disappointed lacking any smokiness or heat.
Other guacamole choices I didn’t try:
- Tradicional – tomatillo pico de gallo, jalapeno, garlic, lime cilantro
- Oaxaqueno – chile pasilla oaxaqueno, apple, pico de gallo
- Torreado – sauteed chile serrano, garlic, oregano, tomatillo pico de gallo
Move on to the tacos…
Two per order served on homemade corn tortillas ($9.50)
Carne – hoja santa marinated grass fed skirt steak, salsa verde
The Carne tacos were my favorite. The tender, perfectly cooked skirt steak had a great char-grilled flavor which balanced well with the hint of cilantro and onion resting beneath the mildly spicy salsa verde.
Pescado – tilapia, chile poblano, tomatillo-garlic mojo
To my surprise, the Pescado tacos were a very close second to the Carne. As a whole, each taco is as brightly flavorful as it is colorful, the citrus of the tomatillo played well against the garlic mojo creating an almost marinara sauce flavor. The neutral flavor of the fresh and tender fish allowed the stronger flavors to shine.
Carnitas – michoacan style braised Berkshire pork, cacahuate salsa
My excitement for anything with braised Berkshire pork is at a consistently high level. Expectations aside, the Carnitas taco was mediocre at best. The tender, fatty pork was adorned with a bland and sweet cacahuate (peanut) salsa which failed to offer any notable heat or flavor.
Milanesa – lightly breaded beef, roasted poblano, avocado salsa
Paltry strips of beef fried in a mundane batter and topped with bland avocado salsa and cold strips of roasted poblano. How many things did you just read that disappointed you? I felt the same way. Steer clear of the Milanesa.
Add some sides…
Arroz Verde al Horno ($8.00) – Green rice casserole, manchego and oaxaca cheese
Cilantro flavored rice and burnt cheese, how can you go wrong? Salty, stringy and delicious, this green rice casserole was excellent proving that all food served in a skillet is supreme.
Papas y Chorizo ($7.00) – Potatoes, homemade Mexican sausage
I only had a small taste of this simply prepared concoction but the fact that I have no lasting memory of the flavor is not a good sign. This dish is what is sounds like, soft potatoes mixed with chorizo and other spices. It didn’t disappoint but I’d opt for another side dish such as the Elote Mexicano ($6), Mexican style corn on the cob.
And make room for dessert…
Churros with Chocolate Abuelita Sauce $8
The only other churros I’ve tried in Manhattan are the not-sweet-enough version at Despana and those of the Churro lady in Union Square. Regardless of the competition, I know my churros and Mercadito Cantina is spot on. Greasy, chewy dough is fried to a crisp revealing an almost milky interior that melts in your mouth upon every bite.
The churros are great on their own, rendering the deeply-flavored chocolate abuelita sauce (abuelita is used in mole and for Spanish hot chocolate) unecessary.
Mercadito Cantina (website)
172 Avenue B near 11th street
New York, NY 10009
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