By: Kraig Kraft
New York City has shwarma from halal carts and giant soft pretzels served with spicy mustard. Philadelphia has made-to-order cheesesteak, served up hot by street vendors. California has . . . the taco truck? Yes, the “Mexican roach coach”–a much-maligned culinary crossbreed–is a unique part of our local food scene. These food service vehicles represent some of the best of American ideals–entrepreneurship, adaptation, and mobility–and help tell the story of our own Californian history. Of course, the tasty, authentic food served up is also cheaper than the dollar value menu at any restaurant chain. Even in these tight times, Sacramento’s most earnestly prepared fast food will still cost you less than the price of a Big Mac and fries. If you have yet to experience a moment of taco-induced rapture, hurry; these trucks will be legislated out of town if the City of Sacramento has its way. But first, let’s talk about these trucks–what are you missing when you drive on by?
My appreciation for Mexican street food developed during a six month Mexican odyssey covering over 20,000 miles in my Toyota pickup truck. During this time, my wife and I sampled a lot of tacos. We crossed through 21 Mexican states, going from the northern to southern border, Gulf to Pacific coast. Did I mention that we ate a lot of tacos? In Mexico, tacos are sold by vendors with all sorts of contraptions and configurations: pushcarts, stands, trailers, stand alone fire pits, even tricyclecarts. But in our journey, we didn’t see a single taco prepared in a truck.
Taco trucks combine the rich tradition of Mexican street food with America’s love of the automobile. Here in the States, we’re crazy about our cars, pickups, rims, chrome, lift kits, vanity plates, steering wheel covers, and fuzzy dice. We are the country that invented eating a meal in the car. It’s only natural that taco trucks came of age in California, home to the country’s first drive-through (In-N-Out) and first assembly-line hamburger franchise (McDonalds.) Fast food outlets might have pioneered
the cheap, convenient meal to eat in your car, but taco trucks took it a step further by putting the food on wheels and bringing it to the customer. Mobility is the taco truck’s ultimate adaptation and advantage; taco trucks can be set up wherever there are concentrations of hungry people (farms, factories, construction sites, shopping center parking lots). And in contrast to the generic, industrialized, soul-less food we associate with the national fast food chains, taco trucks offer flavor, freshness, and a small glimpse into Mexico. While most of the trucks offer up tacos, tortas (sandwiches), and burritos, you may find some other Mexican/Central American specialties like sopes (a thick open face tortilla), tostadas (fillings atop a crispy fried tortilla, served open face), or even Salvadoran pupusas (a thick stuffed tortilla). The same goes for your choices of fillings. While you can expect to find asada (thin pieces of steak) or carnitas (braised pork shoulder) at nearly every truck, sometimes you’ll find birria (seasoned
roast goat), chicharon (fried pork rind), or buche (pork stomach).
Although many trucks travel a regular route throughout the day, some are more stationary, letting their loyal clientele come to them. Some of these trucks and the cooks that staff them are institutions in their own right. You only need to drive by Tacos El Paisano in Woodland around mealtime to see the cars lined up, waiting patiently to get some of the best carnitas in Yolo County.
I live in Davis and I know my local taco trucks in Winters and Woodland–but this is Edible Sacramento and I wanted to broaden my horizons to the east. Fortunately for me, there have been other local food aficionados compiling information on Sactown’s mobile Mexican food. I found Yumtacos.com, a regional taco map created by Joshua Lurie-Terrell of Sacramento. He began by taking down personal notes of taco trucks and holein- the-wall restaurants that he and his niece were trying weekly. After fielding dozens of recommendation requests from friends and family, he decided to use Google maps to track and share his findings, and soon strangers began submitting additions of locations all throughout the West Coast via email. National Public Radio did a story on his and other local food maps. What better authority to help me find and sample some of Sacramento’s best taco trucks? I talked with Joshua to learn which were his favorites, checked the map for locations, and then headed off to see how they stood up to my Yolo county favorites.
