In light of the recent disappearance of the El Rel del Taco Truck from the corner of 33rd St. and 30th Ave., discussion boards across Astoria have been exploding with messages of grief, concern, confusion, and the ultimate question, "where has it gone, and will it ever return?"
Though I have attempted to call, and even left voicemail inquiring about the Astoria late night favorite on multiple occasions this week, I have been unable to contact anyone able to offer any answers. Although I know that this mobile concession stand of Mexican street meat could never be replaced in the hearts of the many who love it, I set out on a quest to find some of the best options to satiate your cravings while we wait for the mystery of El Rey del Taco's disappearance to be solved.
La Cocina (32-41 Steinway Street)
(718) 204 - 0241
It seems that La Cocina would be the closest approximation for those who miss their tacos on wheels. The menu and restaurant were developed by the owners of El Rey del Taco, though according to my waitress, ownership has since changed. I tried some of my favorite menu items that I once ordered from the truck, and the verdict? It definitely tastes like the same recipes... only perhaps even better.
The dining room is nothing spectacular, though clean (there's an empty food display just inside the main doorway). Though they won't satisfy your twilight cravings, they do deliver until 10pm nightly, and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
The empanada special that day were only $1 a piece, and absolutely delicious, crisp, and prepared to order. I have tried them with shrimp, chorizo, or simply cheese. They will make you an empanada with any of the fillings they offer for the tacos.
The chicken quesadilla tasted just like it did from the truck, only not quite as greasy or charred, and was even accompanied by a small salad. It was enormous and filling for $5.95.
You have to try the huaraches, a homemade grilled masa (cornmeal dough) base named for its shape similar to a sandal. It's loaded with black beans, cheese, vegetables, avocado, and your choice of meat for $6.95.
I certainly don't recall the taco truck serving up such decadent slices of flan to satisfy my sweet tooth cravings.
Although my server was not particularly forthcoming about the change in ownership, she has been extremely friendly, quick, and offered great suggestions for my friends and I on every occasion I have been.
Blue Restaurant (40-09 30th Ave.)
(718) 832 - 0996
You know that little hole in the wall diner you walk by almost every day on the way to the subway, yet have never even once contemplated stopping in? The one with the storefront that indicates nothing special inside, and would probably just be a waste of time? Well, that's what I thought about Blue Restaurant, until I discovered their secret menu in my quest for an interim Taco Truck.
That's right... though you will be presented with a full-blown diner menu with everything from omelettes to panini to pasta, make sure you ask your server to see the Taco Menu. She'll probably just smile that you even knew to ask, and quickly show you the list of the real deals offered within.
For $6, you get four of these titan toothpicks, crispy fried tortillas stuffed with either chicken or cheese (we enjoyed a mix of two of each)
The tacos are the very best deal I have found so far in Astoria... only $1.50 each.
Since each tiny wrap comes with a double tortilla, we ordered a sampler, and then simply split the topping into extra tortillas (yup, that's six tacos for 75 cents each!)
The cemitas were delicious, especially the milanesa de bistec... a traditional sandwich from the city of Puebla, distinct from a torta in that it is served on a sesame seed roll. The milanesa features a thinly-pounded, deep-fried piece of beef, with avocado, cheese, chipotle, and papalo (also known as summer cilantro).
San Antonio Bakery #2 (36-20 Astoria Blvd.)
When you need something besides a taco, you can never go wrong with Astoria's favorite Chilean hot dog from San Antonio Bakery.
Served on its own little stand, the Completo is a juicy, all beef frank, loaded with every fixin' imaginable (sauerkraut, diced tomato, avocado puree, and mayonnaise), served on a sweet, fresh, homemade bun. This hot dog definitely makes a delicious little meal.
If a frank isn't your thing, their most popular sandwich is the churrasco. Nestled in their delicious fresh bun are the same toppings as the completo hot dog, only served on grilled skirt steak instead.
Since it is a bakery, after all, we had to sample a few of the desserts. This dulce de leche treat is a gooey layer of several thin pancakes with a caramel sauce between each.
Wash it all down with a can of Chilean soda, Pap. It almost tasted like a fizzy, blood-orange Fanta... delicious!
Tamales Deli & Bakery (25-22 30th Ave.)
(718) 726 - 4180
If you want to smile the rest of the afternoon, stop by this bakery just as school is letting out in the afternoon. Children grab aluminum trays and tongs and jump over each other selecting their favorite after school baked treats.
Pan Dulce is a traditional Mexican sweet bread, and for 66-cents, not much else could taste better than this sweet, fluffy loaf of deliciousness about the size of a large grapefruit. The inside reminded me of a sweet, flaky croissant.
The best secret here, though, is when you step past the bakery into the hidden dining room, always packed with Hispanic patrons devouring the delicious fare and watching soccer on the small t.v. perched on the soda fridge.
Ask which tamales were most recently steamed. For $1.25, I enjoyed a delicious cheese tamale, one of the most moist and savory I have ever ordered. The tables around me had platters with as many as ten piled up.
The alambres taco (steak & pork) was delicious, but at $3.00 cost twice as much as the ones at Blue.
My favorite dish was the fried quesadillas... you get three for $7, and can order any combination. I recommend all three I tried: huitlacoche (a type of mushroom that grows on corn), pumpkin flower, and cheese.
If you want a full meal, and a sample of some of the house favorites, go for the plato hildalgo (goat barbecue, deep fried pork, a chicken enchilada rojas, rice, beans, and a basket of warm tortillas) for $14.
The special comes with a house salad, which I substituted for a particularly delicious and tangy cactus salad instead. The cactus meat had been grilled to a tender consistency that almost reminded me of sauteed cucumber, but with a nice piquant kick unlike anything I've ever tried... definitely something I will order again.
El Athens Grill (30-11 30th Ave.)
(718) 777 - 5366
Just a few steps away from the 30th Avenue station on the N/W line sits an unassuming, tiny storefront with just a single ordering window. Inside, you will find what many fanatics claim to be some of the most authentic Mexican cuisine around.
There was a definite language barrier, but with my limited Spanish and the extremely friendly waitress, we pointed around the menu until I found what she confirmed would be delicious.
While they offer several traditional sodas, I couldn't pass the chance to try an imported Coca-Cola, made with all-cane sugar.
The tacos, loaded with pickled cactus, onions, radishes, and meat grilled to order, were delicious for only $1.75 each.
The thing that will bring me back to this little Greek-owned-and-named Mexican gem, however, is the carne enchilada torta (spicy pork sandwich). From the fluffy bread, to the thin layer of beans, to the jalapenos and guacamole, this wins the prize for my favorite pork sandwich... ever... ($6)