By Marisa Olsen

I used to think of tacos as those dry and tasteless corn shells that broke into a million pieces during your first bite and were filled with generically flavored low fat ground beef that was almost unidentifiable because it was soaking in sour cream, canned salsa, and shredded cheddar and lettuce.

My take on tacos has changed a bit. Although we do not live in the Southwest or Mexico, the taco scene in New York is slowly changing. In fact, just a few moths ago, two Mexican inspired-restaurants opened up a few blocks away on the Upper West Side.

Now I’m not claiming to be a taco expert like some of my California-based friends, but I am slowly realizing those tacos I ate as a kid were an entirely different entity.

As my desire to learn more about tacos increased, I decided to visit the two newcomers to the neighborhood: Oaxaca Taqueria and Cocina Economica.

Oaxaca, 80th and Amsterdam

Oaxaca Taqueria is inspired by the Mexican city of Oaxaca. The restaurant toots authentic tacos with homemade ingredients sourced from local and sustainable farms whenever possible. The restaurant is small (think take out taco joint) with bright walls decorated with textured panels of colorful wallpaper. The space is narrow with communal tables each equipped with a bevy of hot sauces.

The menu is broken down by tacos, enchiladas, tortas (sandwiches), quesadillas, sides, and ensaladas. Most tacos are $3.25 each and during the daytime, Oaxaca offers a lunch special for under $7.

I sampled the special Korean BBQ, fish, and carnitas tacos, and also tried the steak quesadilla and elote (grilled corn).

Each taco arrived nestled in between two soft shells. My favorite taco hands down was the Korean BBQ; a taco filled with Bulgogi beef, mango slaw, kimchee, and BBQ sauce. The taco was sweet and spicy—a wonderful “daily special” taco I hope becomes a regular on the menu.

As for the fish taco, I was happy to see the fish was served ceviche-style rather than fried. The fish was bright and fresh and served with lime avocado salsa, cilantro, and pickled onions. I loved the kick of the subtle spice factor paired with the slightly acidic salsa.

The carnitas taco was simple; braised pork with cilantro and pickled onions. Although the pork was slightly greasy, a little squeeze of lime with a dash of hot sauce did the trick.

The steak quesadilla was a hefty portion of grilled, charred steak, melted cheese, pickled onion, and crema served with homemade salsa. Every bite was decadent and delicious. I could eat this any day of the week.

The elote was OK. It’s not corn season so I’d like to try this side during summer. I liked the smoky flavor but wished the corn was slightly more charred.

I left Oaxaca excited to return.

Cocina Economica, 81st and Amsterdam

Inspired by Land Thai Sous Chef Pedro Hernandez Perez’s home-inspired Mexican meals for the chef team at Land Thai, Chef David Banks opened up Cocina Economica, a warm and cozy Mexican restaurant, which features Chef Perez’s flair for authentic Mexican cuisine.

The menu is definitely more varied than Oaxaca and offers a variety of ensaladas, tortas , platillos (entrees),  antojitos (street snacks), and postres (desserts). Prices for platillos are about $15 for a dinner size portion and tacos are $4. The space is dark and sexy. Votive candles dot each table and bar, and the walls are filled with Mexican-inspired artwork.

I sampled the octopus, chorizo, lamb, and pork tacos and couldn’t resist the grilled calamari salad and skirt steak quesadillas. Each taco arrived filled to the brim and was ensconced in two tortillas. My favorites were the octopus; delicate, tender chunks of lightly chewy goodness, and the pork, which almost melted in your mouth.  The chorizo and lamb tacos were dry. In fact, almost all the tacos, with the exception of the octopus, could use a little more “au jus” or salsa. The double layer tortilla only added to the dryness factor.

The calamari salad was a rainbow of colors: bright yellow mangos, ripe avocado, roasted pumpkin seeds, and charred calamari. The first few bites were divine and full of flavor. The only hitch was jalapeno seeds that caught me rather off guard and radically changed the flavor of the dish.

The skirt steak quesadilla (at left) was my favorite. A homemade crispy tortilla arrived stuffed with Oaxaca cheese, plump pieces of succulent steak, and jalapenos (without the seeds).

After sampling the two spots, I would recommend sticking with Oaxaca for your everyday taco cravings, but exploring some of the other authentic entrees or platillos at Cocina.

Oaxaca Taqueria
424 Amsterdam Avenue

Cocina Economica
452 Amsterdam Avenue

Marisa Olsen is the creator of Les Foodités, a blog for people who love food. Les Foodités explores recipes, culinary news, and restaurants reviews in New York City. Lesfoodités.net.

COLUMNS, FOOD | 9 comments | permalink
    1. Lucas says:

      Ate at Oaxaca a few weeks ago and came away less tha impressed. The tacos were bland to say the least.

      Will have to try Cocina Economica soon.

    2. Laura says:

      You cannot compare who makes the best tacos on the UWS without considering the Taco Truck on 96th St.

      • Chris says:

        Just as an FYI to anyone reading this: Lately, Super Tacos has been parked in front of the CVS on Amsterdam, between 96th & 97th. I’m not sure if this is permanent, but they’ve been there every time I’ve walked by the past three weeks.

      • marisa says:

        Thanks Laura, will have to check out!

    3. ELJ says:

      Tried Oaxaca for the first time this week and glad I did. Had the lunch special with enchiladas. I chose the chicken mole filling. The mole had the sweetness you usually find in a mole but with a nice kick. Too bad they don’t deliver to my neighborhood.

    4. Rach says:

      I had Oaxaca tacos and did not like them one bit. The fish was really fishy and unpleasant, and they were completely underseasoned and bland. I have not tried Cocina Economica but will do it soon. I recommend Gabriela’s, her tacos are great, especially the pescado.

    5. jerry says:

      This whole UWS restaurant thing is getting more than a little boring. There was a technology bubble, a real estate bubble and now a – what begins with “r” and ends with “estaurant” bubble?

    6. Charles says:

      Does it taste as good as it looks?

    7. Theresa says:

      For the best Mexican food by far on the UWS go to the taco truck at 70th and Broadway. I’m from San Francisco and this is the closest thing to home I can get. They’re also very nice and it’s super cheap! $2.50 for a taco and $3 for a picadita I think. Their best thing is the picadita (get 2), but I also like the chalupas and tacos and my bf likes the tortas/cubans. The burritos can be a little rice heavy…