THE BITE: Twenty-twelve has to be the year the Mexican restaurant established itself in Sheepshead Bay. We’ve seen the opening of El Mexicano Restaurant, and the soon to be open Jumpin’ Bean on Emmons Avenue, as they join La Villita as part of the smattering of Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood. I’ve also noticed a few Mexican food booths popping up in the various groceries and doughnut shops of Avenue U. I endorse this trend.
Tacos El Rey, while not quite in the neighborhood, and not quite new, is probably the granddaddy of them all. Located at 3168 Coney Island Avenue, this nondescript hole-in-the-wall has been quietly serving up authentic Mexican food for more than 10 years.
While Tacos El Ray serves up authentic Mexican food, that doesn’t mean that the menu is out of reach for us gringos. Let’s take a look at what they do with a burrito, one of Mexico’s greatest food treats that has been Americanized as a “wrap,” and finally accepted by middle America when McDonald’s opened its chain of Chipotle restaurants in 1993.
A true Mexican burrito is a simple affair; a flour tortila is wrapped around a mixture of beans, rice and a bit of meat. But, the burrito that most of us Americans are familiar with is the “Mission-Style” burrito that was popularized in the Mission district of San Francisco during the 1960s. The owners of “La Cumbre” Taqueria took the burrito and super-sized it. Adding rice, guacamole, all sorts of meats and vegetables, including potatoes and even fish, La Cumbre played down the simple peasant food and created a massive roll that would appeal to most Americans and starving college students alike.
Tacos El Rey, offers burritos of two sizes: “medianos” (medium) $7.00 and the grande (large) $9.00. Frankly, both are very large and could easily make a meal for two. The burrito is offered with a choice of fillings: Tinga De Pollo (shredded white-meat chicken and tomato sauce with chipotle chile), Carnitas (shredded pork shoulder slow-cooked with a few mild spices), Carne Asada (marinated and grilled beef), Vegetariano (vegetarian version - who really cares what’s in it?), Al Pastor (crisp-thin shavings of roasted pork that are marinated with guajillo chiles and achiote), Lengua (beef tongue), Camaron (shrimp), Cecina (dried beef that has been salted and marinated, much like beef jerky) and Carne Enchilada (pork seasoned with chili peppers). If you’re in the mood for the shrimp, the price of a medianos rises to $10.00 and the grande to $11.00.
The burrito is served alongside a healthy portion of an amazingly fresh pico de gallo and topped with a line of guacamole and sour cream. I ordered the burrito de carne enchilada which was overstuffed with rice, shredded iceberg lettuce, some nicely seasoned pinto beans, the surprisingly spicy carne echilada, tomatoes, and more guacamole.
This burrito is what Chipotle aspires to. With its simple and clean flavors, I can understand why the burrito craze conquered the fast food scene of America decades ago.
If you visit Tacos El Rey – be aware – it’s cash only. And the service is slow. Be prepared for a leisurely meal as our lunch took over two hours in an almost empty restaurant.
Tacos El Rey, 3168 Coney Island Avenue (at Brighton Beach Avenue), (718) 769-0116.
The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.