At Jersey City’s Taqueria Downtown,
the tacos taste like they did in Mexico
Photographed by Chris Malloy
Adecade ago, Phillip and Andrea Barraza had to go to Roosevelt Avenue in Queens to find tacos that came close to the ones they grew up eating. This, the two veterans of the restaurant business decided, was an easy fix—they would make their own. The Barrazas started with a taco cart outside Jersey City’s city hall in 2005, at first selling just two kinds of tacos: carnitas and steak. The cart was a hit, and later that same year the duo opened a brick-andmortar restaurant in downtown Jersey City—Taqueria Downtown.
Today, in addition to tacos, that location sells enchiladas, taquitos, posole and other Mexican staples. So, too, does a second location across the Hudson River, in New York’s Lower East Side. (And this summer, the couple will open a second Jersey City location for catering.) The husband-and-wife team has found there’s an eager appetite for traditional Mexican on the East Coast, where, until recently, diners shied away from beef tongue and cactus.
Phil was raised on tacos in Los Angeles. Andrea was raised on tacos in Mexico City. Phil’s family comes from northern Mexico, Andrea’s from Mexico’s center. The Barrazas know tacos, and they pride themselves on authenticity. “If you don’t eat it in Mexico,” Andrea says, “then it’s not going to be in this restaurant.”
To ensure the food was spot-on authentic, Phil and Andrea flew in their mothers to approve and fine-tune recipes before the restaurant’s opening.
“She worked as a consultant in the beginning,” Phil says of his mother. “You know, making sure we didn’t massacre any of her dishes.” Mrs. Barraza contributed the chiles rellenos, rice, beans and posole recipes. From Andrea’s mother came the recipe for the salsa taquera.
Today, Phil and Andrea serve 12 varieties of tacos. At first, they held back on some of the more traditional Mexican tacos—like pork stomach—until they realized diners were eager to devour them. “We were leery about adding certain things like tongue and head,” Phil says. “But they’ve become our most popular tacos.”
Taqueria Downtown’s 35-seat patio is an excellent place to enjoy one of these tacos (and a scratch-made Bloody Mary, margarita or michelada). Inside, classic rock bounces off walls collaged with images related to music, sports and other nostalgia tied to Mexico and Los Angeles.
The husband-and-wife team has found there’s
an eager appetite for traditional Mexican
even on the East Coast, where, until recently,
diners shied away from beef tongue and cactus.
“I wanted to bring the L.A. taco truck vibe,” Phil says, “Our restaurant is very L.A.-centric, with the Dodgers and Lakers stuff. Authentic Mexican food is common in L.A. It’s so close to the border it’s similar to regular, traditional Mexican food.”
The Barrazas cook food very different from the heavily sauced Tex- Mex of the American Southwest. Tex-Mex is a mash-up of Mexican and American food traditions, and for many years Tex-Mex was what East Coasters thought of as Mexican.
“When I moved here in ’98, everything was Tex-Mex,” Phil says. “You know, your chilies and your food that’s loaded with cumin. But that was back then.” Phil sees plenty of south-of-the-border Mexican food in New Jersey today.
The Mexican food at Taqueria Downtown is, like the food of Mexico, simple. “People over-season Mexican food,” Andrea says. “It’s supposed to taste fresh. When you taste every ingredient, you have an amazing dish.”
Like the beef head taco. The unadorned head roasts in the oven. The fat-laden meat falls right off. On a corn tortilla, it’s Phil’s mom’s favorite taco.
Or the cactus taco. “We get the full pad,” Phil says. “We take the needles off, cut it up, grill it, season it with salt, and that’s it.”
Phil and Andrea’s secret to making authentic Mexican food is recreating the flavors of their youths. “We love our food,” says Andrea.
“We love feeling at home.”
236 Grove St., Jersey City