Tacos to Hoboken and Jersey City are like yellow cabs to NYC — in abundance. There’s no shortage of local spots to get that taco fix. But with so many to choose from, we’re highlighting one eatery in particular — Taqueria Downtown in Jersey City. Located at 236 Grove Street, Jersey City, this local spot serves exclusively, yes you guessed it, tacos. Here’s a sneak peek at what to expect from this Jersey City taqueria gem.
The Taqueria Downtown Experience
When you open the menu of Taqueria downtown, read the opening. “Los Diez Mandamientos (The Ten Commandments): No fajitas. No nachos. No pillow-sized burritos. Crema fresca… Not sour cream… No 7 layered dips. No cute clay or adobe plates to match the cute clay or adobe decor… No sizzling fajita… ”
That makes sense. Good Mexican food is never supposed to be a towering heap of cheeses and sauces. It is all about simplicity. Take the example of tacos. The joy of the dish comes from the magic interplay of juicy, gently-seasoned meat; a soft, warm corn tortilla; a crunchy garnish of onion and cilantro; a splash of zesty salsa; and a drizzle of some lime — mission accomplished. At Taqueria Downtown, the tacos are exactly like that.
Since it opened in 2005, the restaurant has long become a fixture of Jersey City’s booming restaurant scene, having grown into a “Taqueria Downtown family” of multiple locations, each with a different vibe and style. In addition to the Grove Street location, there is also a Taqueria Downtown Catering Company in Jersey City and Los Cuernos in Newport. But the products have stayed true to the food’s humble origin as an everyday street food.
Read more: A Guide to Tacos in Hoboken + Jersey City
Taqueria Downtown started as a taco truck in Jersey City, right around the corner next to City Hall. That was in the early 2000s, long before food trucks or Mexican food became a “phenomenon” of the food scene. But for its owners, Phil and Andrea Barraza, the idea came naturally. Phil came from Los Angeles and his wife and business partner, Andrea, was originally from Mexico City. Both cities have long-standing street food cultures and tacos were among the most common, most versatile street foods that Phil and Andrea grew up eating. Only two options — steak and pork tacos — were offered at the truck, but local eaters loved them enough to give Phil and Andrea the confidence to go for a brick and mortar. They found a spot around the corner of Grove and Grand Street, and Taqueria Downtown opened its doors.
It was not a big space that allowed a sprawling menu. “In retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise. The menu turned out to be limited but strong,” Phil told HG. The restaurant focused on the most essential dishes and flavors of North Mexican cuisine, which Phil and Andrea are most familiar with and skilled at, and executed them well. At that time, Tex-Mex-style food was still the mainstream of “Mexican” food available around this area, and customers were slightly intrigued by tacos topped only with onion, cilantro, and salsa (no lettuce or shredded cheese, oops). “And we needed to explain what an enchilada or flauta was,” Phil chuckled. Customers tried them, liked them, and kept coming back — now, the rest is history. Facebook and Instagram hadn’t even taken over the internet yet but the word of these delicious tacos spread quickly.
The Ever-Expanding Menu
As small as the menu was, Phil and Andrea kept experimenting, trying out new flavors as specials, some of which, by popular requests, have become fixtures on the menu. To sample some of Taqueria Downtown’s best tacos, start with the carnitas (shredded pork), with its nicely browned edges, and a melt-in-your-mouth texture. For a chunkier bite, there’s flank steak, juicy with a delightful chew. To try a bolder taste, get the lamb, which is rich and gamey, and balanced with a pleasantly spicy sauce.
Beyond tacos, there are the mellow and rich enchiladas, crunchy tostadas, and quesadillas abloom with melting cheese and chewy bites of meat. Oh, and the extremely fresh guacamole! Nothing fancy, just honest, good everyday food.
The same style is also reflected in the drink menu, which is small but strong. It consists of just a few “cocktails people associate with Mexican food,” as Phil put it, such as margaritas and micheladas, a beer-based cocktail mixed with lime juice, savory and spicy sauces, and chili peppers. There are no complex variations. “We do one flavor for each drink, but we do it very well,” he said.
Growing the Business
Dish by dish, the business grew. With Taqueria Downtown gaining popularity, the business was able to expand into a second location and more. “We didn’t rely on outside investment and grew slowly. So the process has been very gradual and organic.”
Each location has a different setup so Phil and Andrea designed the interior space and worked on the construction for each one themselves, striving for a varied experience tailored to each venue’s characteristics. For example, Taqueria Downtown has a funky vibe, filled with memorabilia associated with life in Los Angeles and Mexico City, while Taqueria Downtown Catering Company, given its small space, feels more like an easy-going roadside eatery. Los Cuernos, which has a much bigger space, gives a very airy, electric vibe, with expanded food options and a large drink menu. “We never stick to a single plan,” Phil said. “We try something, and find out whether it works. There are always changes along the way.”
But the food has adhered to the same style and quality. In the meantime, Mexican food has gained traction around the country. New Mexican restaurants popped up around town. Phil takes pride in the fact. “Mexican food has so many regional variations and specialties. There’s room and growth space for everyone.”
Surviving Trying Times
As a veteran of the local restaurant scene, “the Taqueria Downtown Family” is dedicated to the community. The restaurant itself has been through a few crises — the 2008 financial meltdown, Hurricane Irene, and Hurricane Sandy, which forced it to close for almost half a year. So for the coronavirus pandemic, Taqueria Downtown has been “on top of things.”
“We have been actively researching the pandemic responses around the world, to learn from the experience and research the best practices from countries who are ahead of us, particularly paying attention to the restaurant industry in Asia who reopened some time ago,” Phil shared. Based on these, the restaurant has come up with a list of meticulous but easy-to-follow safety protocols to ensure safe reopening. When HG pointed out the rule saying “employees should refrain from cell phone usage,” Phil laughed and said, “I learned it from Hong Kong.”
And the local business community is also in his mind. Phil and Andrea have been in constant talks with other small business owners in the local area throughout the pandemic, coordinating food donation efforts and sharing tips on operation, financing, and other public and private initiatives supporting the community. “It’s all about transparency and sharing. We are all in this together.”
Phil is optimistic about the future. “The food industry will bounce back.” The Taqueria Downtown Family has weathered another storm, thanks to its consistently down-to-earth business strategies, robust operation, and of course, stellar tacos. Life will get better. The proof? A handful of juicy tacos, accompanied by a heady margarita on a breezy summer evening.
Have you tried any of the Taqueria Downtown Family’s locations? Let us know in the comments below!