1/7/2011: Date night at Fresca Tortilla
by Adam Kuban
To say that this is not the most glamorous Date Night would be an understatement, but Claire had a craving for Mexican. We tossed around the idea of doing Taco Night at home with a box-taco mix, but we were slow getting out of the house. So down to the local Chinese Mexican place we went.
That’s a Mexican joint run by Chinese folks. I guess I’ve been in NYC long enough that that does not sound weird. In fact, there are quite a number of these places now. The hallmark of a Chinese-run Mexican joint (besides the unconventional ethnic mashup) is the fresh tortilla machine. All these places have a tortilla press that spits out thin rounds of flour dough onto a griddle, a process you see happen before your eyes after you order.
The first such instance of this now-classic NYC restaurant genre seems to have appeared in 1991, when De Shi Zheng and his wife, Rose, opened the first Fresco Tortilla at 24th and Lexington. The New York Times has a good history of the place in this 1997 story by Anthony Ramirez.* The Zhengs own the original (which appears to be there still) and maybe a couple others (though the one on 42nd Street closed when the B of A building construction razed the block in the mid 2000s). But a legion of imitators has sprung up in the years since. Sounds kind of like the Ray’s/Original/Famous Ray’s pizzeria mystery. (You’ll notice, for instance, that the one near us is Fresca Tortillas whereas the Zhengs’ chain is Fresco Tortillas.)
Anyway, the thing I love about Fresca Tortillas (and the others like it) is that it pretty much tastes like the taco nights my mom used to do. I’m pretty sure they’re just getting a Lawry’s taco-seasoning mix (or, more likely, the industrial food-service equivalent from, say, Sysco) and flavoring the ground beef with that. And the shredded cheddar cheese, iceberg lettuce, and flavorless tomato is straight out of the white-Midwesterners-make-tacos playbook. So is the hard-shell taco. Gotta get it in the hard shell.
Once we finally get our house organized and cleaned so we can entertain, we’re going to do Taco Night here at the homestead. I want to serve it on our good china. Until then, we’ll have to be content with Frescas Tortillas.
* It’s somewhat remarkable in and of itself that Fresco/a Tortillas managed to get this much ink — the 1997 story I linked to above, and also a 1991 mention in the “$25 and Under” column by Eric Asimov, which is reprinted on the menus and hangs on the wall of the one I go to. These days, these places are fairly unremarkable and are shunned by “foodies,” but at one point — maybe just because of the unusual ethnic mashup — they warranted coverage. Then again, the Times is often pretty good about noticing quirky offbeat stories.