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Taqueria Coatzingo -- why it is my favorite Mexican

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I don't think there is any doubt that Mexican cuisine is the most complex and sophisticated in the New World. (Sorry, Peru!) Many of the sauces date back to pre-Columbian times, and their startling blend of flavors seem like relics of an ancient, long-forgotten and inscrutably alien civilization.  But where to find them? I think it breaks the heart of any New York chowhound to read posts on Los Angeles board about mole dulce, or Yucatan barbecue, or the seven fabled moles of Oaxaca. You won't find them here. But you will find a surprising variety in a place all of you know about but few of you tap its hidden depths. Tacqueria Coatzingo. The trick is: ignore the printed menu. Order the specials. They are handwritten on tiny sheets of paper and left at each table. There is far more variety toward the end of the week. (If you go on, say, a Monday and there's nothing appealing, they make a mean mole poblano, available every day.) The food is, of course, from Pueblo (that's where the village of Coatzingo is located) and reminds me of the stuff that Mama would serve in a tiny village... if Mama were a very good cook. Here are some of my diary entries to illustrate my point.

July 25
Last time I ordered mixiote de puerco a plate arrived full of pig intestines cooked in green sauce with cactus. Tonight, it was chunks of pork stewed with olives in a rich, fiery red sauce flavored with an herb, almost medicinal, I'd never tasted before. If you go in a traditional Chinese herbal drug store in Chinatown, it smells like what I ate. I was the only one there who isn't Mexican and the only one to speak English. In that restaurant there is no way to know you aren't in central Mexico.
Except that I walked a few blocks afterward and found myself in India... streets thronged with Indians out for an evening stroll, all the women wearing Saris.

Aug 1
I had baby back ribs stewed in a sauce made of tomatoes and cactus leaves. Not as exciting as last week's meal, but good. The thing I like about this place is, though I've never been to Latin America, I believe that if I went to a tiny town in central Mexico, in the Puebla region where most immignants to NYC come from, and a family invited me to dinner at their house, and Mama was a good cook, she'd bring out dishes like these. This isn't my criterion for all restaurants. You can distinguish between those cuisines which are family based and those which are more elite based -- eg French and Chinese. If I go to the best French restaurant, I don't expect to get food like French Mama would cook, though many top French chefs, as a hobby, search out obscure peasant recipes.

Aug 10
Back to Tacqueria Coatzingo. Coatzingo is, my computer tells me, a tiny town in Puebla, Mexico. The Tacqueria looks as if it belongs there. I had Chuletas con salsa guajillo. The pork chops were in a fiery (thanks to the guajillo) red sauce with a spice like none I've tasted before... it had a flavor almost like dried tea leaves. Last time I went there I was disappointed, the food didnt seem exotic enough. That wasn't true tonight.

Aug 21
  Back to Tacqueria Coatzingo, that Mexican cantina in Jackson Heights, Queens. It's always a pleasure on a Sunday, when it's jammed with loud, happy Mexican families. I was lucky and got a seat without the usual Sunday wait.
       I ordered a special, beefsteak with salsa roja. Tough, overcooked alleged beef served in a red sauce so good you could serve shoe leather in that sauce and have people running back to buy more. A rich, thick sauce with spices I couldnt identify. I think if you had a food expert who knew every cuisine in the world but unacountably thought Mexicaln food was  limited to burritos and tacos, and you gave him that meal, he'd say "What planet did you get that from??"

September 5
was looking to see lots of family groups at this Mexican restaurant for Labor Day. But it was almost empty. Those who exploit illegals don't give them holidays off, especially Labor Day. I've heard a lot about birria but it just looks like a big hunk of meat, so I never ordered it. Today I did. It IS a big hunk of meat, but it has been simmered for hours in a mildly spiced red sauce, and you could eat it with a spoon. I did, and it is delicious.

September 21
Back to Tacqueria Coatzingo. Those sultry sullen waitresses seemed to recognize me but of course they tried not to show it. They seem to have an endless repertoire of dishes, and each time I go I find a special I've never seen before, either there or anywhere else. Last night it was chicken and potatoes and mushrooms in a green sauce different from their usual. Mild, with a faint spice I couldnt identify, and lots of chicken stock. Wild mushrooms, by the way, were a feature of traditional Aztec cuisine.

