Despite high-end chefs trying to make tacos haute, you’ll never do better than a no-frills taco coming from one of NYC’s countless delis, bodegas, and hole-in-the-wall joints. You don’t have to do much to elevate the simple Mexican staple: Just a few simple toppings, a drizzle of salsa, and a lime squeeze are all you need to make a complete bite. These Mexican meccas deserve your undivided attention before becoming a blip on everyone else’s radar. (P.S. Don’t forget to pack the Tums.)
Taqueria San Pedro in Hamilton Heights
Hamilton Heights has become an uptown hot spot in recent years due to the influx of hybrid destinations like ramen-cocktail shop ROKC, the globe-spanning PEQUE Vinos + Tapas, and a Mexican eatery owned by Alex Trebek’s son. On the outskirts from the trendy hustle and bustle, however, is this inconspicuous bodega specializing in delicious no-frills fare. Take a seat by the female-oriented, hand-painted murals in the connected dining room and spend some of that pocket change on loaded tacos overflowing with barbacoa, cecina, or oreja; the rest can go toward an ice-cold bottle of Pacifico.
Taqueria Coatzingo in Jackson Heights
This should be a mandatory stop if you’re going on a late-night journey along the 7 line (it’s open until 3 a.m.). On the main drag of the chronically busy Roosevelt Avenue is Coatzingo’s vivid enclave—fluorescent lime green walls, a multicolored neon “Tacos” sign with ’90s-era font, a large mural honoring Guadalupe—serving radical takes on the hands-on comfort food. Peeping out of parchment paper and loosely rolled into tortillas are quintessential Mexican flavors like tripe, lengua al vapor (steamed beef tongue), and al pastor, slathered in a heavy-handed serving of complimentary guac. Pair your taco-filled plate with a spicy michelada to complete your cheap Queens feast.
Tacos Morelos in the East Village
This Jackson Heights transplant may have stepped into the limelight courtesy of Aziz Ansari and Master of None, but it hasn’t let fame go to its head. Presented with a trio of salsas (habañero, chile de árbol, and tomatillo), each traditional bite is more layered than the next thanks to supporting players like shredded cilantro, tame guacamole, and a sprinkling of diced white onions on top. Stick with specialty fillings such as cochinita pibil (barbecued pork) and crispy carnitas inside a house-made tortilla if you’re looking to eat tacos that stay true to their humble roots. Note: The compact space seats only 12, so a short expedition to the eatery’s cart on East 2nd Street and Avenue A—or a longer one to its truck (steps from the Bedford L train stop)—might be your best bet if you’re not one for waiting.
Los Portales in Astoria
In a neighborhood prominently known for gyro-filled pitas and shish kebabs, whiffs of chorizo and spit-roasted al pastor reign supreme at this unassuming escape a few blocks from the elevated N/Q line. Out of every taqueria mentioned here, this Astoria one serves the cheapest ($1.75 each), smallest (about the size of a silver dollar pancake), and most colorful mouthfuls (accompaniments include cilantro, cambray onions, and vivid radishes). The miniature handfuls give you an excuse to sample several (or, let’s be real, all) of them; I recommend doubling down on the lengua (beef tongue) and suadero (veal flank) for something a little out of the ordinary.
Quesadillas Doña Maty in East Harlem
If you’re looking for some street tacos straight from the border, look no further than this nook on East 116th. Perched behind the colorful patio grill is a tiny woman slinging double-down corn tortillas overflowing with shredded iceberg, crema, and queso fresco, which helps to tone down the heat radiating from the spicy carne enchilada (chopped pork marinated in chile sauce). Grab a bunch of napkins and pop a squat on the sidewalk benches directly adjacent. Thirsty? Serve yourself a cup of horchata from one of the porch’s sizable plastic jugs.
Taco Rey de Oro in Woodside
No cheap taco crawl would be complete without a tried-and-true food truck, right? This one parks underneath the aboveground 52nd Street stop off the 7, which is both convenient for graveyard-shifters and a tasty nuisance for dieting nine-to-fivers. Load up on travel-friendly fare like chicken, chorizo, and cecina…or just get a hearty serving of them all in a mixto taco. A smattering of chopped cilantro and white onion add enough flavor, but you’re going to want to douse your handheld meal with a bit of hot sauce; the lingering heat is worth the initial burn.
Zaragoza in the East Village
If the wall of imported hard-to-find spices and a rainbow of hot sauce bottles don’t help indicate where you are, the register girl presenting a slow cooker full of stewed meats surely will. The interior of this grocery may be small (the hanging paper decorations and a proudly displayed Mexican flag close in the space a tad), but defined bites like gamey goat and chipotle-tinted pork are big enough to fill the municipality the bodega is named after. As an added bonus, a wide range of Jarritos is available at arm’s distance, literally—the beverage fridge is approximately three feet from your table.