We are now living in a golden age of Latino cooking in New Orleans, where it has never been easier to get a $4 taco lunch. The reason for the boom, of course, is the influx of Latino workers drawn here by Katrina recovery jobs and the bootstrap entrepreneurs who followed them with their taco trucks, work-site catering trailers and aunties' carnitas recipes. One of the best new arrivals to the burgeoning local taco scene arrived on quite a different route, however. Felipe's Taqueria is the offshoot of a highly successful operation in Cambridge, Mass., a late-night, budget-friendly standby for Harvard University students run by Tom Brush and Mexico native Felipe Herrera. Brush has New Orleans ties with the Stumm family, owners of the local Carriere-Stumm construction company, and together with liquor store owner Elio Todaro, they decided to replicate Felipe's in New Orleans. The new restaurant opened late in 2006 and shares a parking lot with Elio's Wine Warehouse, a location that should be familiar to anyone who has been in charge of getting the keg for a house party.
Felipe's doesn't have quite the range of meats as some other new local taquerias, but it has a lot of other nice touches going for it. You can't get a tongue meat quesadilla here, for instance, but you can get a great margarita. They are made fresh with no mixes or concentrates, so they taste clean and sharp. And if a margarita is the first thing you try on a visit here, it also serves as a primer to what makes Felipe's food so good. Though it gives fast food chains a run for their money in speed of service and pricing, the food is clearly prepared fresh and with an attentive eye.
You can see whole chicken breasts cooking on the grill just behind the counter, where they will soon be minced into fillings for tacos and burritos. Cooks occasionally lift the lids on big stockpots to stir up loads of refried beans, which are creamy, rich and just a touch smoky. A series of clear plastic storage containers sits within easy reach on an upper shelf, all loaded with different types of chile peppers and labeled ancho, arbol, gaujillo or pasilla in handwritten script.
These are some raw ingredients for one of Felipe's best assets: a self-serve condiment bar of salsa and other fresh taco toppings. You can apply these directly to your plate, or measure out small sample cups to play with back at the table. Of the salsas, my favorite is the arbol, a thin, rusty orange-colored sauce that is assertively spicy, though not searing. Among the other options in the 10-bin bar are a sweet, spicy tangle of pickled onion slices, a hot, pickled dice of carrots, a hash of chopped jalapenos and onions, a mix of fresh cilantro and onions, and wedges of fresh key limes. A surprising favorite is chopped fresh radish, which adds a moist, crisp, cool bite when sprinkled over the fiery salsas and salty meats.
My favorite meat choice is the carnitas. Order it and the counter man will produce a handful of large pork chunks that look just like good barbecue shoulder meat, which he then swiftly chops into particles. Another version of pork, called al pastor, comes off the grill as crispy little bits of meat with nice charred edges. The chorizo sausage is dark red, spicy, loose and very oily. It proved unwieldy in a taco, and much of it will spill out one end if you're not careful. But the chorizo is perfect in a quesadilla or burrito where the tiny bits of sausage can bind with cheese or beans and stay put.
One impressive point about the burritos is that for something assembled and wrapped up so rapidly, it remains remarkably well composed. There is a balance of rice, meat, salsa and other fillings all the way through, so you don't wind up with a glob of sour cream at the beginning, and you get a roughly equal amount of meat with each bite.
The nacho plate is another example of something that seems to be thrown together quickly and haphazardly but turns out to be perfectly balanced. The counterman may seem to fling sour cream or beans over the thin, light chips with his spoon, but he ends up with evenly spaced, generous portions of each spread over the plate. The best part is the cheese, which is draped in thin, white sheets and melts beautifully after a turn in the broiler for a coating that is creamy but not gooey.
Lifting a page from the fast food playbook, Felipe's has a 'combo" offer with the option to add a drink, a small paper sack of chips and a choice of salsa, guacamole or queso dip for $2.50. With that addition, you can still bring in the most expensive items on the menu (the steak or shrimp plates) for under $10.
With carnival parades hitting high gear this week, Uptown will be full of people looking for something to eat that's hot, cheap, fast and available late. Felipe's provides all that " and a bag of chips.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Felipe's is a casual Mexican eatery that arrived from New England rather than south of the border.