Left: Exterior of Taqueria Coatzingo. Through the window, a passerby can see into the core the restaurant, the kitchen.
All you need is a Metro Card. Once you exit the Jackson Heights- Roosevelt Avenue Station, you are met with a plethora of food options. At the intersection of Roosevelt and 74th, there’s a Colombian restaurant, La Abundancia, which has some of the empanadas in town. And within a one-block radius, you can find a Brazillian, Nepalese, Tibetan restaurants– but there’s one that stands out from the rest, Taqueria Coatzingo. Tucked between an attorney and doctor’s office, lies one of the best Mexican restaurants in New York City. From the outside, the set of neon lights scream “Tacos,” inviting you into the warmth of authentic cuisine. Once inside you are immediately meet with the kitchen area, displaying the hard work that goes into each meal. The sizzling sound of tortillas being flipped on the grill can only lead one to know that the food is gonna be good! The word taqueria means a restaurant, shop, or stand that specializes in making tacos– and its’ menu did not disappoint. Coatzingo, on the other hand, is a small indigenous community within Puebla, about 130 miles from Mexico City with a population of just under 3,000 people. This small community is home to the Zapata family, the owners of Taqueria Coatzingo, hence the name. Before coming, I did a bit of reading on the tasty taqueria, and in an April 2019 interview with Steven Alverez, a professor at St. John’s University specializing in Mexican Foodways, Beatris Zapata mentioned, “there were taquerías, but not that many,… [f]or Latinos, there were a lot of Colombian restaurants, but we were doing some[thing] different.”
Something different it was! After sitting down and stiffing through the overly-generous-amount options on the menu, I choose something that I have never had before, huaraches. I will admit, even though I did a bit of research on it the night before, from online recipes to YouTube videos, I did not know what to expect. Because I am used to the taste of processed corn tortillas, the taste of the huarache caught me by surprise. It tasted like true Central America, like corn that has been well nixtamalized, and grounded into a delightful masa. The taste of the corn was sour and earthy yet sweet, which carried the flavors that topped it. Masa de maíz when translated means corn dough; this is usually made from yellow corn. Further, frijoles refritos literally means refried beans (usually pinto), which provided a velvety supplement to the huarache along with the showstopper poblano-cilantro sauce which added a refreshing spiciness. Huarache, meaning sandal, comes from the Tarascan or Purépecha people living in the Michoacán region of Mexico. It was first used in 1892 and lives up to its name– just as a person uses a sandal to support them while walking, the food version supports all the goodness on top.
Pictured above, is a popular Mexican drink, Michelada. What’s in it? Tomato juice or Clamato, lime juice, hot sauce, and Worcestershire sauce with your choice of beer–best paired with Corona, Modelo, or Tecate. When I had it at Taqueria Coatzingo, it changed my perspective on beer drinking. The drink has a spicy kick with a salty and zesty aftertaste; paired with the Modelo adds an acid-like yet smooth taste. Fortunately, the ingredients needed for Michelada are easily accessible– Modelo and Corona can be found anywhere, and all the other components can be found in your local grocery store. On the flip side, not all ingredients are easy to get your hands on, like achiote seasoning or recado rojo which translates to “red message,” which matches its paste-like texture that is easy to spread, and Epazote (a type of herb). These small yet important ingredients are what remind people of home. In my recent post, “Remember to Pack Your Mexican Food” I touch on the importance of preserving tradition and memories outside of Mexico. To expand, Taqueria Coatzingo embodies the meaning of creating a home away from home. During the hour and a half that I spent at the restaurant. I realized that the people who came in were of all ages. I observed an older gentleman who made sure he enjoyed his complimentary nachos as he read a newspaper, two men in business casual attire who both ordered mole platters, and myself, a student coming to get a taste of a country over a thousand miles away. What I saw that day was an establishment working hard to maintain a community that is susceptible to getting lost amongst the other Latino cultures. Taquerias pose as a reliever for those that struggle to find the authentic tasting cooking essentials. In addition, since the Zapata’s are from such a small town in Pueblo, those who come to the restaurant can easily create relationships with the people who work there.
I was doing some map research on Google Maps when I noticed something quite spectacular. If you click on a certain area of the adjacent Roosevelt Avenue’s street side, you can instantly time travel in Taqueria Coatzingo’s past. In August of 2014 Taqueria Coatzingo was “lone restaurant” holding its own frontier, providing for the Jackson Heights community. That is until 2015 when it is suddenly joined by the hip, by an extension of its mission clay shingles to El California. When I visited Taqueria Coatzingo, there was a connection at the back of the restaurant to El California, the bar side. I could do was smile, because the Zapata family has done so well that they were able to expand their original restaurant into so much more. Highlight by green and yellow interior, extra seating space, and a full-fledged bar, El California is the perfect place to host a football watch party along with the comfort of good in-house food.
But it gets even better! There’s even a bakery or pandería, which makes cakes for any occasion, sells pastries, and bread! With such progression and success, a restaurant like Taqueria Coatzingo might have been a true cause for concern had its location been in the southwest. Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA, describes Larry Cano’s, the owner of El Torito, interesting experience while working. Cano had realized on separate occasions a suspicious vehicle lurking around his restaurant. When at his wit’s end, he finally faced the person in the vehicle to find out that it was Glen Bell, the owner of Taco Bell. Bell had been spying on El Torito to see what made it so special, and what was attracting people. It safe to say that most competitors like Bell in the Southwest had to go to this extreme. It was understandable since there were so many Mexican restaurants that were developing at the time. But years later, Taqueria Coatzingo had the ultimate advantage at the time of their start-up; there were not many Mexican restaurants Jackson Heights was an open canvas for the Mexican food industry. Even though there are more competitors in the neighborhood today, it allows people from all over the five boroughs to flock to Jackson Heights because there is a good chance of finding quality Mexican food. It is accessible by five train lines, and on a good day, it could be only a twenty-minute drive. It is my hope that in the future that there will be more establishments in Queens with a mission shingle awning and a little man in a corn husk adorning an entrance.