All The Things I Eat

A White Guy Cooks Chicken Tinga Tacos

By on Wednesday, February 9th, 2022 at 4:39 pm

Tinga chicken meat in sauce

As a kid, we regularly had tacos from an Ortega taco kit: hard shells, seasoning, and packets of taco sauce. The beef was not included. I refer to these as 1980s Taco Night. We ate tacos with shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, shredded cheddar cheese, and sour cream. On extra special nights, we also had had Tostitos chips and salsa. Nothing screams mid-90s quite like Tostito’s brand packaging with the bright pink and aquamarine blue.

Today, hard tacos filled with ground beef flavored with “taco seasoning” packets taste like crunchy nostalgia. They are a rare treat in part because my wife doesn’t share the same sentimentality. I could find them at El Cortez, a tiki themed bar a few blocks away serving All American Taco Night, a perfect replica of those 1980s-style tacos, but the bar shut down a few years ago. What I really liked about them as an adult was how simple they are to cook — and no doubt why my mother liked them when I was a kid. Sauté some ground beef, toss in the seasoning, and twenty minutes later dinner is on the table.

As a grown up, I mostly eat Mexican-style tacos. Bushwick, Brooklyn has a wide variety on offer. I know there’s some guy from L.A. or Texas lurking out there ready to tell me how inferior Brooklyn tacos are. I accept your challenge.

First, I can’t talk about Bushwick tacos without mentioning Tortilleria Mexicana Los Hermanos, the tortilla factory in the heart of hipster (bourgeois) Bushwick that now attracts European tourists and finance bros from Manhattan. These tacos are perfectly fine. I have to admit that a decade ago, they were one of my earlier experiences with Mexican-style street tacos. But they were less memorable than Taqueria El Fogon, a restaurant on Flushing Ave, or Mesa Azteca, taqueria that looks like it could be a movie set. These are all decent tacos, even if they are overhyped.

One of my favorite spots has since closed. Taqueria Izucar, named after the Puebla city Izucar de Matamoros, squeezed under the elevated tracks of the M. There was a counter and maybe two barstools, but they had big flavor. It had irregular hours, making it difficult to plan a trip. The tacos, wrapped in double white corn tortillas, were inexpensive but delicious. The taco to get here was the Suadero taco, a kind of smooth muscle beef flank that was also fried.

The alternative I went to the day I realized Taqueria Izucar had closed for good was Taquiera Acatlan, also under the elevated tracks. A woman in the window of the store spends her day pressing out fresh corn tortillas with the finesse and skill of a master craftsman. I haven’t been back since the pandemic, but the beef tongue was quite good if memory serves correctly.

For the last year, a Taco Bite, a food truck has been parking nearby on Bushwick Avenue several nights week providing late night service for patrons of the popular warehouse district clubs. The trucks has a standard taco menu too with the expected carnitas and al pastor and chorizo, but I’m more likely to have a Cemitas or Torta sandwich. The truck has never disappointed me.

The newer taco restaurants are fancier. They appeal to a younger, hipper crowd. I order from them because they offer delivery and are close enough the tacos arrive hot, most of the time. Our go-to delivery since the pandemic started has been El Santo, on Flushing, or Taco Edition, on Grand Street. Both offer standards like al pastor, bistec, chorizo, carnitas — and typically I would order two or three of those. I do also experiment with goat, lamb, tongue, fish, and shrimp, but tacos are a kind of comfort food, and sometimes you just want familiarity.

Luckily, tacos are a low stakes game. They aren’t expensive, and most of the time I’m order more than one. More recently, I’ve been ordering chicken tinga tacos. Tinga tacos are spicy, pulled chicken.

Chicken tinga’s main ingredients are tomatoes, chipotle peppers in adobo, and onions. There are some variations on this depending on the region, and different spices to adjust the flavor. Tinga originates around Puebla, Mexico with the first record recipes from the early 19th century. However, the combination of ingredients likely dates back long before the arrival of Europeans.

I finally decided to make my own.

