Sunday, November 29, 2009

Vuelta del Taco Truck

Introduction

I struggled with the title of this post. I heard about a bike tour of Oakland/Fruitvale taco trucks from a guy on my bike club in a group e-mail titled “Giro di Taco Truck.” This is of course a takeoff on “Giro d’Italia,” the Italian stage race similar to the Tour de France. I decided it makes more sense to riff on the name of the Spanish stage race, the Vuelta d’Espagne. The trouble is, the only Spanish I know involves names of Mexican foods so I didn’t know whether it should be Vuelta de Taco Truck, or Vuelta del Taco Truck. My mom is pretty sure it’s the latter, which I’ve used, but now the only problems is I have “Del Taco,” the name of that horrible Taco-Bell-like chain, lurking within the title of my report. Suffice to say this post has only to do with legit, tasty food from non-chain taco trucks: four of them, which I visited by bike. Ah, food and bikes … two of my favorite things.

The official name of the tour is “Taco Truck Tour #2: Foothill Blvd. Edition,” and it is the brain child of a guy named Cyrus Farivar. He has a taco truck website, http://www.californiatacotrucks.com/, and came up with the whole idea of a bunch of hungry bicyclists meeting at the Lake Merritt Bart station and pedaling from taco track to taco truck, finishing up at an ice cream place near the Fruitvale Bart station. A simple, yet inspired, scheme. Here is Cyrus himself, in his favorite habitat:
A novel activity

In the event, none of my bike club buddies joined me for the tour. Thus, it was a bit of a departure for me to show up anyway. I’m a shy person, and hanging out with a bunch of strangers for three hours isn’t something I normally decide to do on a weekend—which is a perfect reason to do it. I move in pretty predictable patterns, my life having settled into a series of well-worn grooves. Socially, I interact regularly with three main groups of people: 1) my colleagues at work; 2) parents of my kids’ schoolmates; and 3) my friends, most of whom I know through cycling (and thus through the vast, glorious range of meals cycling entails).

Of course, the taco-tourists and I had common ground: these were cyclists, and foodies. That said, “cyclist” is a really broad category. My biking friends comprise a very, very small subset of the cycling world. Most of us have done a lot of road racing (many still do); we all have bikes worth at least a couple grand; any of us can wax eloquently on the relative merits of carbon fiber vs. titanium or aluminum for bike frames; we are all comfortable discussing power output in watts or climb difficulty in percent grade. We are not a representative sample of bicyclists at large, who range from mountain bikers to commuters to enthusiasts, and whose vehicles range from department store bikes to basic commuting bikes to twenty-plus-year-old ten-speeds to folding bikes to recumbents to souped-up all-weather cargo bikes to folding bikes. The bicyclists on the taco truck tour were not racers or wannabes or bike-techno-geeks; many or most probably don’t follow the Tour de France; they didn’t necessarily know or care about heart rate monitors or power meters. Sure, they love bikes and cycling, but that didn’t make them a ready-made social group for me.

Meanwhile, “people who eat Mexican food” is an even broader group. Who doesn’t love it? I suppose there are pockets of, say, really old people in the Midwest who don’t eat it. In 1994 I had a lot of trouble finding tortillas in North Carolina, where two different grocery store employees claimed not to have heard of them. During a two-week vacation in London this summer that involved a lot of restaurants I never saw a single Mexican place, and my brother in Holland can’t find refried beans or tortillas and has to make them from scratch. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule; especially in California, I’d say most people eat Mexican regularly. Thus, my shared love of this food didn’t mean I would have instant rapport with a bunch of people I’d never met.

I suppose if I were one of those bold, alpha-dog epicures who considers himself an expert on one or another type of cuisine, and everybody else on the tour was as well, we could break the ice by launching into mini-lectures that showcase our knowledge and establish our merit (as I’ve seen happen with wine and cigars). Thankfully, nobody in this group treated our outing like a pissing contest. We were just out to rides bikes and try out new taco trucks. It was a great slice of life, among new people who didn’t necessarily have much in common with me or with one another.

