There are more people in Mexico City than there are in New York City, and for the most part, they subsist almost exclusively on tacos. It stands to reason then, that there’s no better place on Earth to learn about everyone’s favorite handheld than the City of Palaces. So that’s exactly where Eddy Escriba, the founding chef of the original downtown Burrito Gallery, went to receive his taco education after he and his cousin, Marco Monroy, left the restaurant they helped create. Earlier this year, the Guatemalan cousins and their partner Matt Kemper, opened Taqueria Cinco in Five Points, bringing authentic Mexican street food to a city in desperate need of good tacos.
Ok sure, there are decent tacos in our area—maybe even some great ones. But few, if any, are as true to the idea of tacos (like the ones on the streets of Mexico City) as those found at Taqueria Cinco. To be fair, their tacos aren’t exactly 100% authentic. “We don’t want to ‘fancy up’ street tacos,” Eddy explains. “But I do think that, in order to keep people interested, we have to do something a little different.” This is “chef-driven” street food after all.
In some ways that means keeping it simple. Case in point, the guacamole. “Some places complicate it,” Eddy says. “They can be great, but we wanted ours to be super simple–avocado, onion, cilantro, lime, salt, and pepper–that’s it.” The resulting salsa (yes, technically guacamole is a salsa) highlights the flavor of the avocado above all else, and although there is no one authentic guacamole recipe, their’s is pretty damn close.
Obviously, the tacos are the move here, and as it should be with good tacos, it all starts with the tortilla. Corn, of course. Cinco’s aren’t made in-house but they are meticulously sourced and, according to Eddy, “properly prepared to enhance their flavor and make them perfectly pliable.” This, in stark contrast to the dry, rubbery, and bland variety found in grocery stores. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh we don’t like corn tortillas, but yours are great,’” he says. And they’re right, they are great.
The taco menu is a fairly representative survey of offerings from across the country. Suadero, one of the few tacos that actually originates from Mexico City, is one of my favorites. It’s also quite possibly the mildest option on the menu. In its homeland, it isn’t uncommon for bits of offal such as snouts and eyeballs to bathe in fat alongside various cuts of beef. Although taco consumers there many go out of their way to request these delicacies specifically, you won’t find anything so exotic in your tortilla here, just tender braised brisket, charred scallion and avocado salsa.
The cochinita pibil is also a definite highlight. This traditional Yucatecan specialty consists of pork that’s been marinated in bitter citrus and achiote paste, then wrapped in a banana leaf and slow-cooked until it falls apart. On the tortilla, it’s topped with pickled onions and a habanero salsa that clocks in at a high medium on the heat scale.
There’s Pueblan tinga, a shredded chicken number cooked in a ranchero-like sauce of tomato and adobo. It’s served with pickled onions and avocado mousse, which admittedly sounds like backtracking on that whole not fancying things up rule, but it’s a welcome addition nonetheless.
There are also tacos that have forgotten their place of origin. Chorizo makes an appearance. I hear it’s delicious, but if you want to get weird instead (of course you do), try the cecina. This ribeye jawn will no doubt catch your attention but beware, the salt and lime cure on it makes it extremely salty if you aren’t prepared and that arbol salsa does not play one single game. It’s great, but it’s intense. You’ve been warned.
There’s a “fresh catch” taco that is definitely good, but skippable if you’re trying to capitalize on the availability of really great tacos. Unless of course you’re cutting calories or don’t dig on terrestrial animals, in which case, by all means, carry on, it’s a solid fish taco.
At this point, we arrive at what is, to borrow an expression from the French, the piece de resistance—tacos al pastor. You would not be blamed for initially glancing over this seemingly ubiquitous menu item, thinking to yourself “been there, done that”; but I can assure you that chances are, you have not been there and you have not done that. Unless of course, you have, in which case you are keenly aware of the potential magnificence of a proper taco al pastor.
In most conventional restaurants, concessions are made. Even here, the cochinita, wonderful as it is, isn’t cooked underground, barbacoa-style from an actual suckling pig. Most places pass off some form of pork and pineapple as al pastor, but I’m here to tell you, if it isn’t sliced from a trompo directly onto your tortilla, it ain’t al pastor, amigo. Suffice it to say, Cinco does it right. “I don’t know anybody else that does tacos al pastor like we do,” Eddy boasts. “At least not here in Jacksonville.”
If there’s something familiar about the meat-roasting-on-a-vertical-spit visual, it’s because a wave of Lebanese immigrants who landed in Puebla in the 1930’s (as they did in Jacksonville after the fall of the Ottoman Empire) happened to bring their shawarma grills with them, creating a natural fusion of culture and cuisine that is now ever-present anywhere tacos are sold.
The al pastor is likely the best thing on the menu, but there’s a catch–it’s only available on Fridays and Saturdays until it runs out, and it always does. Building the giant cone of sliced pork is a labor-intensive activity that takes up precious space in a location where space itself runs at a premium. Before Eddy, Marco and Matt converted it into a restaurant, Taqueria Cinco was a MetroPCS store. The covered dining room and kitchen combined are smaller than even most Riverside apartments. All that is to say, be grateful for the two days a week, tacos al pastor do make an appearance and plan your week accordingly.
Vegetable-lovers will certainly appreciate the fact that the same level of hopeless devotion to authentically executing the meats is applied to Cinco’s vegetarian options. In the repollitos, roasted Brussels sprouts are glazed and given the mole treatment, making for a truly complex and beguiling taco. Do yourself a favor and try the huitlacoches before you google image search “corn smut.” Pretend you’re just eating corn and mushrooms (which you basically are) and leave it at that. The nopales are also great if you’re trying to fill up on veggie tacos, but they’re probably the bottom of my list.
For those thinking outside the tortilla, there are several paths to take. The ever-present esquites, or Mexican street corn salad, makes an appearance as do variations on the taco such as huaraches, a tortilla-esque fried masa base topped with refried black beans, your choice of meat or veggies, Oaxacan cheese, and drizzled with tangy crema; as well as tostadas and quesadillas.
If I’m being honest, I only ever found Downtown’s Burrito Gallery to be pretty OK. In its heyday, it was a fun place to be, thanks to the energy and sense of community Eddy and Marco brought to the space. With Cinco, they’ve dialed in their formula, bringing truly exceptional food and a welcoming vibe to an otherwise sleepy part of the block.
Tacos over burritos all day!
This Bold Bites column originally appeared in Void Magazine’s December 2019 issue.