Lest anyone think I only go to fancy Mexican restaurants, another really huge thing I miss from New York is the kind of taquería one finds in the back of some bodegas. Cheap, hearty and unfailingly delicious, the everyday Mexican lunch is a real madeleine for this former New Yorker. Yes, I know, LA friends will scoff and insist their taquerías are better. Sure, ok, you’re probably right. And it’s definitely the case that when I first moved to New York in the 1990s, you couldn’t find proper Mexican food in as many places as you can today. Puerto Rican food, surely, Cuban food yes, but not so much Mexican. All the same, the porky, fatty, spicy pleasures of really good tacos, tortas and other street foods were a distinctive part of my life in NYC and, it must be said, my life in Iowa City. Anywhere with a Mexican immigrant population is going to make this stuff very well indeed and you can’t really understand the craving for Mexican food until you’ve eaten this way. It’s something L and I discussed as we sat in the slightly chilly back garden of Fast and Fresh Burrito Deli in Boerum Hill: savvy entrepreneurs may have opened up a few chic Mexican restaurants in London, but because most Brits don’t have the everyday experience of cheap and good Mexican fast food to compare to, it’s not quite the same market. They’re selling a new ethnic cuisine, not an upmarket version of something that people already eat frequently.
This place is in L’s neighbourhood – she thinks it’s really good but it’s also probably representative of loads of similar places around the city. I used to go to one in midtown Manhattan when I worked there and while the style of regional Mexican food changes from bodega to bodega (different taco fillings, different kinds of beans in the sandwiches etc), the basic idea is the same. We ordered a plate of enchilada tacos to share, and they came heaped with spicy marinaded pork, red and green sauces (with tomatillos and various chilies), and plentiful onion, cilantro and lime. As you can see, they’re oily as all hell and drip fearsomely staining red pork juice so you have to eat with extreme care. They were wonderful, with a background of achiote and a bit of heat in the marinade contrasting with the freshness of corn tortillas and herbs. You have to accept this this is not exactly diet food, but at the same time a little goes a long way and the bright colours and fresh flavours ensure it’s a world away from stodgy or greasy feeling.
We also had sandwiches – too much food but I wasn’t leaving without tacos, so what can you do? I had a torta filled with carnitas, i.e. fried and then braised pork. The meat was falling apart tender and deeply porky, and it also came with some soft fat. I started to pick it out because even I was mildly concerned about the richness of the meal, but when I inadvertently ate a bit, I realised that rather than the unpleasant wibbly sensation of some non-crispy fat, this stuff was freaking delicious. I still pulled most of it out but the bits I kept? Man, they were good. Also in your standard torta are refried beans, Mexican white cheese, pickled jalapeños, avocado, lettuce and tomato. They also come with mayo but clearly at this point I can say sin mayonesa in many world languages. The torta is one of the world’s great sandwiches. Also reportedly pretty good was the cemita L had, which comes on a sesame roll and had chipotles in it.
Finally, no nostalgic Mexican bodega back-yard lunch would be complete without a bottle of Jarritos, the super-sweet and garish Mexican sodas I sneakily love. Sunshine, an old friend, pork tacos, and a cold bottle of grapefruit Jarritos…what else could a person ask for?
Fast and Fresh Burrito Deli, 84 Hoyt St, Brooklyn NY 11210