Photo courtesy of Josh Brokaw

August 31, 2016

Taco Tuesday: A Pop-Up Aspires to Transform Ithaca Food Scene

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Lincoln Street is a small place, its walls littered with framed pictures of salt and pepper shakers, major league football and a caricature of Mr. Lincoln. However, other than the old-timey feel and the hearty sausage gravy they serve, they are also host to something new to Ithaca. Last Tuesday, I had the fortune of going down there to have the pleasure of disassociation, not only from the stress of Cornell, but also from what I had come to expect from tacos — cheap street food, one-dimensional, or worse, “ethnic.” It’s not about Tacos per se, but two restaurateurs’ debut in Ithaca’s Food Scene.

The owner-chefs Corey and Kevin Adleman are relatively new in town. A few months ago they held full-time jobs in big fancy restaurants and the catering business. Soon, as Corey told me later, they began experimenting with new things and thinking about making their own dishes. And that was how everything started. Taco Tuesday was their first foray into a bigger venture than small office parties and gatherings of family and friends.

For me, as a regular customer who just wanted to grab a bite from my favorite local diner, it all started with a rendez-vous. I was shocked to go down to Lincoln St. Diner only to find a winding queue stretching from the green door that was 309 E. Lincoln St. to the private residence that was 308. Lively music was drowned out by the swarms of people standing in line. I sneaked a peak from the window and saw the two owner-chefs bent over the grills,their hired hands busying over the register. Outside by the curbs, I saw people standing at the rear of their car and eating over the trunk lid. I also saw a reflection of myself on the window pane by the scorching afternoon sun. I thought this was crazy and impossible but I stayed in the line.

Photo courtesy of Josh Brokaw

Photo courtesy of Josh Brokaw

Standing by the threshold of the diner forced me to read the “Bickering Twins Present: Taco Tuesday.” According to the flyer, and the cheerful couple patiently waiting before me, I could expect a meal of my choice in either a hand-pressed blue corn tortilla or a flour tortilla, with fillings coming in lam Barbacoa, Chicken in Pipian Rojo (a red sauce), garlic shrimp with green cabbage slaw or a veggie option of charred corn, squash, grilled scallion and poblano. I could also have gotten a platter with three tacos, rice, beans or plantains. As an average college student, the menu reminded me of mythree straight days of frozen El Charrito enchiladas with too much chili sauce, which had prompted me to go out and get some real food.

Indeed, the owner-chefs did not disappoint. The hand-pressed tortillas were springy, thick and very fluffy. Besides buying corn flour and working over a tortilla press, they also put a lot of thinking into designing the recipe. Coming from a background of working at upscale tapas-style dining places, said Corey, they were very excited to find their own style, a fusion of Mexican and South-American dishes. To prepare the lamb,  they braised it with dried avocado and banana leaves, turning it into an abodo-flavored with pepper vinegar. For the chicken, they thickened it with chilis, pumpkin seeds and pureed sesame. Of course, as with all dishes with a “secret” spice, theirs had hoja santa, a sauce that imbues meat with rich flavors and epazote, an herb with tangy smells. For the shrimp, they used simple garlic sauce that augments the naturalness of shrimp and they made the green cabbage slaw using a delicious concoction of lime juice, cider, vinegar, sugar, etc.

In retrospect, this story is not just about how two restauranteurs grabbed a share in Ithaca’s market and secured a presence in Ithaca’s vibrant food scenes. Fundamentally, it’s about how dissatisfaction and, in a sense, waywardness, drive people to doing things no one has done before, even if it’s just on a local level.