The turnout

I’d wondered if the group would be easy to spot. It was, even though I was on the early side. Cyrus gave a very brief introduction, and asked how many had heard of the tour through his blog. Surprisingly few had. (I don’t really know how everybody else had learned of it.) It also seemed as though most of the people didn’t know many of the others.

I chatted with one guy about his very strange, even uncanny shoes:
He introduced himself as “Pirate.” I wasn’t sure I heard him right, and said, “Pirate?” He stuck out his hand and said, “Yeah … arrrrgh!” He was a very funny guy, a bartender (who was inspired toward this vocation by Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential). He sang the praises of his strange shoes—easier on his feet, better for balance, better for his back—and when one person replied that orthodics can help too, he joked, “That’s what the Footwear Industrial Complex would have you believe.”

Soon our group had finished gathering and we set out on our bikes. There were too many in our group to easily count, but most estimates were around forty or forty-five souls.

The route

Most of the bicycling came at the beginning, as we rode a little under three miles from the Lake Merritt Bart station to the first taco truck. From there the taco trucks were mere blocks apart, with a final multi-block trek to ice cream and Bart at the end. Here’s a map of the route (the part getting to Foothill Blvd being perhaps only approximate). You'll want to click to zoom in.
Whether it was the damp air or the fact that I was absolutely starving, I enjoyed Technicolor smells on the way to the first truck. First I caught the roasting meat aroma of a taqueria, followed quickly by another equally appetizing but not immediately recognizable smell. Pirate’s wife Lexi quickly identified it: pho. I enjoyed that until it was replaced by that classic Laundromat smell. I was so hungry even that smelled good, in its cozy dryer-lint way.

El Grullo – 27th & Foothill

The first truck wasn’t really a truck at all, but a very small building (with a closed-up truck outside). They started out taking orders indoors until they realized how big our group was; then they opened a side window and delivered food between the bars. My overwhelming first impression was panic, because it was after 1 p.m. and I hadn’t really eaten since the evening before (and had done a hard two-hour bike ride earlier in the day). El Grullo wasn’t prepared for such a sudden onslaught and took a long time in delivering our food. But this is really a plus: they take appropriate care in the kitchen.
(On New Year’s Eve a couple years ago, I couldn’t find a taqueria that was open and in desperation resorted to Chipotle, the McDonald’s-owned chain of fake taquerias. Notwithstanding their sponsorship of a pro cycling team, I can’t really recommend this for an authentic taqueria experience. On this particular night the place was completely dead, but that didn’t mean the lazy college kid working there made any effort to get anything right. He assembled my burrito with all the care you’d take in balling up a dirty sock before throwing it in the hamper. He rolled the inferior ingredients into the inferior tortilla begrudgingly, a look on his face like “I was having a fine time staring into space here before you came in and ruined it.” I felt like punching him in the face.)

The El Grullo menu was in Spanish only. The burrito was cheap: $4.50. It was served with two extra little foil-wrapped bundles: one with jalapenos, the other with radishes and a slice of lime. The tortilla was grilled (which I favor highly over those little steaming machines). There hadn’t been an option for whole wheat, spinach, sun-dried-tomato, or any other silly gringo tortilla, nor an option for whole pinto or black beans—equally unnecessary. (At an Italian restaurant they wouldn’t ask if you wanted your pasta overcooked, or would like to substitute Chef Boyardee sauce for their marinara; in like fashion, I think tortilla and bean options are best left off a taqueria’s menu. Just sayin’.)

There was plenty of good rice, jack cheese, tasty refried beans, and good, hot, crispy carnitas. Throughout were flecks of chopped cilantro—just the right amount, not overpowering. I was so hungry I was practically inhaling the thing, and probably drooling into it. It took all the will-power I had not to devour the whole thing in one straight shot (having three more taco trucks to save room for). When I came up for air, I reflected that it could use some salsa, which seemed oddly missing. It was a tad bit on the dry side, but still delicious and I couldn’t complain. Halfway through wrapping up the last half of the burrito (to throw in a Ziploc bag for later), I stopped, unwrapped, and had a few more bites. I couldn’t help myself.

