What A Taco, located on 86 street and 4th avenue, seems to be the poor, little restaurant that could: confronted with hurdle after hurdle, each one greater than the last and seemingly insurmountable.
First, the odd name. Without punctuation, the name instantly became the butt of jokes among locals, confused as to how to correctly state the name.
There was the befuddled question and enthusiastic response:
“What?” “A Taco!”
“What a taco?”
And of course, the paranoid, partially deaf yenta”
“WHAT?!?!?!?! A TACO?!!!!!!!!”
The opening weeks experienced multiple hiccups, with wildly inconsistent quality and customer service. The first time I placed a GrubHub order, I received a call ten minutes later telling me they were out of hard taco shells.
It took me a while to give them a second chance after that.
A few months later, Chipotle opened down the street to lines out the door and down the street, something that is virtually unheard to to Bay Ridge small businesses. Shortly afterwards, What A Taco’s windows were papered over, with a sign that they were closed for vacation. Locals assumed they were gone for good.
Then it was learned they were actually closed by the Department of Health for a plumbing issue, but vowed to return. No one believed it would happen, yet a few weeks later, there they were, doors wide open, slinging tacos to the masses waiting for the bus to Staten Island. What a Taco lived!
Then The Church of Addictive, Craptastic Stoner Food, d/b/a Taco Bell, opened directly across the street. Surely, this was the end.
Poor What A Taco.
Yet, despite all the adversity, What A Taco still stands. Even more amazing, I began hearing rumblings about how amazing this place was. A foodie friend visited me from Manhattan and insisted we go there so she could bring back a few pints of salsa to take home. Another friend said that their teenage clerk began bringing it in after school – the low price point has made it a favorite of the high school crowd – and now it’s become the regular lunch order for their entire office.
This warranted a return visit. Not only were the rumors true, but they exceeded all expectations.
First up was a chicken hard taco with grilled scallions and salsa verde. I have not been to a taco spot- chain or otherwise- that has has chicken this good. They use the thighs, the most flavorful part of a chicken, and then slow braise it until it is gloriously, fall apart tender.
Next was a carnitas taco with griddled corn and salsa roja. While good, the tortillas were a bit thick for my taste, making me wish I had stuck to the hard shell which proved to be a winner. The salsa made this, with a fresh, smoky heat and intense pepper flavor.
Total bill for these two tacos: $4 plus tax. Far less than Chipotle, and even less than Taco Bell, where quality ingredients are pushed aside in the pursuit of being as XXXtreme as possible.
While satiated, I found the tacos too cheap and irresistible to leave without trying one more. This time, I opted for the barbacoa – braised beef – with shredded cheese. I attempted to stump the house by asking what kind of beef they were using in their tacos. Without flinching, the man at the griddle turned around and told me that the barbacoa was a braised top round. The steak was thinly sliced sirloin. This place knows what they’re doing.
In the weeks since, when I’m looking for cheap fast food, I walk straight past the endless corridor of chain options on 86th right up to What A Taco, where five bucks will not only fill you up, but make you feel like someone cooked something special just for you. The little taqueria that could still stands, and Bay Ridge is a better place for it.
What A Taco is located at 8612 4th Avenue. Delivery available on Seamless and GrubHub. (718) 745-8226