The first place I ate when I moved to Jersey City was Taqueria, so it’s fitting that I’d come back for my first bit of pithy commentary.
For visitors, new residents, or anyone who can’t decide where to eat dinner on a given night, Taqueria is typically one of the first spots in the mix for your next meal. For those who haven’t been, Taqueria is the California Mexican style “hole-in-the-wall” on the corner of Grove and Grand that will reliably satiate you and your dining companion.
At its best, its a no-frills booze-driven crowd-pleaser that can edify your compound-adjectiving ass as the star of your normcore Mommy Meetup. At its worst, you’re experiencing an existential crisis from waves of loathsome indifference that endlessly radiate from their hostesses, or being chastised by the waitstaff in front of your boys from South Jersey for requesting more information on their fajita policy.
Yes, Fajitas, the worst of all the Old Testament plagues unleashed by a vengeful god on the people of Egypt. Death rides a sizzling cast iron plate, releasing a terrible odor of grilled meats and vegetables on unsuspecting diners.
Taqueria has crafted this strawman from the most inoffensive dish since spaghetti and meatballs, to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. Thankfully, we have Taqueria’s Los Diez Mandamientos, or Ten Commandments, to save us. I’m not making this name up to fortify my biblical analogy, this is actually what these pretentious fucks call it.
In their rendition of Exodus, Taqueria fancies itself Moses and we the lost children of Israel. To ensure we make it to the Promised Land, they’ve made a point to devote three of these commandments to fajitas. It used to be only two commandments, but they had to cut the “thou shall not serve guacamole” commandment due to the fact that thou now serves fucking guacamole. Because that’s how commandments work.
Exodus 9:5 “Let my people go. If not, the plates shall sizzle”
I like fajitas, but I can live without them. I don’t mind the fact that Taqueria doesn’t have fajitas. They don’t have coffee at brunch either which is Alex Jones level insane, but again, to each their own. What I do have a problem with is how boastful they are about the things they purposefully don’t do as if its a sign of their integrity or the quality of the item in question. I can get a “pillow-sized burrito” from one of the thousands of high-quality food trucks from L.A. up to the Mission that will make me forget about ever eating at Taqueria and their version of Sharia Law. Are they less traditional California Mexican than Taqueria? Because of this hypocrisy it’s hard to find an angle that Taqueria takes that is anything but antagonistic towards its customers.
The real problem is that the quality of their food does not warrant the degree of pretentiousness and antagonism they gleefully exude. You can treat me like shit if the meal is 🔥🔥🔥 but if not sit down, be humble. Taqueria Viva offers a product that is better, cheaper, and without any of the unneeded attitude or kitsch that you find on Grove St. Despite this, the line to get tacos on any given night is still out the door, and IMO completely undeserved.
To be completely fucking crystal, Taqueria’s food is NOT bad, it’s JUST good and doesn’t live up to the hype surrounding it. So I think we need to re-evaluate where we place Taqueria in the hierarchy of JC’s beloved establishments to make room for someone who wants to be there.
Its hard for me to remain totally unbiased when writing about Taqueria because I’ve had a lot of good times there. I have friends who’ve worked there and they did their job well. Improving your experience requires some effort on your end, which means coming at 3pm instead of 8pm. The drinks tend to be stronger. The food comes out faster. When I do, I pay more attention to the people around me enjoying themselves rather than notice that the title screen to ENDLESS SUMMER II has been burned into the TV screens. I can sit at an almost empty bar and choke down frosty Mexican lagers and indulge in one of the best mouthfuls of food in JC.
Enter the Chorizo Quesadilla. It’s not revolutionary. Its not unique to Taqueria. It’s not as pure and traditional as some other items, which is ironic considering Taq’s turgid boner for authenticity, but they do this one thing so well.
There isn’t anything else on the menu that I think about more often and randomly crave than this. The two flour tortillas are conservatively filled with cheese and chorizo, then cooked til golden and melted on the flat top. It’s a common mistake to overfill your quesadilla with ingredients or to use a stroke-inducing amount of cheese. It results in a mouthful of hot goo (not kink-shaming) and completely dulls your palate. Taqueria uses restraint here. The result is a bite with equal parts chorizo, cheese, and tortilla which allows for each individual ingredient to shine together. The quesadilla is served with what I think is a salad, but is really just shredded lettuce tossed in some combination of mild Mexican cheeses. The single best bite on this plate, and one of the best bites in JC, is this fucked up lettuce mixture on top of an end piece of quesadilla, allowing the sharpness of the cheese and cool crispness of the lettuce to cut through the warm and heavy chorizo filling.
For tacos, the most notable is the carnitas, which opts to let the shredded pork speak for itself rather than kill it with oranges and Mexican oregano. Taqueria’s version of carnitas speaks to me in a way that good southeastern pulled pork does. Its moist, utilizing its own juices and very restrained seasoning, and incorporates the fat and skin.
The barbacoa is good and harnesses a lot of the gamey lamb flavor that turns many off. I am not one of those “people” if that’s what you’d like to call them. It does run a bit dry though. The beef options are meh. I typically opt for the cabeza, which is beef head, though I doubt its the delicious cheeks and probably something….else. Or I’ll get the cecina, which is a salt-cured lean beef and resembles the type of protien you’d find served as A FUCKING FAJITA. Its like if you reconstituted beef jerky and put it into a taco.
Barbacoa (right) Cecina (left)
I had the fish a few times and it was always whack despite good reviews. A flavorless whitefish, probably in the tilapia family but lower on the food chain, seasoned with saltwater and a perfunctory sear.
I’ve never had the cactus despite hearing good things.
The soup is definitely underrated. With the amount of deep-throating that happens with this place, I always find it odd that the soup rarely gets mentioned. The soup is worth it and you should try any variety they offer.
The rest of the menu is decent, if forgettable. Tamales verdes, torta milanesa, flautas, all ok, but nothing you should suffer through the service for.
The greatest contribution Taqueria has given us is the feisty little booze pen on their front porch. The small enclosure, about twice the size of an affordable studio downtown, allows you to drink on the streets and make the hour long wait for tacos bearable and beer-able. It’s the only place I know in JC to do this without explicitly being for dining purposes. Fuck yes. This is the type of innovation that makes up for a pretty stagnant menu since the Bush administration.
The purpose of this piece, much like most of the pieces that I will write (note to self: write pieces), is not to simply review a place. Taste is subjective, and it will take the average reader 15 articles to determine if I know what the fuck I’m talking about. What I want to examine is how we value our scene.
Taqueria was doing its thing when eaters in JC had limited options and is still resting on its laurels. While its commendable that they’ve been able to stay around for this long, we should probably remove them from the pantheon of Jersey City restaurants. We should think of Taqueria more as a taqueria and less as THE Taqueria, if that makes any fucking sense at all.
You, the consumer, have options that don’t involve being made to feel like a fucking idiot for not wanting to have onions on your taco. Go to Taqueria Viva on Morris, or Mi Mariachi on Sip. They will gladly provide you with better food and service for less money. Orale, which is criminally unrepresented in this article, has an amazing brunch and actually serves coffee. Eat at one of the taco trucks, especially the Taqueria Gardenias truck frequently found on Communipaw. You might even be able to catch a frosty beverage if your a regular. Anywhere but Gringos.
Your dollars speak. So speak with conviction.
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