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Is Esse Taco Worth All the Hype?


Photo: Natalie Black

I was already on my way to Esse Taco — standing on a crammed L train to Bedford Avenue — when I saw that a friend had posted an Instagram Story of the line outside: dozens of people stretched down North 5th Street ahead of the 5 p.m. opening. This is because the taquería comes from Enrique Olvera, the chef behind Cosme and Atla in New York and Pujol in Mexico City. The chance to get some $6 tacos from a chef whom the culinary world holds in such high esteem is a predictably big draw; the trade-offs come at the expense of comfort. Esse is Olvera in full fast-casual mode: chairless with scattered metal barrels to stand over and a touchscreen ordering system.

When I arrived at 7:30 p.m., it looked like the opening of a local bank branch with Mylar balloons and people spilling out through the French doors onto the sidewalk. There were only a few people waiting to use the order kiosks, but a manager nevertheless warned me it would take “about 40 minutes” to get my food. Her advice: “Order a drink and hang out.”

The margaritas cost $13 and are served in plastic cups. I ordered one anyway and was glad to have something to sip on while I listened to the expediter shout the same names across the full, noisy room. (What happened to “Claire”? Nobody seemed to know, but the expo gave her unclaimed tacos to the nearest waiting customers.) “Is there a Los Tacos around here?” said a guy to his friend as they assessed the situation and backed out of the entrance.

Esse offers four tacos: rib eye, pork-loin “al pastor,” chicken “poc chuc,” and smoked mushrooms. They’re $5 or $6 each, but there’s a “Todos Los Tacos” option for $20, which is what I ordered (alongside a $3.50 quesadilla). In the end, it took 20 minutes for my food to come out. All the barrels were taken, so I joined a crowd outside that had taken over four traffic barriers blocking off the street parking in front of the restaurant.

Each taco is built on a single tortilla — the corn is nixtamalized at the shop — with wide slices of whichever filling layered on top and generously salsa’d. To eat, you have to fold the protein on itself, which made my chicken taco with pickled onions feel more like a chicken-breast sandwich. Still, it was satisfying in a way. The taco architecture was less problematic with the al pastor, though the meat was a touch dry; the raw salsa verde and pineapple butter did a good job of hiding it. The steak taco seemed to benefit most from the slice treatment, preserving pockets of fat cap alongside tender meat and completed with the salsa guacachile, a creamy red sauce with habanero heat. Also successful was a porous slab of oyster mushroom, seared until brown and paired with smoky salsa tatemada.

Another salsa, red and chunky and available to spoon out of molcajetes, was simply labeled “muy picante.” It lived up to its understated warning — and it helped the otherwise-plain quesadilla that came on a flour tortilla made by an outfit called Caramelo that’s based in Kansas.

For an extra dollar, Esse serves any of its tacos on a Chihuahua-cheese-lined flour tortilla — a.k.a. “gringa style” — which I tried when I returned a couple days later. The wider tortilla and extra cheese made more sense with the hefty chicken portion that felt out of balance the first time, though I didn’t dare swap out the corn tortilla on the rib-eye taco, which benefits from the earthy masa dough to offset its richness.

On this second visit, at 9 p.m. on a Sunday, the wait for a taco was less than five minutes, and Esse Taco’s whole deal made a lot more sense to me. With the grand-opening balloons gone and the doors open to the drizzly night, it was already feeling like an established part of the neighborhood. I noticed one couple dividing responsibilities: She stayed outside with their dog while he ordered food. When the order arrived, he walked to the closest table and fed her the first bite of their taco across the threshold.

More Eating New York

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Tammie Teclemariam , 2024-05-08 14:00:14

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