You say taco, I say taco, but, really, what do we mean? To aficionados of cross- country fast food chains, it’s a corn tortilla shell–sometimes hard, sometimes soft- -with a multitude of often fanciful fillings–a gringo’s interpretation, Mariachi-style. But to Mexicans, a taco is a humble thing, a very small, soft corn tortilla, heated on a grill, filled with diced meats or poultry, then folded over and eaten, often in multiples, as a savory snack.
Most of the U.S. lacks a local connection to autentico tacos, with a few exceptions, notably southern California, Mexico’s neighbor, with its large Latin immigrations. And to 30,000 residents of Newburgh, where the majority of the population —48%- -is Hispanic, the taco is both ubiquitous and authentic —no surprise to anyone who has walked the bodega-rich blocks around Washington’s Headquarters or shopped in the Latin food markets on Broadway. We live in Taco Town.
After three weeks of trolling for tacos, walking and driving around the City of Newburgh’s 3.8 square miles, I finally gave up on a definitive list. Thirty? Forty? Tucked into tiny storefronts and bodegas, those taquerias just keep on coming. And the menu keeps multiplying. Where there are tacos, there are often burritos and tortas, irresistible distractions. Ultimately, I narrowed the list down to three sources, places that consistently promise and deliver. Expanding that list is up to you, fellow taco seekers—a savory way, not so incidentally, to get to know your neighbors and be nourished by them.
A summary of the quarry:
According to the Real Academia Española, the word taco originally meant “plug” and refers to rolled paper or cloth patches for a musket ball. In culinary vernacular that translates to a small, pliable corn tortilla, usually doubled for sturdiness to support its fillings, your choice—Hold the muskets! –of diced or shredded pork, chicken beef, or tongue showered with diced onions and cilantro. At an average $1.25 a taco, it’s no surprise that many people order three at a time, cuddled up on a paper plate with a side packet of sliced radishes, lime wedges and –if you ask—a little cup of hot sauce.
A big, soft pillow of comfort food, burrito means “little donkey”, an endearing reference to its rolled up shape that, at least to the name-giver, resembles the ear of a little donkey. An eating burrito is a large, about 8”, flour tortilla filled with meat, chicken or vegetarian options, often rice, beans, tomatoes and lettuce, then folded into a big fat square and steamed or briefly grilled. A big burrito needs a big mouth—or a knife and fork.
A torta is the Mexican equivalent of a Dagwood sandwich—large enough for both Dagwood and Blondie. A split bolillos–an 8” oblong of soft crumbed, crusty bread –is spread with a thin mayonnaise and then generously filled with diced or shredded beef, pork or chicken, and layered with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, plain or pickled jalapenos, small black beans, avocados and queso fresco, crumbed white cheese. Prices vary from $6 to $8 and fillings vary, depending on the maker, but in any language, A Great Sandwich.
THE BROADWAY TACO TRUCKS
Two white trucks and one blue truck park and serve on mid-Broadway, on their own time. The white trucks, which look like they could use a mechanical overhaul, appear so erratically they, perhaps regrettably, were too elusive to make this list.
But the Big Blue Taco Truck, Tacqueria Lucas, shows up pretty regularly now, sometimes every day for a week, other weeks, three or four days. Parked across from the cemetery on Broadway, you can’t miss it. The seriously big deep blue truck is a canvas for terrific visuals—a Mexican Wayne Thiebaud must have rendered the pop art torta, tacos and burritos on every surface of this tacqueria on wheels.
The order window is so high you can’t see what’s going on in there but either a smiling man or woman appears to take your order, then disappears and, not so long after, appears in the window again with your to-go food, which most customers seem to eat while socializing on the sidewalk.
Ask about the prices before you order—they’re not posted and, as it turns out, they are the highest in town: $1.95 for a taco, $5 for a burrito and $8 for a torta. All three are worthy renditions of themselves and possibly warrant their prices because of the Truck’s extended hours. The owner swears that he’s there Sunday through Thursday, from afternoon until midnight and on Fridays and Saturdays from 1 p.m, until to 5 a.m. the following morning. Really? “Yes, for the people who go out dancing.”
Tacqueria Lucas, 845-401-3696, Regular appearances through the week, across from St. Patrick’s Cemetery (between Prospect St and N. Robinson Ave.). Through the night on Friday and Saturday.
Several blocks up Washington St. from the Re-Store, Azteca Market is like a little Mexico all lit up for a fiesta. It’s a full-on Hispanic grocery, with a parking lot next door as large as the market itself. And, either through the market or via a door on the parking lot side, it’s all tacos, all the time. Right inside the side door two men command a large griddle non-stop, heating tortillas and filling them with your choice of diced beef, chicken, pork or tongue. If it’s take out, you’ll get your $1.25 tacos in a bag with a green sauce and a hot sauce and a packet of sliced radishes and lime wedges. If you choose to eat in, you can sit in the large back dining room, with a big TV turned to a Spanish station and tables full of local families.
Either way, a stop in the grocery section is imperative. For anyone with the slightest interest in Mexican cooking—or just in some of the ingredients—Azteca is a goldmine. All the fresh white cheeses, sausages, cured meats, canned and boxed goods and fresh produce of the rural Mexican table are here as well as an entire aisle filled with dried peppers of every degree of heat and a bakery section with sweet and non-sweet breads of every size and shape –including bollitos, for those who want to make tortas at home. The counter persons, who speak about as much English as I speak Spanish (close to zero) are invariably friendly and helpful, and very adept at sign language.
Azteca Market, 215 Washington St., 845-565-0717. Market open all day, Mon.-Sun.
Tacos from 5 p.m., until 10 p.m., Mon-Thur; from noon until 11 p.m. Fri., Sat., Sun.
You know this place, right? It’s the large, glass windowed full-service restaurant on mid-Broadway. Inside there are large, tiled floor rooms with both tables and booths, a notably extensive menu of Mexican favorites, a largely Hispanic clientele, a lovely staff who sweetly accommodate the gringos who don’t speak Spanish, and a partially open kitchen where the magic happens. It is tempting to want to sit down. But stand firm for now. Order take-out at the open kitchen widow where you can watch as the adept cooks turn out dishes from the huge menu for both the diners-in and the takers-out. Tacos are $1.25 apiece; tortas, with a choice of 14 fillings, are $5.99; and burritos are $4.00 for beef, $3.79 for a vegetarian filling. Once you get a literal taste of the place, you can understand why Los Portales is so popular—and on weekends, it’s jammed. Just stay calm and carry out.
Los Portales, 295 Broadway, 845-565-6666. Open every day except Mondays.
Tacos are great walk-around food, but you might consider walking them home. Along with weeknight take our dinners, a weekend party could become a literal fiesta. Stop by to Los Portales for large orders of tacos, burritos or tortas–—or any mix of the three. And it is absolutely necessary to add an order of guacamole. Even if you think you make a killer home made version, Los Portales’ voluptuous, chunky, jalapeño–studded guacamole is the closest to perfection I have ever had in this country or in Mexico.
Go home, gather a group, move outside on a balmy night, program Pandora or rent “Searching for Sugar Man”. And—is this really necessary to say? —don’t forget the Margaritas. Or this Sunday, May 5th: Cinco de Mayo.—SUZANNE HAMLIN