Foodie on a Budget: Lunchtime in Chelsea

After months of building a new interface and enhancing our database, we finally got a chance to take Outseeker for a test drive and see how much smarter it is now. The intention of the new layout is to make it easier to compare the choices Outseeker presents. From the office here in Chelsea, NYC I ran a search for Foodie on a Budget to see what we would get. 

The answer, my friends, estimated at $15/person and only about half a mile away: Los Tacos No. 1

This tiny outpost buried in the middle of busy Chelsea Market was Outseeker's top choice for me. I was legit impressed at how well Outseeker balanced my preferences when it presented me with this choice. There were other restaurants that were closer or that had higher ratings, but they were also more expensive or further away. After looking at the other options, thinking carefully about price and distance, I took Outseeker's top recommendation. 

Being that it was a nice enough day out, I walked down from 26th Street to Chelsea Market. Now, most New Yorkers I talk to write off tourist traps like Chelsea Market, but I have to tell you, it is hands-down one of my favorite foodie spots. Friedman's, Mokbar, The Filling Station, Cull & Pistol, Buon Italia, and the list goes on... I think that people that live in the neighborhood, foodies, and a select group of native NYers (or long time residents, don't get salty, friends) know that if you can make it here (in off-hours) that it is a haven of culinary delight.

To avoid the hordes of local office folk swarming in for their desk-side delights, I waited until 2 pm, of course. Generally speaking, when Chelsea Market is full of people it is much like being in Times Square where a NYer is confronted with suddenly-stopping-tourists confused about where they are going, or maybe they have nowhere specific to go so they walk  r e a l l y  s l o w l y. Another thing to watch out for is that some of these eateries are tiny, so when it's busy it can feel like Grand Central at rush hour.

My decision to avoid all of this proved worthwhile, because I just walked up to the counter and read from a very simple menu board. It offered just four tacos to choose from, with the usual suspects of chicken, beef, or pork, but it also offers nopal (aka cactus) which I was pleased to see. They have some quesadillas and mulas, too, including what sounds like the most heavenly Mexican version of a mozzarella stick: a fried quesadilla. Mmmm... next time, maybe. 

The cashier cheerfully greeted me and I ordered beef, chicken, and nopal tacos. She handed me a little ticket which I was to deliver to the taco man behind the counter. The taco man yells into the air, "Next ticket please," even though he was speaking to me. I reach between two people completely consumed with the enjoyment of their own tacos and hand the man my ticket. He asks if I would like flour or corn tortillas, which sent me into a  slight panic because I wanted both, but I just blurted out, "Corn, please." He asked if I wanted "everything" which turns out to be cilantro, diced onion, and guacamole. I said yes because I didn't know what it meant and I was curious. He starts making my tacos and shift my focus between him and the woman dutifully pressing tortillas in the background

Abobada Taco

While this setup is slightly awkward, I think the chaos of it is part of the intrigue. It's literally the least pretentious place I've eaten in a very long time. On the counter are a selection of fresh salsas you can add to your meal, as well as fresh slices of lime, and pic de gallo. I'm a fan of just trying out food as it was intended before I mess with it. However, I did want to taste these salsas, so I splashed a small dollop of the hot one onto one of my tacos. Then, I ate. 

If I have learned anything about food in the years I have been in the business it is this: subjectivity really matters. Your 'favorite' place to get whatever that 'best' dish is may have little to do with how good the food actually is. It's like, everyone's mother makes the best meatballs, right? Tacos are one of those foods that elicit riotous debates about where 'the best' come from. Some would argue that you can't even get a mediocre taco in NY, but those folks hail from SoCal. Angelenos argue that their tacos are better than San Diego's. Mexico has its own opinion.

I've been lucky enough to have eaten tacos in all of those famous epicenters of authentic Mexican food. In my humble, subjective albeit well informed opinion, these tacos in Chelsea Market were very good, The textures were naturally balanced, the meat was flavorful, the tortillas had literally been pressed in front of me, and the experience of ordering and watching them make it added a little je ne sais quoi; The salsas were flavorful and not just spicy, which is always important. My first three tacos were so good, in fact, I went in for a fourth and wanted to taste the horchata. 

My fourth taco was the 'adobada' which is a sort of 'al pastor' where the meat is sliced from a spit and made from pork. It was served with two little slivers of pineapple and was my favorite, I think. The meat just has so much flavor and seasoning, and I added a little of the salsa to it just to kick it up. Along with this totally gluttonous fourth taco was my horchata.

Horchata is, like tacos, is one of those things that everyone has an opinion, but I think that there is less diversity here. It is made in different ways throughout Central and South America despite it's Spanish origins. It's one of those regional things that depending on where you go, you can expect someone to say, "No, no. This is the real stuff." I am primarily familiar with the Mexican recipe of this drink, always made with rice, water, and cinnamon, and often with almond and vanilla. My preference is without the almond.

What makes horchata so delicious is that it's sweet and richly textured. When consuming a fair amount of spice, it's a nice way to tame the fire. Like anything that is time consuming to make properly, there are cheapy-versions out there — like lemonade made from Crystal Lite packets... it's just not the same! With horchata, the indication of authenticity that I look for is the gritty texture of the rice... which was decidedly absent in my cup. I was left with the flavor essence of horchata without the textural experience I was looking for. Of course, this could be because they made it from a powder to save time/money OR because they strained it through a fine cheese cloth or something to remove the rice bits. Either way, it doesn't matter to me because I like the richer texture of the unfiltered stuff.

Horchata aside, this is now in my rotation of great places to eat in this neighborhood whether I'm feeling like a good value or a good taco. Of course, there are a couple of other spots in the city that I think are delicious (Tacombi, to name one, on Elizabeth just south of Houston), but at Outseeker we often say, "it doesn't matter if the best restaurant in the world is in London and you're in midtown with 25 minutes to eat!" All in all, these guys certainly earned the right to be Outseeker's top pick based on me being a Foodie on a Budget and looking for a place nearby.

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