October 6
Back to my favorite Mexican, Coatzingo, in Jackson Heights Queens, where I had pollo in salsa roja con verdolagas. Chicken in a wonderful red sauce made of tomatoes, chicken stock, something acidic, and unidentifiable spices, with cooked purslane (!). According to my computer, verdolagas, or purslane, is  a "weedy trailing mat-forming herb with bright yellow flowers cultivated for its edible mildly acid leaves eaten raw or cooked " So I ate a weedy trailing matforming herb. It was good.
I noticed the service was a tiny bit worse than usual. Then I realized, I was wearing my Tequila Cancun Tshirt, so maybe the waitresses thought I was an oafish tourist and not a native. On the other hand, the service there is always a tiny bit worse than usual.

Taqueria Coatzingo 76-05 Roosevelt Ave Queens, NY 11372 (718) 424-1977. Daily 9:00 AM-6:00 AM

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  1. Thanks for the riveting account!

    Verdolagas is the bomb. Very rare stuff, very weird eating. What IS up with those weirdly aloof waitresses? The grill guys are real friendly.

    I've been hooked on their chalupas for years, but the two times I've ventured into specials, I've always found them fine but inert. But that was years ago. Time to try again!

    2 Replies
    1. re: Jim Leff

      I am thrilled you enjoyed my account. Writing is hard work. I always remember the sportswriter who, when someone told him, boy you are lucky to have such an easy job, replied, writing is easy, you just open up a vein and bleed.
      The only special I have ever had that was inert was lengua a la mexicana. The sauce was bland and insipid and not Mexican at all. You guys who live in the nabe could simply cruise by, check out the specials, and if you see something good, order it, if not then go elsewhere. But many different and complex sauces are simply given the catchall label "salsa roja" or "salsa verde" My only criticism of them is that I believe they use powdered guajillo chiles.
      As for the waitresses, Mexican places get a lot of businesses from homesick single guys who stop by for a few beers. The restaurant with the prettiest waitresses get the guys.

      1. re: Brian S

        The quote is from Red Smith: "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open up a vein."

    2. p
      Professor Salt

      I am one of those enviable Los Angeles people who posts about our fine Mexican joints. I'm reading this post feeling somewhat jealous of your Poblano gem. Those specials sound well, special.

      Good for you guys!

      Link: http://professorsalt.com

      1. Thanks for a terrific report. Several vendors offer purslane at the Union Square Farmer's Market during the spring; it is very good and very nutritious. Not as odd as it sounds.

        2 Replies
        1. re: erica
          d
          david sprague

          there's a stand -- run by a mexican family, i believe -- that sells it at the jackson heights farmers market as well. the first time i ate it was at s'agapo in astoria; the chef mixed some into the spinach pie. nice touch!

          1. re: david sprague

            i heard that there are some unique usages of greens at s'agapo, like a grapeleaf spread.

            as for purslane, akin to watercress, a vendor by the name of nolasco at the hunters point farmers market was selling, organic without certification, during the summer.

            Link: http://www.reptilerooms.com/Sections+...

        2. And last night, another meal at Coatzingo, another winner. A meal at Taqueria Coatzingo is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. I ordered chicharron en salsa guajillo, expecting fried pork filets, or maybe deep fried pork rinds or belly. Instead I got thin gelatinous sheets, not fried but sauteed, of something with the consistency of sea cucumber, that gluey aquatic critter so prized by Chinese chefs. Chinese would have loved it. It came with a rich and red hot sauce made of guajillo chiles, minced red chiles, and onions. What did I just eat, I later asked the waitress, who unlike most spoke a bit of English. Pig skin, she replied.

          1. I've been back to Coatzingo many times since I posted this, and I've never been disappointed. You'd have to be one wild, wacky dreamer to dream up the specials they come up with. In the past few weeks I've had meatballs in a garish but yummy green sauce, pig feet in an equally delicious but totally different green sauce, oxtail in red sauce and in green sauce. All in a day's eating, not worth taking the time to tell you about, but what I had today certainly deserves a shout.

            Two weeks ago I saw written on the chalkboard "pansa negra de chivo" I asked the waitress what it was and she paused and searched for words. "Eh.... eh... eh.....es ...es...SANGRE!" A plate of blood didn't sound like what I wanted that night, so I passed. But as I was walking past today, on my way to a Colombian joint for a quiet meal of frijoles de garra (pork belly and beans) I noticed they had the pansa negra again. Why not, I thought.

            It was delicious!!! Soft squishy bits from inside the goat -- panza means belly or, in a goat, rumen, so that's probably what it was -- sauteed with a blood pudding, along with onions, fresh herbs and spices. It didn't taste gross, it didn't taste like blood at all. Almost sweet, like a pudding. I've always loved Spanish morcillas, blood sausage, and this was a whole plate of it. "I've just eaten blood!!" I told the waitress as I left. She smiled. "Aiiiiiiiiii! Que guapo!" she thought. What a man!!!