Chasing the Dragon

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:19

    “This is kind of like my teenage taco wet dream,” says Josephine Jansen, owner of Snack Dragon Taco Shack. While a passion for food among restaurant owners isn’t generally lacking, Jansen’s offbeat zeal sets her apart from your average taco shack proprietor.

    The original Snack Dragon Taco Shack, which opened outside of Mama’s Bar on Avenue B between 2nd and 3rd Streets in March of 2005, was a ramshackle hut popular with local street food gourmands and the club goers who troll Alphabet City late at night. Before opening the shack—which she named for her dearly departed dog—Jansen, who’s also an artist and filmmaker, worked as a bartender until she broke her leg. At the time, the shack was vacant, having been the home to an unsuccessful smoothie stand. Citing a passion for tacos fueled by years spent in California, Jansen says, “I went and discussed the rent for that place and, within two weeks, I was open. I bought everything off of Craigslist and just whipped it together.”

    Business picked up and, soon enough, Snack Dragon was like the Lower East Side’s version of Shake Shack: long lines, fabled food and a legion of cultish devotees. People searching for California-style tacos flipped for Jansen’s, which are freshly made on blue corn tortillas and come stuffed with carne asada, chorizo, chicken, fish or quinoa, kicked up with fresh cilantro, cheese and sour cream.

    Despite the luck that Jansen had experienced, the notoriously finicky Avenue B Community Board and their task force made its way from usual suspects like Le Souk and Croxley Ales over to Snack Dragon. But it turns out the shack had been built without a permit and, after much political wrangling, was eventually demolished over Memorial Day weekend.

    That same weekend, Jansen decided to try her luck selling tacos at a stand in Coney Island but without much success. Following that, Jansen found a backer who was willing to bankroll her ambition, so she set about finding a new spot from which to dish tacos.

    Coming almost full circle, she found a spot on E. 3rd Street, just steps from where the original shack stood. While it’s bigger than the original, the new Snack Dragon, which opened in August, is still quite cozy. There’s a bar that seats two, a takeout window and just enough room for Jansen or one of her employees to dart around behind the counter.

    “I built the place [myself],” Jansen explains. “I had a plumber, but I did everything else: I built the counters, installed the sink and built the bar.” The space is designed to her specifications with a hibachi grill behind the counter, space-themed art on the walls and a photo of the namesake dog watching over the room. Employee Lauren Bahr, who began working for Jansen at the original shack, says, “It’s brighter, it’s safer and customers can actually come inside. It’s also a better kitchen to work in.”

    The new shack, with its six-month mark on the horizon, is doing quite well. Jansen hopes to open another branch, perhaps in Tribeca, and plans to start offering breakfast burritos and coffee at the 3rd Street location. “This is a way for me, as an artist, to make a living,” she says, “I’ve worked in film and that’s how I know how to build, and I’ve worked in kitchens. I think a gasket burst, and I wanted to work for myself.”

    As the far East Village changes—and with Starbucks soon to outnumber squats—long-time residents like Jansen are intent on keeping the bohemian spirit of the neighborhood alive. “I’m a diehard East Villager. I like it here; I get mad at people for moving to Brooklyn—the neighborhood is changing cause the people are leaving.” Though with stories like Jansen’s, perhaps more people will look to make their very own teenage dreams come true.

    Snack Dragon Taco Shack 199 E. 3rd St. (at Ave. B) No phone