Tacos el Mazatlan – Foothill at Fruitvale Ave

Half the group stopped at an “unofficial” taco truck less than a block from El Grullo, while the rest of us pedaled less than four blocks to the next scheduled stop, Tacos el Mazatlan. I have to confess, I was among the first to head over there, hoping to get a burrito on the early side lest I keel over and die from lack of calories. The first half-burrito had not even registered in my stomach, such is my appetite once it’s awakened. As it turned out, only one person was working at Tacos el Mazatlan, and it took her about forty minutes just to take all our orders before turning to the kitchen side of her truck. How she kept it all straight is beyond me.

This was a classic taco truck, with the standard (yet somehow odd) aluminum siding that brings to mind a quilted coat; the blue-tinted windows; the lift-up awning; the menu that has plenty of meat options (e.g., lengua, cabeza, tripas) with their helpful translations (tongue, head, and “guts” respectively), with none of the needless options I mentioned above.
A word on authenticity: though I am actually a former Burrito World Champion, I don’t claim to be an expert, nor to necessarily prefer my Mexican food to be authentic in every detail. For example, I get the impression that cheese isn’t necessarily authentic (I often have to ask for it), but I want it on my burrito. Likewise, I’m not in a hurry to try cabeza or tripas. That said, the absence of spinach tortillas on the menu, and the presence of head and guts, suggest that the taqueria’s target market isn’t gringo tourists and the airport food court set. Similarly, a really cheap place is bound to be good—not just a better value than a pricey place, but better food. Offer me a $10 burrito and I’ll likely ask for what’s behind Door #2.

On the way to meeting the group, on Bart, I had been reading an article in “The New Yorker” about a Michelin Guide inspector, and perhaps this went to my head because I resolved to try a carnitas burrito at each taco truck so I could compare them. With hindsight I realize I should have tried all kinds of different things, just to broaden my experience, but the fact is I didn’t. Besides, I like burritos better than tacos and I think they’re easier to bring home as leftovers.

When several tacos came up at once, and as eaters throughout our crowd all squeezed lime on their tacos at once, the air was nicely infused with the bright citrus scent. Here’s a photo (after snapping this, I wished I’d ordered tacos—I’ll have to go back!).
I ordered the “super” carnitas burrito ($5) because it came with cheese and sour cream. I don’t like the sour cream you get at taquerias; it’s too milky and cools down the burrito while diluting it. So as always I asked for no sour cream, and to my delight the cashier deducted fifty cents from the price. That’s the first time in my entire life I’ve had the cost of sour cream deducted from my total, and I think that alone makes this place deserving of your business, on sheer principle.

The Tacos el Mazatlan burrito had all the positive attributes of the El Grullo one, plus diced raw onions, a plus. It was still a bit on the dry side—perhaps that’s the style in Oakland. It came with sliced (perhaps pickled?) carrots, a jalapeno, and sliced radishes. Delicious, and again it took a few tries to put away half of it for later.

Tamales Mi Lupita – 34th & Foothill

This was perhaps the most interesting of the four places. (It’s shown in the photo of Cyrus above.) It features a wide variety of “Centroamerican food,” including pupsas, yuca con chicharron, tortas, platanos fritos, tamales, pasteles, and empanadas. I don’t know what all of these things are. The pupusas, I learned, are small cornmeal disks, a little thicker than a pancake, filled with cheese, beans, meat, and such. Here’s a little video of one being made:

Again, I’m kicking myself for not trying a pupusa, but I was hurrying because in addition to our large group there was a work crew (grape harvesters) making a bulk order, and the whole menu was in Spanish, I’d never encountered pupusas before, and I basically panicked. I even forgot to order a drink (which I never normally order, but I was parched). Next time!

While I waited I chatted with a very friendly grape harvester. He lives in Fresno, but is from a country in Central America (Guatemala, I think he said) and said the food here was just like what he had growing up. As he described this, stack after stack of pupusas was bagged for his crew. When their tremendous order was all packed he gave a friendly farewell and headed for the truck. I wanted to say, “Wait, take me with you!”

