Barry Frish, Matthew Conway and Brad Holtzman
To many New Yorkers, the joy of biting into a taquito (the slender, crisp-fried rolled taco beloved on the West Coast) remains a mystery. Luckily Taquitoria -- the petite-sized, street art-covered, rap-playing Lower East Side shrine to the addictive snack -- is now exposing us to its crunchy bliss. A collaboration between Matthew Conway, general manager and sommelier at Marc Forgione, along with former Forgione chef de cuisine Barry Frish and hospitality manager Brad Holtzman, Taquitoria puts the spotlight on this affordable San Diego-inspired alternative to late-night slices of congealed pizza. Here they talk about the ever-controversial definition of "taquito," being mistaken for an all-night tattoo parlor and missing seasonal menus.
So, you guys make taquitos. What is the origin of such a particular culinary concept?
Barry: I left Marc Forgione, amicably, after three and a half years. A couple of days later, Matthew and I were out to dinner. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I told him I thought I wanted to get out of fine dining for a while. Matthew said, almost immediately, "I have this idea to bring taquitos to New York." We talked about it all through dinner and it blossomed. Later, he said "I've got the perfect person to be the face of Taquitoria: Brad." I jumped off the couch and said, "That's fucking perfect."
Matthew: Since the day I moved to New York from California I knew there was a desperate need for the type of Mexican food I was used to growing up with. At the same time there is a need for more late-night, post-bar grub. I know New York is a pizza town, but I knew other options would be welcomed with open mouths. It seemed like a no-brainer. I just needed to find the right team, which took time, but Barry and Brad are the perfect guys.
Brad and Barry, did you guys even know what a taquito was when Matthew floated this idea?
Barry: Brad and I had the same reaction: Those frozen things you get in the supermarket?
Brad: We're East Coast. We knew the José Olé brand and the Philly cheesesteak ones at 7-Eleven.
How did you get authentic intel?
Barry: So Matthew said we had to go to the taquito mecca, San Diego. We got on a plane and ate taquitos in every facet of life: breakfast, lunch, dinner, sober, hungover, wasted. We woke up to a hotel room of empty taquito containers strewn about with tallboys of Tecate.
Brad: It was the first scene of Hangover. We did legitimate NASA-level research on taquitos.
Barry: Every taquito was different. We took detailed notes and then I recipe tested.
Do you see the menu constantly changing?
Barry: The day we opened we said we were never going to change the menu, and five days later we had buffalo chicken taquitos on the menu; five days after that the Mexican Caesar came on.
Brad: We changed our tortillas last minute. We wanted high-quality, locally made ones, but they weren't right. We needed a more widely produced yellow corn tortilla that provided the best flavor and texture.
On Fridays and Saturdays you stay open until 4:30am. What kind of crowd do you get at that time?
Brad: Late-night drinkers and service industry people equally. How many shitty slices and deli sandwiches can you eat? People walk out of the bars in herds, and at 4:30am there will be a line out the door because people follow the first person to come here. People have asked us for a slice of pizza, tattoos and Tequila shots. They don't know what we're doing but we usually convince them to eat something because they're hammered.
Barry: We had a guy last weekend who had no idea what was going on. He was eating a taquito, and while lettuce and cotija cheese were spilling out of his mouth he says, "Fuck, these are good." He walks out onto the street and shouts, "You've got to eat taquitos." We told him to calm down, people were going to think he worked for us. The most interesting people we get are from Texas and California, because this is not a taquito to them. They order it and they're like, "This isn't a taquito. It's supposed to have eggs and cheese in a flour tortilla" -- basically a breakfast burrito, because that's what they eat at Whataburger. But this is not Whataburger and we don't claim to be from Texas.
Brad: People are particular about what our food should be called: flautas, rolled tacos, taquitos, definitely not taquitos, definitely not rolled tacos, definitely not flautas. They are angry. If people want to call them a hot dog or the smallest, crunchiest fucking taco you'll ever eat in New York, I don't care. If they like it and come back that's what matters. We serve taquitos inspired by things we ate in San Diego, but they are New York-ified.
Brad: To call these anything but the highest quality street food you can find would be a disservice to the work that goes into it.
What do you miss most about the fine dining atmosphere?
Barry: The seasons, because unlike all those other restaurants right now, we're not farm-to-table, we're not seasonal at all. And I'm someone with tattoos of chanterelle mushrooms.
Photo by Evan Sung