Is the Newest Tacombi Actually Serving Good Tacos?
Plus, six places for New York's best tacos, including Aldama, Ensenada, and elsewhere
One night, not too long ago, the inevitable happened at the new East Village Tacombi. A bro walked in with his date. I was there to witness this.
Now, I’d understand if you have a few questions. Like, what the heck am I doing at yet another outpost of a chain restaurant? I don’t swing by every new Shake Shack to see if the frozen custard is still cold. But so the story goes that this Tacombi is supposed to be different.
It wants to be a little more like a Mexico City taqueria — with succulent off-cuts bathed in fat — and a little less like what this brand is known for, namely: margs, buckets of beers, and burritos (made with some of the best flour tortillas around).
Back to the bro — an anthropological subject I’m not unfamiliar with. He was an eager, loud, and talkative young man, perhaps someone who had hit up his local Equinox and knocked back a Bud Light or two beforehand. He expressed no small amount of excitement, as a bro in his natural habitat would, about the bottled margaritas, available to go.
Then he took a look at the taco menu. “I’ll take the third one…Yeah, I’m not going to try to pronounce that.” Fortunately, the cashier was able to translate his bro-speak into more actionable intelligence.
He wanted an al pastor.
If only it were a good al pastor ($4.98), a marriage of savory and sweet flavors so intuitive it makes makes you wonder whether the achiote pork and roasted pineapple are harvested from the same perennial plant in the tropics. What I experienced at Tacombi, by contrast, was just a heap of shaved meat on a tortilla with some cilantro and onions — and no discernible fruit or salsa.
I recount this story because the new Tacombi, on this particular night, did not feel a whole lot different from the older ones. But rest assured, things would get better. Maybe.
Can Tacombi get suadero tacos right?
Tacombi’s claim to fame isn’t really top notch tacos, not in a city replete with so much good Modern Mexican fare. A full-service location, for the most part, is a pleasant place to catch up with friends. Well, until you end up seated next to four bros, like I did two nights ago. They were having a little too much fun making their way through a metal pail filled with ice and beers. Indeed, Tacombi can sometimes feel a bit more like a Corona commercial than a Cosme.
“Mexico in Minutes,” is a tagline for the new in-house delivery app.
Dario Wolos, a New Yorker of Mexican and Ukrainian descent, is the force behind all this. Per a (very good) New York Magazine profile, he studied economics at Cornell before going on to sell beachside tacos in Quintana Roo in 2006. And thus, Tacombi was born. Less than 20 years later, he has a booming company on his hands — helped by a $27.5 million investment from Danny Meyer’s Enlightened Hospitality. The menu feels about as tailored for New York as for suburban Connecticut or Bethesda.
But again, the months-old East Village location counts as a pivot. It doesn’t sprawl across a penthouse-sized space, as is the case with so-many Tacombis. Instead, it sits in a room smaller than most corner bodegas. That means no wait service and no seating. You pay first, and out comes your food. In the back is a choricera, as Eater’s Luke Fortney reported, a metal vat that lets sinewy meats turn tender while bubbling away in a bath of fat.
One of those meats is suadero, an ultra-marbled navel cut that you’d expect at a well-regarded place like Taqueria Ramirez. But here at Tacombi, I sampled dry knobs of beef ($5.49) that looked like they came from a corporate chef who had never cooked — or eaten — suadero before. They tasted like nuggets of deep-fired steak.
By my second visit, however, things were very different. The suadero flaunted a tenderness on par with smoked brisket. It packed an assertive beefiness. Chopped ribeye ($5.98) showed off an impressive bovine punch as well, boasting the type of unctuous bliss you encounter while biting into a silky knob of wagyu fat.
Both of those cuts sat on lousy corn tortillas. I’d describe them as nearly desiccated, as if someone had toasted them a day or two earlier. So just for fun I repeated my order. Let’s call this Round Three. And that’s when things got more interesting. The tortillas, slicked with fat, came out so soft they felt like a natural extension of the meat, not unlike light batter on good fried chicken.
And for a moment, I felt like I was at one of the city’s top taquerias.
But wait, what about all the other Tacombis? Will they serve vegan Milanese too?
So is Tacombi’s East Village experiment improving? I like to hope so. And that’s no small matter, especially if it ends up inspiring the rest of the stores to get their act together.
I’m not one to waste food but I have a distinct memory of ordering al pastor at Tacombi a few years back...and then tossing the arid, bland atrocity into the nearest trash receptacle. Yet a few nights ago, the al pastor at the Upper West Side outpost was everything it should’ve been: reeking of warm spices, with a little bit of pineapple to tame down the porkiness.
So maybe things are already on the up at the other Tacombis? It’s not too often you walk into a McDonald’s after a few bad meals and proclaim, “wow, that crew really got their game together after a rough season.” Chains are slow to change. But indeed, Tacombi clearly wants start keeping pace with a community of better taquerias.
It’s about time. Tacombi is sitting on a giant pile of Danny Meyer Dollars, even though the company is still looking for consistent solutions to the challenges of serving delicious tacos — problems that countless individual taqueros and tiny restaurants have long held the answers to, thanks to years and sometimes decades of hard work, along with a bit of generational knowledge to boot.
Alas, modern capitalism values scale and MBA-style dilemmas more than the little things, like learning how to cook good food (“we’ll figure that out, eventually”).
Again, it’ll be nice if Tacombi continues to tighten up its culinary operations, as that’ll mean you’ll be able to eat solid al pastor at, I don’t know, JFK when it opens there one day. Wolos himself has stated he seeks a “Shake Shack approach” to global growth, with an eye toward the Middle East, Korea, Singapore, and U.S. airports.
Good for Tacombi. As for me, I prefer to get my tacos from smaller local chains and independent outfits, which is to say…I’ll get my tacos from anywhere else.
p.s. Do not order the vegan milanese at the East Village location, unless your idea of deliciousness is gnawing on the burnt exterior of a mozzarella stick.
After the paywall: Six really good places (some of them fancy) for tacos in NYC
I’ll have more to say about Modern Mexican food in New York soon, but for now, here’s a highly subjective list of six places I love to eat tacos at. I’m tempted to start quoting Gabriela Cámara’s “My Mexico City Kitchen,” which I’ve done before, because the chef’s meta-thoughts on what makes a good taco are some of the smartest out there. But I’ve gone on long enough, so let’s just get into it….