But as you already know, savvy reader, fancy degrees don't matter much in the real world; nor do they make me a “flavor expert.” Food sense comes from something deeper and far more accessible: experience, hitting the streets while keeping eye, ear, nose and mind open to new sights, smells and textures. Of equal importance? A little something I like to call... heart.
Heart may well be the single-most underrated ingredient in gustatory satisfaction. Just ask any barbeque pit master, or Napoli pizza maestro. Or that slender Japanese guy who wins all the Nathan’s Coney Island hotdog-eating contests.
Restaurants can have heart too, and every so often we happen across a spot with a sandwich so full of love it's bursting at the flavor-seams. An instant classic just dying to be shared, with delicious to spare. Like, say, the torta and cemita at Ricos Tacos.
Ricos lets you know what's on the menu
Some people like to advertise and others don’t. Some restaurants—minimalist chic and low-budget alike—play coy, while others leave little to the imagination. Ricos emphatically falls in the latter camp. Only the laziest of eyes could miss one of the six signs (ranging in size from large to giant) alerting passerbys of the house special.
Restaurants that clamor so heavily for attention sometimes make me nervous, but Ricos' taco trumpets work: they seem more festive and celebratory than ostentious or needy. (Like that happy ricas carnitas to the left; even the pigs are having good times!)
And it's true. This spot has a surprisingly relaxed, welcoming vibe. It felt like a fresh breath of East L.A.: some benches out front, an open kitchen, tubs of horchata and tamarindo, flan cooling in the fridge next to Jarritos sodas, trays with grilled serrano chilies and jalepeno/carrot/onion pickles.
The menu is limited to a few Mexican "deli" classics: tacos, tostadas, huaraches, sopes, some daily specials scribbled on cardboard, and a handful of sandwiches. On first visit I went for a classic torta milaneza de pollo ($4.50), a breaded chicken cutlet served on a soft roll stuffed with refried beans, Oaxacan quesillo (a mild, unripened string cheese), avocado, lettuce, tomato, onion, jalepenos, and mayonnaise.
Porkchop Express exam. Yet several months and dozens of mexican sandwiches later, it remains by far the best. What's Ricos' secret?
Attention to detail, fine reader. Everything is fresh: the bread (soft with a pleasant chew), cheese (moist and slightly milky when melted by the cutlet), veggies (including big ripe chunks of creamy avocado), refried beans (piping hot, and dripping from the bun), and the cutlet. Oh that cutlet.
Milaneza de res (beef) tends to be even less reliable: old and tough. But at Ricos, the beef and chicken are equally, unusually, fantastically well-executed. Both are fried on a large griddle with fresh spoonfulls of oil, and added to the bread at the last second, screaming "eat me" all the while. The portion is generous enough to make you feel special, yet not so outrageous that it overwhelms the other ingredients.
Cemita (above), however, can't claim dual citizenship. A market-stall favorite from Ricos' own Puebla state in Mexico, this sandwich differs in three ways: 1) the bread used (a broader, darker, crustier, slightly sweet sesame seed roll); 2) whole chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (which give it a robust smokey, spicey taste); and papalo leaves (from the Aztec word for butterfly, a round-leafed herb that tastes like a frisky, minty, slightly citric cilantro).
As you can see, Ricos' Cemita ($6.00) is as much a looker as their Torta. Both babies got back. And both use great rolls from the same neighborhood bakery (Conchita's), so the bread is a wash. I like the Cemita's use of chipotle, and the papalo strikes a chord of authenticity. But the torta has a tad less going on, and sometimes simplicity works best. Whatever you decide, this is hardly a stressful call: you just can't go wrong with either.
While you're here, try a taco too. At $1 each, they go great with three homeade table salsas (red chilie, spicy tomatillo, and smooth guacamole) and a refreshing cinnamon-speckled horchata. The al pastor (spit-grilled pork) is tender and tasty. The carnitas, fried pork pieces that mix crispy skin with tender chunks, has big pig flavor and goes well with a twist of lime. The pollo, a poached chicken version, is surprisingly light and refreshing, especially when topped with tomatillo. Less appealing was the carne asada, whose good charred steak flavor was marred by too much fat, and the cueritos which was, quite literally, blobs of blubbery pigskin dotted with tiny pork-straggler bits (reverse the proportions and they've got a winner). The only real stinker here is the flan, which they make from a very artificial-tasting mix. Better to try your luck at one of the bakeries on 5th Avenue, should you desire something sweet.
I really can't recommend a place more highly. Ricos price-to-flavor quotient is unbeatable, and these sandwiches are as addictive as Marlboros but taste way, way, way, way better. And for around $5.00, you can afford to fiend. Welcome to flavor country, good reader... it's mighty delicious!
Ricos Tacos y Antojitos Mexicanos
505 51st Street (at 5th Avenue)
Sunset Park, Brooklyn, NY 11220 (718) 633-4816