MOTT HAVEN — At Mexicocina, a relatively new Mexican eatery, two things keep multiplying — the number of locations and the taco options.
The tacos start at $2.50 each and can be served in doubled-up soft tortillas or in hard shells, topped with the traditional onion-cilantro-sauce combo, or “American style,” as the owner puts it, smothered with lettuce, tomato, cheese and sour cream.
They can be stuffed with chicken, steak, sausage, tongue, ear, pineapple pork, cactus, squash or huitlacoche, a fungus that grows on corn — more than 30 filling options crowd the soon-to-debut expanded menu.
And now, customers have three choices of where to buy the tacos, all within walking distance of each other — the original space at 800 E. 149th Street, which opened four years ago; a larger location at 503 Jackson Avenue, which debuted last month; and a third space at 444 E. 149th Street, which will launch this month.
“I know there’s a market for it over here,” said the chain’s owner, Antonio Vilchis. “I have tried all the restaurants around here — there’s no good food.”
Vilchis, 38, moved from a small town in Puebla, Mexico, to New York 15 years ago. He worked at a series of American, Italian and Mexican restaurants in Manhattan.
For nearly a decade he dreamed of starting his own restaurant. Then in late 2008 he did it, opening the small storefront restaurant on E. 149th St., just two blocks from the 6 train station.
“It took me a long time,” Vilchis said, “but it finally happened.”
For the first few months, he and two friends were the restaurant’s only staff. Workdays lasting 20 hours were not uncommon.
Then business took off and, in 2010, Vilchis opened a pizzeria at the space on Jackson Ave., two blocks south of 149th St. But as demand for his tacos kept growing, Vilchis decided this August to convert the pizzeria into a second Mexicocina outpost.
Beginning this month, the original restaurant will do away with its tables so that it and the new location can focus on take-out and delivery taco orders. The Jackson Ave. space, which can seat 40, will serve as the chain’s sit-down spot.
Vilchis decided to differentiate the locations by varying the fourth-to-last letter in their names. From oldest to not-yet-open, they are called Mexicocina, Mexicosina and Mexicozina.
At each location, homespun Mexican is the theme in both décor and dish.
From the live cacti to the paintings of the Virgin Mary, and from the Mexican pop music to the Day of the Dead shrines with painted skulls and candles, the atmosphere is authentic south-of-the-border.
Culinary imports include the giant cemita sandwiches, the yolk-filled albóndigas meatballs, and the chiles en nogada, stuffed green peppers in a white walnut sauce sprinkled with red pomegranate seeds — the colors of the Mexican flag.
Vilchis borrowed the recipes from the master chefs of his hometown — that is, the women who lived there.
“When you’re poor, you are your own restaurant, in a way,” he said, adding that, “If there’s something we’re not sure how to make, we’ll still call our mothers.”
On Monday afternoon, one couple ventured into the Jackson Ave. location hankering for pizza, only to find that it now served Mexican. They tried the chicken tacos.
Another group chatted in Spanish during lunch, then ate tres leches cake for dessert. One of the diners, Maria del Carmen Can, 40, from Queens, finished her meal with a smile.
“This is delicioso,” she said. “Very good.”