Tres Carnes is an over-the-counter barbecue taco joint tucked into a small storefront at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 22nd Street. It's the creation of Michael Rodriguez, former pitmaster of the nationally recognized Texas barbecue joint The Salt Lick. The brand of 'cue here is "Texican," so the Mexican looking murals on the walls not only impress art-wise and cred-wise but also make perfect sense. All of the meats sit in bins behind the counter for faster service. Further behind the counter is a J&R smoker from Texas—appropriate given the genealogy and style, but nobody would fault them if they went the Cookshack route for tacos. To their credit they didn't. Reclaimed wood, vibrant art on concrete and open windows (in season) give the place a high energy feel. Seating is designed for fast turnover: a few bench tables with chairs, a raised communal table with stools in the middle, and more stools against Papaya-style ledges by the windows along the left and front sides of the building.
Real estate can be hard to come by during busy lunch rushes and weekend afternoons.
As the name would imply, there are three standard meats: brisket, pork and
chicken, along with a rotating guest meat (one recent one was antelope)
announced on their Facebook page. You can have any of these, or simply
the vegetarian options—in a burrito, a pair of soft tacos or a rice
bowl. For any one meat, pricing is the same regardless of the vessel but prices vary with each meat. I'm certainly not the first to make this observation and I doubt
I'll be the last, but Tres Carnes is basically Chipotle with barbecue
meats.But they do have one thing that Chipotle doesn't have: double smoked churro donuts.
Two visits about ten weeks apart hit Tres Carnes on a late spring weekend afternoon with friends and a midsummer weekday lunch with family. That second visit was in the midst of a heateave, with temps approaching 100 degrees upon entry, so I was glad the windows were shut with AC on.
Brisket Chili: I tried this ($4.59) on two visits ten weeks apart, and the renditions were very different from each other—different recipes more than execution or happenstance—and both were excellent. The bowl in May 2013 was a poor man's version of Daisy May's: big chunks of brisket, thick dark brown broth, slightly sweet and only very faintly spicy but with a very nice flavor complexity that included chiles. The July 2013 rendition had shreds of brisket, a thin red broth that was oily (in a good way) and very spicy. Onions added to both bowls gave them an interesting sour counterbalance. Which was better? I liked 'em both and liked 'em a lot, but the best chili would be one that met halfway. This chili is served in a cup about the same size as a small dish of ice cream to go, so it's a little too small to make a meal out of but perfect as the side it's billed as (or the appetizer I'm categorizing it as). One of my favorites and a bargain too.
Brisket: Two visits tried brisket, both in the soft tacos ($8.73 for two), but with very different results from a meat perspective. The first try had noticeably smoky cubes about twice the size of the bits of pork in pork fried rice. Texture had some give; moisture was in there too but juiciness was on hold. Back to flavor, it was perfectly fine. And so was that of the pea the princess slept on, but when there are so many mattresses involved—or in this case, taco fillings—it becomes kinda moot. Not just barbecue flavor but meat flavor in general was hard to find, through no fault of the brisket itself.
Note: I'm not implying that there was any shortage of meat or that this wasn't a good value. Both aspects were fine. It's just that a) the generous quantity and strong flavors of the toppings obscured the meat, and b) there was far less meat on the second visit. Some other online reviews have also pointed to a dropoff in meat quantity, so I'm not alone. There's always the "double meat" option for a $2.76 upgrade.
The second go-round, early in the lunch service, had borderline dry brisket, and a quick inspection of the holding pan saw more of the same. When moist like the first visit's, this brisket is respectable. I understand that for a fast food concept it has to be cut ahead of time and for a taco concept it has to be cut small, but there's potential here for something special that isn't fully realized in the taco/burrito/rice-bowl format.
Pork: Tried on the second visit, also in taco form ($8.04 for two), the knife-cut chunks of pork had less crust but more moistness than the brisket, even crossing the juiciness threshold. Flavor was nice: not very rubby but porky, brothy, slightly smoky. Texture was also a little brothy, as if the chunks had been sitting in liquid during holding—though not so long that they got soggy.
The taco sauces are fairly predictable, with three heat variations and an assortment of chiles, tomato and tomatillo.
Especially if you're ordering for more than one while others are holding down a table, ordering can be a little intimidating. Not based on cuisine or server attitude--on the contrary, they could not be more friendly or helpful—but on the way the line runs. Questions get asked from different directions, so responding about rice options to one person and taco requirements to another, plus drinks to another can get hectic. A check-off sheet similar to sushi and sandwich joints would go a long way. Yeah, I know, part of it is I get paranoid from pressure that's not really there, but I'm still advocating the check-off sheet.
There are no bathrooms.
In my New York City barbecue tacos rankings, I've got Tres Carnes ahead of Mexicue but behind BrisketTown.
The Bottom Line
Think of it as tacos that just happen to be barbecue and it's tres magnifique (or at least heading that way). Think of it as barbecue that just happens to be tacos (and such) and it's tradeable for something better. But it's a good option when you want a barbecue snack and/or one of the city's best bowls of chili without having to make a $20 commitment.
Yelp reviews of Tres Carnes
Urbanspoon reviews of Tres Carnes
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