When Tomás Gonzalez brought his family to New York City from Acapulco in 1985, they settled first in the South Bronx. His new home had little in common with his old home, a port city and the tourist heart of Mexico’s Guerrero State on the Pacific Coast. But one constant remained: his desire to cook.
Sr. Gonzalez spent much of his life in and around the restaurant his family ran in Acapulco, a faraway paradise that most people in the States knew only from prize holiday packages on The Price is Right. He first tried selling churros on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, but quickly realized that there were not enough Mexicans to buy them. A friend recommended he take his churros to Queens, and Sr. Gonzalez wound up at Junction Boulevard and Roosevelt Avenue, the borough’s street-food hub to this day.
His churros were a hit, and almost immediately lines were forming down the street. Initially not wanting to play the games the authorities demanded, he started having trouble with the police. But Sr. Gonzalez kept coming back to the same corner again and again because business was so good. This eventually led to what he proudly says was “the first taco truck in Queens,” where he did an even brisker business and developed a following. The truck was called Taco Mobil, a shout out of sorts to Pope John Paul II, who since an assassination attempt in 1981 had been contained to his “Papa Mobil,” the Spanish nickname for his armored vehicle.
In 1992, after dealing with an unappreciative police force and city for too long, Sr. Gonzalez decided that it was time to open his own brick-and-mortar place, and so La Estancia de la Espiga was born. Speaking of restaurants in Queens at the time La Espiga opened, Sr. Gonzalez tells us it was “Tacos y nada mas.” Tacos and nothing else.
Determined to change this, his restaurant started serving a wide range of dishes, including barbacoa, slow-roasted goat or lamb, on the weekend – a rich Mexican culinary tradition. Acapulco was (and still is) well known for its seafood, but that doesn’t stop families from getting in the car on weekends and heading into nearby towns in the mountains for barbacoa. Sometimes on Saturday mornings, sometimes on Sundays, customers will show up early and often wait for hours to make sure they get their favorite cuts.
The process of barbacoa always starts the day before it is served. A goat (or lamb) must be killed and cleaned, butchered into manageable pieces and wrapped in the leaves of an agave plant. A circular oven is built deep into the ground with stone walls, where a wood fire burns for hours before any meat arrives. When the wood burns down to ash and an intense heat is radiating, the meat is lowered into the oven and sealed before cooking slow and steady overnight.
In Queens, things must run a bit differently, as the health department has not quite caught on to the magic of subterranean ovens. Sr. Gonzalez has been making his in two specialized sealed metal ovens, the second of which was a recent purchase to keep up with growing demand and large weekend catering orders that often saw everything sold out before Sunday. Since fat agave leaves are harder to procure in New York City, he wraps his meat in banana leaves while they cook. As with most family recipes, the spice, chile and salt combination remains a closely guarded secret and one of his keys to such overwhelming popularity.
In Queens, things must run a bit differently, as the health department has not quite caught on to the magic of subterranean ovens.
No matter where it is eaten, buying barbacoa by the weight, throwing it in between warm, freshly made tortillas, and topping it with all the fixins is almost as important of a weekend activity for some as attending church. Well-dressed families combining the two into one outing are commonplace here in Corona each Sunday.
As the steam escaped while we were shown the machinery on a recent weekend, we also noticed an old and very long tortilla-making machine and conveyor belt that is tucked away in the back, unused. La Espiga has been making their tortillas fresh for many years, and at one point even packaged them and sold them by the pound. This machine has fell out of favor as they started making their tortillas by hand on the griddle in the front, something that everyone requests now. You can come during slow periods and still order a pack to go, but they will probably turn you down on most weekends since they use them all for tacos or alongside guisados and soups.
With chefs currently employed from Oaxaca, Morelos, Estado de México, and Tlaxcala, the recipes at La Espiga are divine in their variety and deliciousness. If you happen to be in on a Thursday, do not pass up a chance to sample Sr. Gonzalez’s amazing pozole blanco, a rich, fatty pork and hominy soup that uses the recipe of his family from Guerrero.
On Saturdays you might also find Sr. Gonzalez stirring the gigantic vat of carnitas that they prepare every weekend, but usually he’s behind the register overseeing operations. Ready to go at 10 a.m. every day and usually working until well after midnight, his only day off is Sunday when his daughter Myrna Crespo takes over for him.
They both tell us that while most restaurants in Queens are run by families and chefs from Puebla, there are many people from the mountain villages of Guerrero who come to La Espiga to get a taste of the foods they miss from their hometowns. Californians like to deride New York City’s Mexican food, but places like La Espiga and Sr. Gonzalez’s home cooking there suggest that they simply haven’t been looking in the right places. As streams of people took the 7 train to Corona Plaza and made a beeline for the now-closed outpost of Tortilleria Nixtamal around the corner, folks from the neighborhood were coming to La Espiga at all times of day and night for beautiful meals that reminded them of home.
While we were not around 28 years ago to verify it, La Estancia de la Espiga has the feeling of a place that has not changed much over the years. Besides that second barbacoa cooker and a bright blue Bernie 2020 sign on the wall, it probably has the same warm feeling it had in the 90s. And we wouldn’t be surprised if many of the parents dining here with their young children used to come with their mom and dad when they were kids – it’s a weekend tradition worth adhering to.