By Kimberly Maul
New York isn’t exactly known for its Mexican food, and many California transplants complain of the lack of a good fish taco here in the city. Luckily for us, Southern California native Forrest Cole is working to turn that trend around with Choncho’s Tacos at Brooklyn Flea and at The Loading Dock, his new permanent location in Downtown Brooklyn.
A former Deadhead, professor, and editor (not all at once), Cole began to think about opening a mobile Baja-inspired Mexican place last year, and he got started by opening a stand at the Brooklyn Flea. “Without Flea, I wouldn’t be here,” he adds. Growing up in Southern California, food trucks were a big part of the scene, and he wanted to “emulate the roadside experience.”
Cole has spent a lot of time with friends and family in Baja, the land of fish taco perfection. One vivid memory in particular inspired him to embark on his journey to bring authentic fish tacos to Brooklyn:
“Sitting on a white-sand beach, on the outskirts of Todos Santos in Baja California, I was waiting for my cousin Dylan to emerge from the ocean, where I left him spear fishing. I did not have any luck fishing, had given up and swam to shore. I could see his snorkel cruising back and forth along the rock reef below the surface. Normally this spot is where we came to surf, but the swells had disappeared and for the previous two days, we had kept busy by collecting oysters and spearing fish.
As I was waiting, my other two cousins, Marciano and Yoshi–two locals–drove up from the house in their sandrail, and five minutes later, two of their friends from town stumbled upon our gathering. They had been collecting driftwood and pau d’arco branches; the latter is a common building material in Baja. I looked up and Dylan was walking from the water with a large Sierra wiggling on the end of his three-pronged Hawaiian sling. Fresh fish, how glorious! Our excitement was compounded by the sudden materialization–from one of our visitor’s backpacks–of tortillas, limes and hot sauce.
We took some of the driftwood and started a fire. Yoshi gutted the fish, split it in half, and placed it skin-side down on a thin piece of wood. We built up sand berms to keep out the wind and placed the narrow strips of pau d’arco above the small flames to keep in the heat. In twenty minutes the fish was done and we were filling our bellies with the most amazing fish tacos I’d ever eaten. No doubt they were different from those we ate, with frequent regularity, in town, as they were missing the standard toppings of red cabbage, onions, cilantro and crema, but the freshness of the experience was incomparable.
In my family, Baja and the fish taco have been consistent parts of our lives, and the surf, sand, and sun mixed with pescado, lime, corn tortillas, and hot sauce is a recipe for life. Since that serendipitous moment, each time I eat an authentic fish taco, no matter the location, I am transported back to that time on the beach when we laughed at the deliciousness of it all.”
“I make a kick-ass fish taco because of the Baja influence, my step-mom’s recipe, and honing it over the years,” Cole says. He jokes that he learned to cook at a young age because, “my parents were horrible cooks, so I didn’t learn anything from them.”
His first job was at The Soup Plantation at age 15, and he’s been cooking ever since, including a stint as head chef at a natural food restaurant in Utah.
It can be tough to source ingredients locally for Mexican food, Cole admits, but he works with local farmers and companies whenever he can. While items like avocados and limes are not exactly plentiful here in the East Coast, sourcing what he can locally “… is very important to me,” Cole says. “My culinary background comes from natural foods, fresh foods, local foods.”
One of the keys to a great taco is great corn tortilla. Choncho’s and The Loading Dock have that angle well covered – they use tortillas from Tortilleria Nixtamal in Corona Queens, the only known tortilla producers in the city that make their own fresh masa dough daily.
Each weekend, you can find Choncho’s Tacos at the Brooklyn Flea, where Cole has been serving up his food for the past year. In December of 2009 he opened The Loading Dock, giving Choncho’s a permanent home. The restaurant is a relaxing refuge tucked into an area of downtown Brooklyn on Tillary St. that feels almost desolate despite 8 lanes of traffic, and the forest of partially-populated new highrise residential buildings nearby.
“We’re in a funky area,” Cole admits. “It’s undiscovered at the moment.” The location gives a trip to the Loading Dock a sense of fun and adventure, and buzz is building through word-of-mouth and some good press, including a shout out from New York Magazine.
The restaurant itself looks a bit like a mobile food truck, with a small trailer equipped with the kitchen tucked into the covered patio. There is an indoor section, where artwork hangs on the walls of the open, warehouse-like space, but on the day I visited most people were sitting out on the shady patio or in the garden-like street level space, where they could soak up the sun at benches and small tables.
I tried two tacos – the signature mahi-mahi fried fish and a carne asada variety. The mahi-mahi in the fish taco was perfectly light and crispy. Topped with cabbage, cilantro, and crema, the flavors and textures of the ingredients combined beautifully for a top-notch fish taco experience. On the carne asada, the meat was piled high, topped with onions and cilantro. It was tender and loaded with flavor. The Loading Dock also serves burritos, chips and fresh guacamole, and variety of other tacos and tamales. There are very few spots in New York where you can enjoy simple, traditional, authentic Mexican fare like you’ll find here.
Choncho’s and The Loading Dock have a staff of 14, who are a great help to Cole as he juggles the multiple locations. Cole is taking his show on the road this weekend. He’s heading upstate to Monticello, NY where he’ll be serving up tacos to hungry music fans at the three day All Tomorrow’s Parties festival.
Favorite Taco: The Fish Taco (duh!)
Favorite Place in Brooklyn: The Bike Path of the Manhattan Bridge, on the Brooklyn side