I wandered over to inspect the wide assortment of bikes from our group, leaning en masse on the wall of the neighboring restaurant (also Tamales Mi Lupita). The fanciest bike there was this gorgeous green Raleigh, obviously outfitted with careful consideration. “Can I take your picture admiring that bike?” a young woman asked. She said it was her boyfriend’s bike and he’d be proud to know it attracted a gawker.
Hoping for hot sauce and/or pico de gallo, I’d asked for my burrito “with everything.” I’m not sure the cashier know what I meant, but for $6 I got my best burrito yet. It came equipped much like the others, but with welcome chunks of ripe red tomatoes. (You’ll see photos in awhile here showing cross-sections of each burrito.) I even had a rickety little table to sit at so I didn’t have to balance my burrito—with its standard sides of radish and jalapeno—on my bike saddle or a trash can. My amazing stomach was still unfazed, 1.5 burritos into my evolving lunch, and again it was with great regret that I tagged and bagged the second half of this one.

I had become relaxed enough by this point to compare a few notes with the other taco-tourists. Partly this just meant explaining my burrito preference, not to mention my ability to continue eating such hearty fare at each truck. I consulted with one guy about the meaning of “revuelta” (or was it “revueltos”?) in the context of pupusas. “Vuelta” roughly translates “tour” or “rotation,” but “revuelta” seems to involve mixing somehow; applied to eggs it means scrambled. His revuelta pupusa had a whole bunch of fillings. I will certainly investigate this culinary-etymological junction in the future, using all of my senses.

Happily, nobody (least of all me) bloviated about the nuances, quality, or authenticity of the food. I’d have liked to get a breakdown of what each menu item was, but there’s something to be said for quiet appreciation too. One person mentioned that the jalapenos had been better on the previous bike-taco tour. Mostly there were a lot of yummy-noises.

A final note on Tamales Mi Lupita: the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain ate here, and apparently got some video footage for his TV show “No Reservations.” I’ve never seen the show, and have no idea what he made of the place, but somebody in the know must have turned him onto it. I’m no celebrity-chef groupie, but I have to say, if you’ve never read Kitchen Confidential you really need to do that. Bourdain is a really funny writer with endless restaurant stories. I recently read one of his novels, Gone Bamboo, and it was good too.

Tacos el Tio Juan – 41st & Foothill

Here’s an embarrassing admission: in my notes I referred to this place as Atole, because of a neon sign in the window (and the absence of any other sign). Atole, I have since learned, is a thick, hot drink made of corn or rice, and was simply a menu offering, not the name of the business.
As far as complete menus, this place takes top honors. Some of the meats had a handy English translation, but the most exotic did not. Fortunately, a Spanish speaker in our group (there seemed to be several) offered some translations: birria is goat, chicharron is fried pork rinds (i.e., skin), and lorno is loin.
I decided that dang it, I was going to try something different this time, so I went with the birria burrito. I told the guy, “Birria burrito with everything except sour cream. “ He replied, “Okay, $4.” Four dollars! If you asked for everything on a burrito at the airport, you’d get the $10 rubbish tube I alluded to earlier. It was dawning on me that the Oakland taco truck circuit is a very special thing. And that was before I even tasted the birria burrito.

Wow: it was glorious. The meat was unlike anything I’ve had. It had a very particular flavor, just as lamb has a particular flavor (though goat doesn’t taste like lamb). It wasn’t as gamey as I’d thought it might be. It was interesting in the very way that chicken is boring. Where chicken is basically an empty set—a chasm, a void, a lack—goat is a fullness, a presence, a substance of flavor. And it was tender and juicy. Though this wasn’t a complicated burrito—indeed, as you’ll see later, its cross-section reveals less color than any of the others—it was the best of them all. I’m not sure that guacamole (which was evidently unavailable at any of these trucks) would have necessarily enhanced it, so rich and tasty was its simple flavor. Wow.

