Cast Blog: #TOPCHEF

Top Taco

Restaurant critic Andrea Strong offers her picks for the best tacos in New York City.

I think most of us felt that last week's removal of Valerie was the wrong call; in my mind, it should've been Nikki, and those heinous turd-like cheese-smothered mushrooms, who got the boot. This week I was also at odds with the judges' decision. Zoi should have gone home, not Erik. Here's a guy who executed a perfect corn dog, but had it suffer from the elements. Sure, he could've predicted that they might get soggy, but that's not as grievous an error as screwing up something as simple as pasta salad. No, her pasta salad was not in danger of damage from the elements, but it was lousy from the get-go. As mush as I like Zoe, she should've been asked to pack her knives and go. Pasta salad is fairly elementary and its mastery relies on basics of cooking -- cooking pasta properly, adding some fun extras (veggies, cheese, olives, what have you), and seasoning it right. Her failure to execute such a simple task should've sent her packing, not Erik.

gail_403_03_320x240.jpg

I was also at odds with the judges with their overall decision about the winning team. If I were at a block party, I would've rather had sliders, BBQ, and s'mores on a stick than rice pilaf, a mac 'n' cheese "brick" (according to the judges), and fruit salad. It's hard to judge food on a TV set from a couch, and while I do trust the judge's palates, still this decision seemed off. In any case, the Elimination Challenge provided yet another fantastic opportunity to observe Andrew's feisty and feral personality. When his team was faced with the reality that they were the losers, it seemed he was ready to tackle our Tommy. Padma would've protected him, I'm sure. It was intense. It's obvious that the Quote of the Show this week (once again) goes to Andrew for his Red Team battle cry: "You gonna have to drag me outta here with security guards. I ain't going anywhere. This is my house!" I was surprised the producers didn't cue Eminem's 8 Mile.

guest_403_07_320x240.jpg

Another surprise for me last night was the Quickfire Challenge. How sad did Manuel look when Bayless didn't even call his out as one of the best. The guy is executive chef of a fine dining mexican restaurant in New York City. Ouch!

Then again, the chefs weren't really paying attention to the challenge -- to make an upscale taco. They sort of snubbed that directive and paid for that in the end with losing dishes. Erik's response to Bayless, that he could go screw himself was a bit harsh considering that Erik blatantly decided to ignore the rules of the challenge.
Then again, I do agree that tacos are not for fine dining, they're for fast dining. They're meant to be eaten standing up, with spicy fixin's dripping down your chin, not off of tables for two layered with Frette linens and set with Bernardaud China. Here in New York, some of my favorite taco places aren't even restaurants, they're taco carts. Here are two of my favorites. Check them out next time you're in the city:

Super Taco, corner of 96th and Broadway. Hours: 6pm-2am Monday-Thursday, Friday until 3am; Saturday and Sunday noon-2am
This sleek silver taco truck is more of a taco mobile home, coming in at over double the size of your average taco cart and boasting a fancy bilingual menu offering a dozen types of tacos ($2 each), plus tortas (Mexican sandwiches), and daily specials (mole on Monday, pozole on Sunday). Behind a wide pass adorned with salsas and juicy fresh cut limes, a man in a straw cowboy hat takes your order. In seconds, he serves up the tacos that have made this truck a destination for the past 12 years. The carne enchilada is terrific -- a mess of barbecued spiced pork tucked into a pair of warm griddled corn tortillas. The Al Pastor was also a favorite -- diced bits of pork tossed with onions and nuggets of sweet pineapple. Chicken and steak tend toward the ordinary, but they can be transformed with a few spoonfuls of salsa verde (a picante green sauce), a couple of dots of chipotle salsa (a smoky jolt that gets your attention quick), and a squeeze of a fresh wedge of lime. The best part is that if you can't get to the taco truck, they'll come to you. This truck even delivers ($10 minimum). Told you it was super.


El Vagabundo, 41st Street and Queens Blvd., Sunnyside, 347-276-4522. Hours: 7 days, 7pm-4am.
I discovered the tacos at El Vagabundo a few years ago when heading to a dinner party of a vegetarian friend. Knowing that I'd be picking through soy and tofu all night long, I made a pit stop to fortify myself with carnitas and carne asada before the fields of green. And am I glad I did. In my estimation, this is the best taco truck in the city. (Yes, I saved the best for last.)

El Vagabundo, a beveled silver truck in Sunnyside, offers perfection with the most simple of tacos. Even the pedestrian chicken is moist and juicy and slammed with flavor. The spicy crumbled chorizo is also fabulous, as is the al pastor -- hunks of saucy hot pork (Try the mixed taco to get them all in one; all tacos are $2). Aside from the perfect proteins, the toppings here could stand alone. There's fresh crisp shredded lettuce, loads of cilantro diced up with onions, slices of red radish, wedges of lime, a ladle of avocado salsa, a few squeezes of crema, and two kinds of hot sauce (green and red), in addition to extra freebies from Raul, the taco man to know. In between smiling and waving to neighbors walking dogs and heading home from the subway, he hands out little plates of tri-colored pickled jalapeños, extra tastes of tongue or beef or whatever taco meat you haven't chosen, and if he senses you like it hot, he'll hand you a few fresh Thai bird chiles to really bring home the heat. If Bayless had faced off with Raul in a street food taco challenge, I think he'd have a hard time beating him. Hey, it might be fun to find out. Hint, hint.