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It’s not the most obvious patch of Long Island City on which to open an ambitious “modern Mexican” restaurant, on a stretch of 44th Road dominated by body shops and industrial work spaces. But for owners Matt Gaudet and Mark Rancourt it was one of those “I know a guy” situations — in this case specifically, the building’s owner — and so this is where Top Quality has somewhat incongruously landed.
Turns out the location was fortuitous in ways Gaudet and Rancourt couldn’t have imagined when they started their planning. Because although someday Top Quality will welcome some 100 guests inside, to dine around a prominent bar or drink the night away in an intimate basement cocktail lounge, right now the main draw here is the restaurant’s secluded backyard patio, which is spacious enough to fit near 20 comfortably distanced picnic tables.
You order your food and drinks at the counter near the front door — you can also get pastries and coffee here starting at 10 a.m. — and find a place to sit out back where one of the hustling, masked-up servers will bring everything to you. I bussed my own table when I was done, but was told by a staffer that they would prefer to do that themselves. Takeout and delivery is available, of course, and if you prefer not to come inside at all you can order online and request curbside pickup.
Gaudet and Rancort bring plenty of experience to the operation — the former is a well-regarded chef, late of Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park, and West Bridge in Boston; and the latter is a cocktail professional who, among other things, spent time at Employees Only and helped open Extra Fancy in Williamsburg. But Top Qualty’s secret weapon is chef Eduardo Sandoval, who grew up cooking in El Paso and brings an innovative spirit to his Mexican dishes here.
The heart of the Top Quality menu are the tacos, nine different varieties each served in assemble-your-own style. Choose the $12 “small” size and you’ll get a tray laden with stuffings, a crock of complementary housemade salsa (they’re all different), and five warm tortillas. They all sound good–next time I’ll get the Lamb Barbacoa, Char-Grilled Mushrooms, or Salt and Pepper Shrimp — but I decided to go baseline with the Carne Asada platter. It was terrific, the tender, well-marinated flank steak buried in pickled carrots and cactus, radishes and cilantro, with a zippy salsa verde on the side.
Just to mix it up I also ordered the more-Mediterrean-than-Mexican Grilled Haloumi Cheese tacos, and they, too, were winners, the salty, chewy hunks of brined cheese given a boost by Turkish urfa chili, a bit of pesto sauce, and lots of garlic. Guacamole is on the menu of course, but most of the sides were a bit more surprising, like my Salted Cucumber salad, an overflowing bowl of the raw vegetable served chilled and crisp, doused in a chili vinaigrette, and tossed with pistachios.
The final piece of my feast was another dish I don’t think I’ve seen before, Fig and Date Fried Rice, which is definitely for fruit fans only. Frozen (and regular) cocktails will cost you $14 each, and there are a bunch of “natty wines” available by the glass as well as several beers on tap.