By Cyrus Farivar, "The Ultimate Taco,"May/June 2010
I’m not a religious person, but if I were, I would belong to the Iglesia de la Troca—the Church of the Taco Truck. Even though I’ve eaten tacos hundreds of times, receiving them from a truck is always a divine experience. When those tacos are presented through that little window, it’s like receiving communion—with a side of jalapeños. I’m not exaggerating about my devotion to taco trucks—I’ve even started a website devoted to all things taco truck.
Recently a friend of mine introduced me to Bruce Aidells, who is a cookbook author and founder of Aidells Sausage Co. My friend knew that Bruce and I share the taco-truck fervor. Bruce visits taco trucks all the time—all in the name of culinary research—so I invited him on a pilgrimage to my favorite taco truck, El Ojo de Agua in Oakland, California. Bruce is an amazing cook (and developed the recipes for this story). I wanted to see what he thought of the food.
When we got to the truck we gathered hungrily beneath the order window and I fired off, in the best Spanish I could muster: dos de pastor, dos de carnitas y dos de pescado, por favor! Owner Salvador Anaya, a smiling and gregarious fellow, nodded with approval and took a step back to the grill, dancing between his prep tables, grill and the serving window. We had ordered two of each of these tacos: al pastor, spicy, marinated, grilled pork; luscious carnitas, shredded, slow-cooked pork shoulder with just a tinge of crispness; and juicy grilled fish. Each taco was topped with just a spoonful of salsa and a sprinkle of cilantro and garnished with lime, grilled nopales (cactus), jalapeños, pickled carrots, radishes and fresh cucumber.
Bruce bit into his tacos and he looked happy. “The carnitas is delicious—so fresh-tasting. And the salsa’s bright.” He took another bite and then gave his professional assessment: “It has a nice balance of chile and acidity. Plus I love the presentation with the sliced cucumber and grilled nopales.”
Photo Credit: Martin Sundberg, www.martinsundberg.com[pagebreak]
The magic of the taco truck is the freshness of the food. The lag time between when the meat comes off the grill, hits a warm tortilla and is sprinkled with cilantro, onions and salsa averages about 30 seconds. Maybe even 20 seconds. Even better, as Bruce says, “They’re cheap! You can get a really good meal for ten bucks. Where else can you eat fast food that’s made from scratch, is really tasty and includes vegetables?”
Ten bucks at a taco truck is a fortune. At El Ojo de Agua, that’ll buy you six tacos. I usually order two or three and a drink and have enough money left to drop a few quarters in the tip jar.
And though the average bill is small at most taco trucks, that doesn’t mean that they’re not thriving. Taco trucks first started in the 1970s to feed both California agricultural workers in rural areas and late-night patrons in Los Angeles. Since the 1970s, taco trucks have been opening across California and the country. In Oakland alone there are around 50, mostly concentrated here in the Fruitvale neighborhood. Los Angeles County, generally considered to be the nation’s taco-truck capital, has an estimated 7,000 trucks according to the Asociación de Loncheros, a taco-truck owners trade association founded in 2008.
And in the last year the taco-truck trend has exploded. Many of the newer trucks are taking the taco-truck concept and expanding it to other types of cuisines. In Los Angeles, Kogi BBQ truck pioneered fusion Korean tacos—taking Korean-style thin-sliced marinated beef and serving it in a tortilla with a little kimchi. Another L.A. truck, Don Chow Tacos, offers up the “chimale,” or Chinese tamale, replacing the Mexican-style meat filling with cha shu sweet pork. Still others serve up new, exciting variants on burgers, Peruvian-Japanese noodle dishes and even French food. (Yes, you can now get crème brûlée from a food cart in San Francisco.) And most of these newer trucks are using Twitter to let their devoted customers know their location.
However, these newer styles all have their roots in trucks like El Ojo de Agua and unsung heroes like Salvador Anaya—who doesn’t even use the Internet at all, much less update his location on Twitter. His truck isn’t in San Francisco’s Financial District. He’s a world away, in East Oakland, within sight of a local day-labor pickup spot.[pagebreak]
I’ve been visiting Salvador Anaya at El Ojo de Agua since I was a college student at Berkeley, seven years ago, often bringing along friends to try his tacos. And Anaya tells me that since he bought his first truck eight years ago, his business has come a long way. He now owns three trucks and employs a dozen of his family members.
What’s the secret to his success? The biggest secret to great cooking in a taco truck, Anaya explains, is just like cooking anywhere else: fresh ingredients. “I buy everything from the market,” he says with a smile, referring to the daily wholesale produce market near the Port of Oakland.
Anaya learned to cook from his mother in his home state of Michoacán, which is on Mexico’s southwestern Pacific coast. As a nod to his roots Anaya often serves up fish and shrimp tacos. But these are not fish tacos you’d normally find along the beaches of San Diego or Ensenada. The fish is rubbed with mellow Argentinian chiles that don’t overpower the fish’s light taste and then grilled, not fried.
The grill—it’s a griddle, actually—takes up the bulk of the very small back end of the truck, where the serving window is. Just next to that is a package of tortillas, open and ready to be tossed down on the grill. Anaya keeps all his ingredients—meat, vegetables and salsa—in containers within arm’s reach of the grill. Getting tortillas and meat from the countertop to the grill and back again happens in a fluid motion. “He has everything very well organized, so putting it together is very quick,” Aidells said.[pagebreak]
While amateur taqueros may not have such a small kitchen at home, Aidells says they can make tacos just as smoothly by getting all their ingredients prepped and then setting them up in a spot where they can make a taco assembly line. If you’re making the grilled fish tacos or the grilled chicken tostadas, “you might want to have your buffet near the grill,” Aidells added. “Our backyard is arranged for grilling, so things can go right from the grill to the buffet table so they don’t have time to cool down.” If that’s not possible in your home, Aidells also said that in his recipes “everything rewarms beautifully.”
Though I love to keep up with the latest taco-truck trends, for me it doesn’t get any better than the authentic homemade Mexican food Anaya serves. You may be too far away to stop by his truck for a taco, but you can always create your own taco truck at home. If this food isn’t divine, then I don’t know what is.
Cyrus Farivar is the editor and founder of CaliforniaTacoTrucks.com. He discovered Oakland’s plethora of taco trucks while at Berkeley. More recently he’s led a series of bicycle rides—“Tours de Tacos”—in Fruitvale.
Cookbook author Bruce Aidells splits his time between the Bay Area and Sonoma, and happily visits taco trucks in both places.