The sheer volume of options is what struck me most on this past trip back Stateside exactly one month ago. “I’ll have whatever I want, whenever I want, however I want” is a concept that takes some time getting used to when you’ve grown distant from it. And after an entire uninterrupted year of “croissant or chocolatine,” I was tongue-tied when my mom asked me what I wanted to eat while there. Tongue-tied for 10 seconds, that is, before it all came flooding back: good pho, kimchi, street-food-style tacos with fresh tortillas, real Chinese, fake Chinese, anything spicy, okra. And while it’s impossible to satiate a hunger for a lifestyle with a 6-day eating spree, it is nice to check in once in a while to see that that’s all still there, waiting for me if I’m to ever repatriate.
Chelsea Market in NYC is one of those places where diversity dazzles and options overwhelm. A former NABISCO cookie factory (where Oreo’s were once made!), this place went through an awkward transitional period for a few decades before being restored into the urban foodie wonderland it is today. I had gone once with my mom almost ten years ago and hadn’t been too impressed. We returned this time around with a friend who knows the ins and outs, who took us by the hand and fed us the good stuff. We walked past Amy’s Bread, an old mainstay of the CM concourse, Sarabeth’s Bakery and a place with hand-pulled Chinese noodles. Our mission: to get to Los Tacos No. 1 before the masses beat us there.
Widely heralded as the home of the best tacos in New York, I was expecting a gimmick or two, and was pleasantly surprised upon arrival by what I saw. A good, honest menu of 3 proteins and a succulent: pork, beef, chicken and cactus available in taco, tostada or quesadilla form. Add onions, cilantro, salsa or guacamole, wash it down with a horchata, tamarind juice or agua de jamaica. Straightforward, transparent, nowhere to hide mediocrity. Behind the counter a monstrous trompo rotates, a carefully layered and sculpted masterpiece of meat probably heavier than my mom and me put together. I stare at it mesmerized. It’s hard not to. As the orange and blue flames lick the sizzling stack of sliced pork shoulder, the sweet sweat of the pineapple cap flows down, mixing with rendered adobo-scented fat, and seasoning every groove, every ridge, every grain of meat. Once certain patches of meat get caramelized, then charred, they are deftly sliced off. The smell took me right back to that taco stand in Tijuana and I begin to doze off thinking back on that meat, those tortillas…
“And look, the tortillas!” Just a few inches away, hand-formed balls of house-made corn and flour tortilla dough are pressed and thrown over the hot griddle, where they warm through and soften, sporting healthy tan lines when done. Our friend orders an adobada con todo for each of us, at this first of many stops through Chelsea Market. It arrives a few minutes later and we dig in, tilting our faces at impossible angles to get the best bite, doing a kind of unconscious shimmy across their standing-room-only dance floor as the flavor hits our taste buds.
“Cinnamon?” is my first observation, by which I mean the cinnamon, cumin and probably all-spice aromas I’m picking up retronasally, flavors I’ve grown so unaccustomed to in France. It’s the adobo I’m tasting on the meat, wrapping around the salty, caramelized decadence of the pork. But then come the dusty smoke and patiently building heat of the chilis, a piquant acidity and a shy sweetness reinforced by two little spears of grilled pineapple lain gingerly over the top. Spilling forth from the folded base of the warm, grainy, layered corn tortilla, the pork dominates each bite with the sliced-off slivers doing what pork does best: crispy, crunchy, juicy, fatty. A saucy guacamole and red-hot spicy salsa hydrate the thing, adding a bit of juicy juicy, while fresh cilantro cleans thing up a little, just enough – that is to say, not a lot. Each bite is complex, complete, balanced.
A swift toss of our paper plate into the recycling bin and we’re moving through a narrow corridor on our way to our next bite of Chelsea Market.