With seven New York City restaurants to his name, Chef Julian Medina has made an indelible mark on the culinary scene here, bringing Latin flavors all over Manhattan and now to Queens. Medina opened Tacuba in September, taking over a former Five Napkin Burger space across from Astoria's Kaufman Studios. Unlike the intimate Toloache spaces, the new eatery boasts high ceilings and a more boisterous atmosphere, bolstered by the large bar that takes up nearly half the room. If his other eateries are about a quiet, candlelit dinner, it's clear Medina wouldn't be opposed to a mezcal-fueled impromptu dance party at the new space.
The soundtrack during a recent press preview seemed to mirror that, a collection of live Justin Timberlake, upbeat contemporary Mexican tunes and a touch of fist pump. What better environment to share a Fidencio Mezcal, jalapeno, cilantro, cucumber, agave and lime concoction out of a hollowed out pineapple? The Piña ($20 for two) comes adorned with a beautiful orchid-like flower; if the lighting weren't so low, it'd make for an impeccable Instagram.
All this isn't to say that Medina hasn't dedicated his energies to turning out exquisite Mexican dishes that manage to make even uncomfortable ingredients for Americans (huitlacoche, grasshoppers, etc.) sound safe and delicious. Empanadas ($8, two per order) are especially good for the so-called "Mexican truffle," combined with gooey Mexican cheese and fried in a pastry shell they seem just like mushrooms. The restaurant's quesadillas—I've been a long fan of Medina's versions—are almost like a tortilla pizza, served open faced and topped Shrimp & Pineapple ($13) or Chicken ($10).
You must get an order of tacos, whether you go all out for Chapulin aka grasshoppers ($11) or a simple Carnitas ($11) with chicharron and guacamole is up to you. I'd recommend the Pulpo Y Chorizo ($11) without hesitation; octopus and chorizo isn't a combination I was familiar with until now, but it's one I'd search out again in a heartbeat. Medina treats his suckers with care, producing some of the most tender octopus I've ever had the pleasure of eating. The lean cephalopod gets some much-needed fat from the pork sausage and both are helped by the pickled habanero, red onion and a DIY squirt of Mexican hot sauce.
35-01 36th Street, Astoria, 718-786-2727; website