All right, I admit it: the post’s title is somewhat provocative. Especially considering that this tiny cafe is located in the heart of El Barrio, Manhattan’s preeminent Mexican neighborhood which overflows with authentic restaurants, bodegas, and street vendors, serving a demanding crowd of fellow Mexican immigrants. Yet, despite the strong competition I stand to my statement: Cafe Ollin serves hands down the best tacos of East Harlem!
The cafe is a tiny easy-to-miss hole-in-the-wall, warmly and beautifully decorated in a typically Mexican way – that is: colorful and totally over-the-top. Its printed menu is rather short and includes mostly simple Mexican dishes, including tortas, cemitas, burritos, tostadas and quesadillas. These get complemented with a long list of daily specials, which are – in addition to the magical tacos – THE plates to order. Over lunch, I had a quick chat with the amiable owner, Juan, who ventures from Puebla. According to his own assessment, the cafe's best dishes are the mole poblano (which contains home-made mole that is being prepared by Juan’s mother in Mexico and then sent to him on a regular basis) and the wide array of guisados (long-cooked chicken or beef, served with salsa verde, roja, chileajo, or mole de olla; sides include seasonal specialties and rarities such as verdolagas and romeritos). I have not yet had a chance to try them, but expect all these daily specials (all priced around 9 dollars) to be no less spectacular than the wonderful tacos.
Cafe Ollin serves two different styles of tacos: either the regular ones for 2 dollars a piece, in which a filling of meet (chicken, enchilada, bistec, chorizo, carnitas, cecina, barbacoa, lengua), Oaxacan cheese or/and beans is coupled with cilantro and onions. Or the absolutely amazing (and at 3 dollars a piece unreasonably low priced) "tacos con todo" - todo or everything meaning exactly that: the regular filling is enhanced with lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, sour cream, cheese, salsa, and avocado. To be served one of these freshly prepared and greaseless beauties, bursting with colors and flavors, results in sensations of sheer bliss, quickly followed by a sense of desperation: how on earth could such a tremendous taco be expected to ever fit into a tiny human mouth? I expect to lose these initial fears in the course of many repeat visits. One final word: as Juan explained to me, he is weary of customers who turn unruly under the influence of alcohol, so the cafe refrains from serving drinks or beer to non-family members. Depending on your attitude, however, you might not just feel but also be treated like family very soon...
Cafe Ollin, 339 East 108th Street (between 1st and 2nd Avenues), website: www.cafeollin.com