We agreed to meet at a truck in South Sacramento, an area Joshua is less familiar with. A blue-collar neighborhood, the streets were lined with tire shops, car washes, and paint stores mixed in with ethnic establishments below signs in Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, and Cantonese. On Stockton Boulevard, in the parking lot of an Asian food supermarket, stands Aqui Me Quedo (Here I’ll Stay), a truck that serves a combination of Salvadoran food and Mexican food. Their varied menu had pupusas, tacos, burritos, and tortas. I ordered two tacos and a pupusa with cheese and asada. Joshua ordered the same. Out came the pupusa, served with a cabbage and vinegar slaw
and a lightly spiced tomato salsa. The contrast of textures and flavors–savory cheese and asada, sweet crunchy slaw and soft warm pupusa– demanded my full attention and we enjoyed the silence of contented chewing. For an instant, I forgot that I was seated on a stool in an asphalt parking lot on the corner of a major intersection.
Joshua was impressed. He usually frequents the trucks in North Sac, a bit closer to his home, but this was good. “Worth traveling for?” I asked him. “Definitely,” he said as he lifted another forkful of pupusa to his mouth. After exchanging more stories of favorite street eats, Joshua sent me on my way to North Sacramento, home to the largest concentration of trucks in the greater Sacramento area.
I found it fitting that most of the taco trucks are found on El Camino Boulevard, since el camino is Spanish for “the road.” Coming up to the intersection with Northgate Boulevard, I spotted the two trucks on the northeast corner. I parked, walked up to the window of the El Max Taquería, and ordered three tacos–carnitas, chorizo (fresh pork sausage) and cabeza (steamed beef from the head of the cow.)
George Garza, a jovial looking guy in his mid-thirties, with a thin beard outlining his jawline, jotted down my order. I placed my three dollar bills on the counter and within minutes, my order was handed back out to me. Each taco came with the filling heaped on two lightly browned corn tortillas and sprinkled with green flecks of cilantro and diced white onion. I helped myself to both the green and red salsa, completing each taco. They were steaming hot, and each was about five-finger-licking-bites–so good that as I finished each one, I was already sizing up the next one.
Temporarily satiated, I began to chat with George, the owner/operator of this truck. He told me that he had been operating here for ten years and he is currently on his second truck, upgrading his older model. However, George had another topic he really wanted to tell me about. He wanted to discuss the recent city ordinance passed in Sacramento that would seriously curtail the ability of taco trucks to do business.
In March 2008, the Sacramento city council adopted a stricter ordinance regulating food vending vehicles in the city limits and limiting the zones in which they can operate. This ordinance, which claims to “benefit the public’s health, safety and welfare,” is based on the concern that unregulated food trucks “could lead to loitering, littering, hazards to vehicle traffic, and pedestrians, unabated noise and crime.” Further, making things even more difficult for the trucks, the ordinance mandated that
any truck operating on public property or trucks within 400 feet of residential areas must move 400 feet every 30 minutes.
George thinks this is a bunch of baloney.
“This ordinance was backed by some restaurateurs,” he claims, “but we don’t serve the same clientele! My clientele doesn’t have the time or the money for a restaurant meal. If they shut me down, my clients are just going to go to McDonalds.” He paused to take a breath. He delivered his words with emphasis. It was the response of
a man who feels that his livelihood is threatened
“I pay taxes, I have my health permit, my vendor permit, and yet they are still trying to take this away from me.” He looked at me. “Do you know how Jimboy’s Tacos got
started?” He answered his own question: “In a trailer! And look at them now. All I’m asking for is the same opportunity.” In the ordinance, a five-year sunset clause was included for established mobile vendors that have been located on private property for more than two years. That gives George and other taco vendors that made the cut another four years before they have to drastically alter the way they do business. It gives us, the taco-eating public of Sacramento, four years to tell our councilmen and
women and Mayor KJ that these taco trucks are part of our neighborhoods, part of our culinary landscape, and the best value meal out there.
While perhaps there may be real health and safety issues (though I doubt fast food franchises are inspected as frequently) that require smart regulations, banishing the trucks out of Sacramento by not allowing them to stop and sell some tacos is not the answer. The American, Californian, and Sacramentan economies thrive on entrepreneurial ideas and efforts, many contributed by immigrants or their descendants. Shouldn’t George Garza be given the same opportunity as Jim “Jimboy” Knudsen once had?