Few people know that Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican army’s unlikely victory over the French in 1862 — but that doesn’t mean you can’t at least be educated about Mexican food.
And Williamsburg’s Southside is where the neighborhood’s Mexican immigrants have been quietly serving up deliciously authentic tacos, tortas, huaraches, and chilaquiles for the past decade.
So this year, we gathered our own troops for an eating tour of the area — and the result is a user’s guide to Cinco de Mayo that will allow you to raise a taco or two to those 19th-century Mexican heroes.
Under the steady rumble of the above-ground J train rests Zocalo, a by-the-book Mexican joint popular for take-out orders of tacos, burritos and quesadillas.
One bite, and it is easy to see why. The steak taco, which comes with slices of radishes and limes on the side, was well prepared, not too charred or chewy.
The vegetarians on our tour noted that the quesadilla contained whole zucchini and a soft, melted white cheese, but the tacos contained mostly lettuce, black beans and bright red bits of tomatoes.
Still, it was the best vegetarian taco on the tour.
Everyone also raved about the guacamole, which was thick, flavorful and not watered down.
Salsa: Red and green. Red was medium hot, green was very hot.
On TV: “Descontrol,” a telenovela on Telemundo,
Our Lady of Guadelupe shrine: Next to the security camera
Rating: 3 1/2 sombreros
Zocalo Restaurant [295 Broadway near Marcy Avenue, (718) 388-2161]
This quaint storefront restaurant may be one step up from a food truck, but at any given moment, you will see employees picking through bushels of cilantro and searing meat on a large gas stove.
Stick with the tacos here and get them to go, which at $2 a pop are the best deal in Williamsburg. The no-frills steak taco was fresh with lettuce and diced tomatoes but definitely enhanced by the spicy green salsa available in a squeeze bottle. The vegetarian tacos consisted of rice, beans, lettuce and peas, an unusual but still satisfying combination. Quesadillas, which can be made with carne enchilada (spiced pork), al pastor (pork), suadero (brisket beef), carne asasa (roast beef), mushrooms, and even pumpkin flowers, are also a highlight.
On the other hand, the chicken tostadas, a deep fried tortilla with toppings, were crunchy but bland while the chorizo huraches, an oblong fried masa base with toppings, had a mix of cheese, sour cream and chorizo that could have had more meat. Still, it’s hard to nitpick when everything except the burritos cost under $5.
Salsa: Red was medium hot, green was very hot. Use liberally.
On TV: A telenovela on Univision
Our Lady of Guadelupe shrine: Near to the gas tank above the stove. Also, a photo of the Red Sox circa 2007 is prominently placed on the wall above the meager seating.
Rating: 2 1/2 sombreros
Taco Santana [301 Keap St. near Broadway, (718) 388-8761]
Located smack on the border between the Latino south side and the rapidly gentrifying industrial corridor below Union Avenue tries to put its foot in both worlds.
A recent makeover adding flat-screen tvs and bay windows has made it a popular brunch location, with hangover-curing specials such as fried eggs chilaquiles and huevos rancheros. While its Armani Exchange-wearing waiters and English-translated menu are designed to attract recent additions to the neighborhood, the restaurant offers a variety of brightly colored chimichangas, flautas, and burritos, with an emphasis on fish.
The strength is the brunch special, offered from 11 am to 4 pm, so stick with that if you can. The chilaquiles consisted of deep fried tortillas topped with fried eggs and a spicy jalapeno sauce, with a side of yellow rice and black beans. It was devoured within minutes.
Vegetable tacos are also a good bet, containing zucchini and squash, as are the pork tacos, which came with pineapple slices, Mexican feta, and sour cream. However, the tortillas can be chewy and the steak in steak tacos was a bit hard for one of our tasters.
Salsa: Red was very mild and a bit watery but the green was smooth, dense and sublimely hot.
On TV: Fox Sports Espanol. Which means one thing this time of year: Futbol!
Our Lady of Guadelupe: On top of the fridge, next to a vase of flowers.
Rating: 3 sombreros
Don Pancho [492 Grand St. near Union Avenue (718) 782-1696]
Striped acrylic tablecloths. Felt and straw sombreros hanging on the wall. An old-fashioned jukebox playing Mexican pop rock. Welcome to a Williamsburg that few hipsters know about.
Tucked in the middle of a busy commercial street, Antojitos Mexicanos is worth the trip, offering the most flavorful tacos, tortas, and tamales in our survey. Its huaraches, which is made from scratch, contain black beans embedded in the masa, and is piled high with lettuce, sour cream and generous portions of meat and cheese.
Practically anything you order will leave you smiling and nodding to your group of friends, while a Spanish-language version of Hotel California plays in the background.
Fair warning. Our intern, Liz, took a bite of a chalupa and described the experience as a “spicy lightheadedness,” before being reduced to the brink of tears because of its spiciness.
Salsas: Red is hot and green is very hot. We’re not kidding.
Our Lady of Guadelupe shrine: One is next to the security camera and another is near the store’s front window.
Rating: 4 sombreros
Antojitos Mexicanos [107 Graham Ave. near Boerum Street, (718) 384-9076]
Yo La Taco Cafe
This tiny Mexican café steps from the Lorimer L-train stop has done so well selling tacos out of its tiny diner-like storefront that it expanded next door two weeks ago into bright sit-down restaurant.
Still, if you’re in a rush, the ten taco varieties, soft or hard shell, remain the top sellers and the service is usually quick.
The steak or tinga, spicy chicken, are good bets, though at $3, they are among the most expensive tacos in the survey. For the more adventurous, try the beef tongue tacos, which are rare. If you’re just plain starving, a chicken mole burrito can take of that quickly.
Salsas: Red is medium hot and green is hot.
On TV: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with Johnny Depp, who spans all cultures and languages.
Our Lady of Guadelupe: None.
Rating: 3 sombreros
Yo La Taco Café [524 Metropolitan Ave. near Union Avenue, (718) 486-0757]