Ice cream

We pedaled to our last stop, an ice cream shop called Cinco de Mayo in a little complex of shops across a little plaza from Fruitvale Bart. Like those of the taco trucks, its menu was largely in Spanish. I wanted spearmint ice cream but they were out; I should have been emboldened by the birria buritto and tried something weird like corn or “curled milk,” but I just didn’t feel like it, and went with strawberry. I couldn’t believe it was only $1.25. At any other ice cream place you probably couldn’t get an empty cone for that. Another remarkable thing: I asked for a cup of water and got it. So many times I’ve been turned down on the basis of “We sell bottled water,” or for no reason at all.

The ice cream was good. It tasted like strawberries and cream, like it should. If that totally artificial pepto-bismol-pink stuff we got as kids is a 1, and Haagen-Dazs is a 10, this was about a seven; for $1.25 I’ll take it any day. Someone had the corn ice cream and said it wasn’t bad.

This was a nice, casual way to end the day’s journey; then I bade everyone farewell and left for Bart. In my bag I had a page of notes, assorted napkins and bundles of garnish, and four half-burritos (actually, three half-burritos and about a quarter of the birria burrito) to serve up to my expert panel of tasters at home.

The tasting panel

At dinnertime (about two hours after my three-hour lunch) I carefully sliced the rest of the burritos, warmed them up, and arranged them on plates with little labels so my tasting panel could weigh in. (Somehow on the labels I rendered “Tamales Mi Lupita” as “Pupuseria Lupita,” and as I explained before, I had thought “Tacos El Tio Juan” was “Atole.”) As promised, here are photos showing the cross-sections of all four burritos:
My panel comprises two young epicures: Lindsay (age six, on the left) and Alexa (age eight).
It may seem to you as though my tasters must lack experience and the sophisticated palate of a seasoned veteran of taquerias. To which I reply, yes, experience is valuable, but there’s also no substitute for talent. These kids have been eating Mexican food their whole lives.

My wife and I had our favorite corner of Mario’s La Fiesta (Telegraph Ave, Berkeley) with a perfect little shelf for Alexa’s car seat when she was an infant. I remember well how on one evening, as I spoon-fed her refried beans off of Erin’s plate, Alexa would alternate between greedily accepting the spoon and bursting out crying. Finally I came to learn that Erin had mixed a bunch of fiery salsa into her beans; poor Alexa kept having to push past the pain to get her fill.

The results

Here are the comments my tasting panel had about each burrito.

El Grullo Taqueria
Alexa: “I don’t like it at all.”
Lindsay: “If one is better [between this and El Mazatlan], it’s this one.”

Tacos El Mazatlan
Alexa: “I like it much better [than El Tio Juan].”
Lindsay: “Pretty good burrito.”

Tamales Mi Lupita
Alexa: “It’s my favorite—it’s really cheesy; I like the meat. I really like it.”
Lindsay: “The cheesiest I’ve had yet and the tastiest.” [She hadn’t tried El Tio Juan yet.]

Tacos El Tio Juan
Alexa: “I’m liking it but a little too greasy.”
Lindsay: “The spiciest I’ve ever had but delicious besides the spiciness. The tastiest, but not my favorite because it’s spicy.”

We ranked the four according to a sophisticated scoring system (the details of which I won’t bother you with except upon request). The composite scores are as follows:

El Grullo Taqueria: 4 points
Tacos El Mazatlan: 6 points
Tamales Mi Lupita: 10 points
Tacos El Tio Juan: 10 points

I declare the winner to be Tacos El Tio Juan; although it was tied with Tamales Mi Lupita on points, it was picked as a favorite by two testers (including myself). I definitely plan to return to this place, as well as Tamales Mi Lupita. Meanwhile, I definitely see more Vueltas del Taco Truck (of one sort or another) in my future: maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of my life.
dana albert blog

4 comments:

  1. Glad you made! Hope to chat with you on the next ride!

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  2. I meant to write: Glad you made it!

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  3. Sign me up for the next tour, Dana.

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  4. All this burrito talk is making me really hungry, though there's not much I can do about it, sadly. I don't even know if there are any taco trucks around here (Bellingham, Washington).

    I also noticed that both of the bikes you took pictures of had very cool hubs. You must live in a very special land!

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