The Original Happy Fresh Tortillas Grill, Tex Mexican Food
Austin St, Forest Hills, NY
Review by Diana, SuSu, MaceVindaloo
Once in a while, you know exactly what you want and you go there and the food you order fulfills you and makes everything right with the world. Other times, you think you know what you want, or more commonly, you just don't know what you want. So you wander around looking for inspiration.
In this case, we had been on our way to get haircuts, but the place had closed an hour earlier than we thought they would. Another time, we were on our way to watch a movie (Serenity) and wondered if we were going to have to settle for a dinner of popcorn and soda. In both cases, what saved the evening was this place with the big sign in front that screamed, TACOS. As for the curious name of the place, does it make sense that it's run by Cantonese immigrants who'd just come to this country less than a year ago?
The menu evokes Chinese delivery places, for one thing. And the name of the place is not quite English. And doesn't feel Spanish, either. The menu has a certain "one from column A and two from column B" aspect to it, but upon closer inspection, it's not. There are combos you can order, but it's mostly a la carte.
Although it purports to serve "Tex-Mex," which is an American sort of fusion cuisine effort, there are many Chinese touches. For instance, the tortillas are actually made fresh upon ordering there is a press which they put balls of dough into to form the fresh flour tortillas for the quesadillas, burritos, etc. The meat is not overcooked or stringy it's actually juicy and flavorful, and really improves what one expects from "make ahead / leftover" style of meats one normally experiences in this genre. They don't use lard, MSG banes of Mex-derived food, and about half of the offerings are vegetarian.
It's an odd combination, Chinese Mexican, but it works when you think of "Tex Mex" as "form" rather than actual methods, recipes or ingredients. Chinese care and attention to ingredients improves the offerings with freshness and smart ingredient choices. For instance, the chicken quesadillas use dark meat, which is not only cheaper, but retains it moisture and has superior flavor. The beef burritos have crisp lettuce, less heavy vegetarian re-fried beans, and are filling (as burritos are), but its not the gut-buster that you'd associate with the usual places (fast food and otherwise). The beef is also stir fried unexpected, and a very tasty touch!
The cost for all this freshness is much less than you'd expect. Beef chili tacos are $0.99 apiece; grilled chicken quesadillas are $2.99; steak soft tacos are $2.49. Combos, which include a "platter" with a soda are $4.99. The most expensive things on the menu are big quesadillas, mexican pizza, or chimichanga they are each $5.96. Nachos with shrimp is $4.99. And if you wish, you can buy fajitas by the pound for your catering pleasure.
We know that many Mexamerican places are emphasizing "freshness" in their offerings (like the chains Qdoba or Fresh-Mex), but Mexican fare tends to be derided for being "reheated leftovers." Knowing that this is only a partial truth redeems the whole genre somewhat.
Finally, since there are so many Chinese restaurants around, one learns how to say 'thank you' it's xie-xie (pronounced shieh-shieh). And when we said it, without thinking, the Chinese woman looked up in surprise and started talking back in Cantonese ... which none of us speak. So we said, "Muchos gracias!" and left happily.
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