A big Le Creuset filled with chicken tinga meat finished simmering and reducing the volume of chicken stock

There were a few reasons I wanted to try my hand at chicken tinga tacos. I’m much more likely to make carnitas style tacos, but to do it properly requires hours of braising. And usually, braising a big piece of pork yields a huge amount of shredded meat. That’s great for a party, but not great for a pandemic. Experimenting with tinga tacos seemed like a good idea since I could better control duration and volume.

I consulted a few recipes from Food & Wine, Gimme Some Oven, and Punch of Yum. Mostly I wanted to confirm the rough ratios of ingredients and the suggested spices–-in this case, cumin and oregano. None of the ingredients were difficult to come by, and after a quick trip to the grocery store, I was ready to go.

I started by poaching a couple of chicken breasts. I hadn’t shredded poach chicken before last week when I was making Mala chicken salad using an Omsom sauce packet I had received for Christmas. I liked the texture of the poached, shredded chicken, and how quickly the breasts cooked. It seemed perfect for making tinga quickly.

After putting the chicken in its hot bath, I set about pickling some red onions using lime juice, garlic, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and a few pieces of hot pepper. These were fast pickles, but there are leftovers getting more pickled right now, and I can’t wait to to use them on something else.

Then I set out to the sauce. Weeknight meals are a sloppy, quick affair these days, squeezed in after baby’s bedtime. I chopped up the remains of the red onion, threw in some garlic, two chipotle peppers, the cumin, oregano, and tomatoes and blended them with a wand mixer. Wand mixers are notoriously dangerous, and honestly it was my first time using one. It kind of felt like holding an industrial strength vibrator with deadly blades spinning on the bottom like some kind of German fetish toy. Safe word: spicy.

The wand mixer went pretty well until the bulky wand tipped over the lightweight plastic jar spilling half the sauce. A huge red mess ensued covering the countertop, baby food maker, dish sponge, coffee pot, electric tea kettle — the whole place looked like a murder scene. Luckily I had reserved some of the tomatoes and chipotle peppers, but the spill had thrown off the resulting ratios.

After remaking the sauce and blending it all together, I added it to our big pot with some chicken stock. It’s worth noting that the recipes I consulted suggested starting the garlic and onion in the oil before blending it all together. However, I was going for speed, but to be honest I don’t think it had a huge impact on flavor. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have spilled half the sauce with the wand mixer if it was all in the giant dutch oven.

As the sauce simmered, I took the poached chicken out of the hot chicken water and shredded it with two forks. Once it was separated and stringy, I tossed this into the simmering sauce with a bit more stock. In about ten minutes most of the liquid boiled off into a thicker tinga sauce.

I also found some time to make a bowl of guacamole, served alongside the tacos. I had cotija cheese for garnish. I cooked my white flour tortillas and was ready to go.

In the end, cooking my own chicken tinga proved far easier than it ever was in my mind. There was no slow braise or complicated measuring. Other than spilling the sauce, preparing the tinga was a straight forward process, not all that more complicated than opening up an Ortega brand taco seasoning pack and pouring it over some ground beef.

The finished tacos with pickled red onions and cotija cheese

Chicken Crepes With Béchamel Sauce

By on Friday, November 5th, 2021 at 1:17 pm

Savory chicken crepes

Savory dinner crepes are an underrated food. What I love about them is they seem fancy, but are actually rather simple to make.

The first time I had a savory chicken crepe was in college at the North Star Bar, in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was one of the more upscale bars in the downtown intended for the business people and young professionals in the city rather than college students. At happy hour though the drinks were cheap enough and the bar menu discounted, so we could pretend we belonged.

The crepes were filled with chicken, an assortment of vegetables including asparagus and red peppers, and a creamy sauce. I’m sure the memory of these crepes were far better than they really were, or maybe just relative to the other types of things I was eating in college, they seemed especially good. I think about those crepes every time I make savory crepes for dinner. It is not that I am trying to to replicate the dish, nor would I be able to.

For the crepes, I started with a basic recipe. I don’t have a specific goto that I prefer for crepes and usually just pull the top listing off of Google. The essentials are Eggs, flour, milk, and melted butter. Some recipes suggest adding sugar, but I avoid these recipes even if I’m making sweet crepes. I also like recipes that suggesting thinning out the batter with water.

