This entry in The Out There Side blog series celebrates a delicacy of Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine that’s inexplicably hard to find in the Big Apple — but out there nonetheless. Here’s a Top Ten survey.
In our humble opinion, there’s nothing more exquisite than topping off a morning run with a great breakfast taco. It provides the perfect combo of savory delight, grab-and-go portability, carbo-replenishment, and all the essential food groups, including that oft-overlooked one: spice!
In our former city of Austin, TX, great breakfast tacos (BTs) seem more ubiquitous than roadstripe armadillos. Found every few blocks, their differences come down to taste, location, and price. But when we arrived in our adopted hometown of Manhattan a couple decades back, finding a great BT was “like a haystack needle,” to quote the great Stevie Wonder. (Conversely, if one were looking for a proper fresh-baked bagel in Austin, the equation would be reversed.)
Thankfully, New York City’s Mexican cuisine has vastly improved, though the relative scarcity of the BT signals that the Big Apple hasn’t fully embraced it. Covid-19 didn’t help matters: One of our go-to taquerias (Oaxaca at Amsterdam Ave & West 81st St) dropped their “Austin style” BTs after the pandemic set in, when they shifted to takeout and to-go service. A worker there told us that BTs “don’t travel well.” And there seems to be a cultural disconnect: Many UWS food trucks serve both “breakfast” and “tacos” — but not “breakfast tacos.” Ask why, and you get a shrug and a smile …
Still, for New Yorkers and visitors, the Great Breakfast Taco can be found, if you’re willing to do a bit of looking and legwork. Here we’ve done both. (If we’ve missed anything exquisite, pray tell!)
Let’s get the terms straight: Tacos are not the same as their big cousins, burritos. The latter (often called “wraps” in gringo-speak) are usually larger flour tortillas, stuffed and folded on both ends. This makes them filling, durable, microwavable, and portable. In brunch fare, egg-based burritos are fairly common and often lathered in sauce and cheese, served (and priced) like Mexican entrées. But they function beautifully with no frills.
While burritos can be cheap and great on the go — we’ve probably had hundreds of them in the past year alone — soft tacos are arguably tastier, mainly due to the bread-vs-fixin’s ratio. They are typically folded (messy) finger food on smaller tortillas, either corn or flour, not fried (these are not hard tacos, chalupas, tostadas, taquitos, quesadillas, or huevos rancheros, yummy as those may be). A genuine BT may include all manner of fixin’s; the essentials are scrambled eggs, cheese, and special sauce. Indeed, that last thing usually separates the muy bueno from the merely so-so.
In online research, we’ve come across several well reported taco and BT surveys from respected foodie sites: Thrillist, Eater, Foursquare, Grub Street. However, many of these are not updated in the post-Covid foodscape, and/or heavy on entries from the outer boroughs, which are culinary cultured but far-flung. (Sorry, we’re not going to go B&T — bridge & tunnel — just for a BT!)
Therefore we’ve focused this Top Ten Survey on great BTs in Manhattan — emanating outward from the center of our universe (the Upper West Side). Here there’s a sliding scale between value and convenience. Once again, a great BT comes down to taste, location, and price. ¡Buen Provecho!
1. La Esquina
La Esquina’s flagship brasserie at Kenmare St features delectable high-end Mexican fare downstairs, while upstairs the “Corner Deli” taqueria serves to-go delights, including our #1 breakfast taco in the city: a single corn tortilla with eggs, cheese, potato, bacon, pico de gallo, and (probably the secret) avocado salsa. Fortuitously, two Corner Deli outlets have opened in upper midtown and the Upper East Side. For Tex-Mex junkies, they’re godsends! (Can that be plural?) $4.50 per taco.
Nestled on a commercial midtown corner for the past six years, this food truck (looking straight out of the movie Chef) offers the Real Deal: a plethora of BTs including our favorite, huevos a la mexicana (tomato, onion and serrano chile). In Central Mexican tradition, the tacos are on double-corn tortillas. Open 9–2:30 weekdays, with a grill run by a pair of siblings from Puebla, Eggstravaganza’s extensive menu is based on “recipes from Mamá,” says server Maribel. $4.75-$6 per taco.
3. Taco Vision
While BTs are served here all day all week, weekday dinner hours start at 4 pm; for brunch try weekends (noon-3:30). Taco Vision’s BT features a corn tortilla, chorizo, black beans, hot sauce, and onion-centric pico de gallo that makes it sumptuously messy. Beware: no coffee — but great margs if you are, as Texans say, “on the right side of the workout!” $4 per taco.
4. Downtown Bakery
On the Lower East Side, this funky, unprepossessing, authentic Central Mexican (Pueblo) eatery has a lengthy taco & burrito menu and serves breakfast all day. The BTs feature double-corn tortillas, meat of choice, black beans, salsa, and homemade pico de gallo heavy on veggies, onions and jalapeños — rich, spicy, filling, not for wimps! $8 for two tacos.
Quality aside, Austin-bred Javelina dropped a couple notches because their BT’s are only served during Sat & Sun brunch hours (an all-to-common flaw — akin to only-morning rules for breakfast fare — as if eggs shall not pollute thou grill in the wrong time slot!). However, their Red-Headed Stranger BT is as authentic and special as its namesake, with brisket, avocado and ranchero sauce with a bite. Also like Willie, it’s up there (price-wise): $15 for two tacos.
6. Playa Betty’s
These small but tasty BTs are California style, made with one single corn tortilla, a nice cheese-to-sauce ratio, and a certain daintiness. Egg tacos come with delicious options: chorizo, steak, short ribs, and migas — interesting with fried corn tortilla strips in the mix (you’d almost think it’s Tex-Mex). Accounting for size, a tad pricey: $5–6 per taco.
7. Sweet Life Pastry
Despite the name, this old-school cocina in Washington Heights serves up all manner of Mexican food, primarily made to go, including breakfast all day. The BTs come in triplets, with double-corn tortillas, chorizo, beans, cheese, sour cream, avocado, salsa, and green or red hot sauce on the side. Filling and fab! $10 for three tacos.
8. Yellow Rose
Another victim of the silly weekend-only-brunch schedule, this San Antonio–bred eatery opens at 9 am Sat-Sun (as opposed to noon weekdays) to serve their exotic BTs. The menu includes migas (chips, onions, roasted tomato), barbacoa (simmered beef cheeks), carne guisada (beef in chile gravy) and mesquite-smoked bacon (our favorite!). As befits Tex-Mex, the tortillas are freshly made flour. $4–7 per taco.
9. King David Tacos
This Austin-bred eatery would doubtless rank higher if we still lived in Brooklyn, where their brick-and-mortar headquarters (and central kitchen) reside at 611 Bergen St. To serve other parts of NYC, King David has several taco carts, including a highly popular one at Madison Square Park open 9-noon Fri-Sun. The flour-tortilla BTs are hot but pre-wrapped (which can induce a bit of sogginess), yet great for grab-and-go, coming in tasty combos of ingredients including smoked bacon, chorizo, potatoes, beans and chile non carne (poblanos and carrots). $4.50 per taco.
With ten NYC locations (including one in our hood), the Yucatan-inspired Tacombi has a reputation for excellent BTs — pre-Covid, that is. “We’re waiting for the 100 percent reopening of the restaurants,” says a worker named Jonathan at the 79th Street location, promising that breakfast will return to the menu in July, when Tacombi no longer relies on pickup and delivery. We’re including Tacombi here based on this promise — as well as our fond BT memories. We’re hoping their new breakfast tacos will be exquisite, reassuring, and (to quote the great Stevie Wonder) Hotter Than July!