Loving El Vaquero in Montauk, Seven Days a Week

The Staff at El Vaquero, photo by Terence Lane
The Staff at El Vaquero, photo by Terence Lane

There was a lot of hype surrounding a new Mexican restaurant opening on South Etna Street in Montauk Right before last Memorial Day weekend. I was all over it. So were my two friends. “Town” was coming back to life. The cherry trees were in full bloom, their limbs heavy with luxuriant pink wands. The shads were in. The season was about to explode, and El Vaquero Mexican Food was ready to reveal itself to the curious masses.

I bought tacos opening day. It was love at first crunch. I wouldn’t write about a restaurant if I didn’t think it deserved its praise, and after a year of eating excellent, fresh, and inexpensive lunches there, I now feel obliged to compliment an establishment that has produced so consistently. Owned and operated by Miguel Hernandez and his wife, Elizabeth, El Vaquero has become my go-to lunch spot. Miguel, born in Mexico and cooking Mexican food since he was 16 in California’s San Fernando Valley, has brought his passion, wealth of knowledge and care for authentic Mexican cuisine to Montauk. When asked what makes his food special, Hernandez replied, “It’s just so authentic. If you’re making tacos, you need to understand how to make a good sauce—otherwise, anyone can do a taco.”

This attention to detail has gained El Vaquero a loyal following of taco junkies like me. A friend of mine, who has since moved to California, was going to El Vaquero so much that he had to take a forced hiatus, embarrassed by his over-patronage. It hasn’t reached that point for me, but sometimes I question my love for the fried pork, one of several meat choices available on any of their quesadillas, gorditas, tortas, burritos and hard or soft tacos.

For me, the fried pork, tender, a little fatty and a little crispy, is the only choice, but pulled chicken, marinated pork, chorizo, steak, and even beef tongue, are options, too.

El Vaquero makes its hot sauce from roasted tomatillos, chipotle (for smokiness), and chiles de arbol, or, “chilis of the tree.” I’ve taken the sauce home and put it on scrambled eggs, sandwiches, hot dogs, added it to the chili pot. It’s the perfect way to shock-treat any ordinary—especially leftover—dish.

But if you find it’s all a bit too much, and things have simply gotten too spicy—chill. There is a remedy. It’s called horchata, possibly El Vaquero’s greatest achievement. A white, rice-based drink circulated in a large cooler at the counter. If you’ve never had it, there is no good facsimile. It is sublime, both light and heavy at the same time. A panoply of cinnamon, vanilla, milk and rice flavors, the exact processing of El Vaquero’s horchata is a closely guarded secret.

Miguel was rightfully hesitant to even discuss it at all: “People want to know how to make it. They have offered to pay me for the recipe, they want to serve it in their restaurants. A lot of customers come here just for the horchata.”

While El Vaquero is a self-described take-out restaurant, if you walk around back you’ll find a tranquil picnic area with shaded tables. It’s never crowded and the din of the ocean can be heard just one block away.

As I was leaving El Vaquero the other day, Elizabeth was slicing a beautiful cocoa flan, smooth flan layered over a slab of rich chocolate cake. I bought a slice to go.

Sometimes what keeps you coming back to a place is more than just the quality of the product. Sometimes it has more to do with the quality of the people delivering the product. In El Vaquero’s case, it’s both.

Open seven days. 631-668-8383.

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