The most important step in making crepes is allowing the batter to sit. Some recipes will insist the batter needs to sit overnight in the refrigerator. Generally I think a thirty minute rest period is enough. That is enough time for thin batter to spread easily across the pan. Mixing in a bit of water at this point can help thin the batter out too.

The longest part of the whole process is cooking the crepes. Each crepe will cook relatively quickly but the time adds up when it comes to the volume of crepes. And a smaller pan means smaller crepes, and ultimately more crepes to make.

Sometimes I wish I had a crepe specific pan or even a professional grade crepe hotplate. Both tools create extremely thin crepes. On the other hand, I don’t need the extra equipment clogging up the kitchen.

I could have started the filling while the batter was resting, but I wanted to finish watching the last twenty minutes of Sideways. The film mostly holds up, although the portrait of a man willing to bang his way through Napa Valley three days before his wedding seems tired and outdated. Anyway, I waited until the crepes were cooking to get to work on the filling.

The filling started with olive oil and onions. Once they were translucent, I added in slices of a chicken breast. You can argue about how much more flavorful dark meat is, but béchamel is a rich and fatty sauce anyway. After lightly browning the chicken, I tossed in some mushrooms and simmered those for a few minutes. I continued flipping out crepes.

A good crepe maker can flip a crepe with a simple flick of the wrist. I’m not good enough to do this perfectly every time and so I use the assistance of a spatula.

One the meat arrived at a stable place in the cooking process, I could start on the white sauce. I would love to pretend like I’ve memorized the béchamel ratios, but I’m not a French trained chef, and the internet is in my pocket. In addition to the butter, flour, and milk, I also added some garlic powder. Once the sauce was thickened, I added about half of it to the chicken and mushrooms, reserving the rest for the top of the crepe.

To assemble them, I laid a crepe out flat, added some filling, and rolled it over on itself. I plated two each and then drizzled some sauce over each one. One recipe online suggested topping the crepes with gruyere and then baking them briefly. I had forgotten to get gruyere and the cheddar I had in the refrigerator just didn’t seem a good match. Instead, I shaved some Parmigiano-Reggiano over the crepes.

Cross section of a crepe

As you can see in the above cross section, the sauce inside the crepe was gooey and creamy.

I debated stuffing in some green beans that I had prepared as side dish, but thought the texture would not be quite right. I also think a roasted sweet potato would make an excellent substitute for the chicken for vegetarians, but then that’s probably a different post altogether.

Salted Chicken

By on Wednesday, September 5th, 2012 at 5:17 am

I was out at Brooklyn’s second Chinatown on Avenue U and stopped for lunch.

Identifying interesting dishes can be a challenge the names of the dishes aren’t necessarily translated well. My friend made some attempted conversation with the waiter who spoke about as much English as we spoke Cantonese. This is what we got:

“Salted Chicken” which was salty, but only in the sense that it wasn’t sweet. Large chunks of eggplant floated with small pieces of white meat chicken.

Chicken on the bone, the waiter expressed. Yes, we were okay with that. This was not as good as the first, but still still very good. Lots of onions with dark meat.

Making some awkward banter beforehand paid off when our whole fish arrived. The waiter kindly stripped the flesh from the bones more elegantly than we ever would have.

Yes, that is a fish head. No, we didn’t eat it.

Shing Wong Restauant Inc
1232 Avenue U

Spicy Korean BBQ Chicken

By on Monday, June 25th, 2012 at 6:50 am

Spicy BBQ chicken platter

College campuses usually produce a variety of cheap food like this Spicy Korean Barbecue chicken from Danny’s.

Rutgers University’s Newark campus isn’t exactly a place you’ll find fine dining, but there are comfort foods like this Korean style chicken platter served over what I imagine is about a pound of rice. There is even a side salad.

Attending graduate classes at night left little time between work and class to grab food. Danny’s though was always fast and will forever remind of my days there.

The chicken could have been spicier, but did avoid the failings of many low cost Asian inspired cuisines: I never felt it was too greasy.

The salad was a nice touch because you could always convince yourself you were having something green.

Spicy chicken BBQ

Platter of rice, chicken and salad from Danny's in Newark

164 University Avenue
Newark, New Jersey