La Vida Taco 

A month-long, taco-eating odyssey through Oakland's Fruitvale district.

You can breathe the very air of the Oakland flatlands in the exhaust fumes of its taco trucks: fusty, delicious, galvanizing, jacked up. The mobile lunch wagons — loncheras or loncherias — crystallize the city's id and serve up its needs and desires on a foam plate at a buck and a quarter a pop. It's possible to read the aspirations of their owners and operators — the taqueros — etched in the scarred metal quilting of the loncheras in the barrio of East Oakland, a multi-neighborhood swath that straddles Fruitvale and San Antonio.

Citywide, Oakland's loncheras number more than a hundred, says Aracely Garza, director of the Asociacion de Comerciantes Mobiles, a local taquero organization. Reckoned by density alone, the core of Oakland's lonchera culture exists within a roughly one-mile by two-mile stretch bound by the roughly parallel corridors of International and Foothill boulevards. More than half of Oakland's trucks do business here. And it's here where I undertook a month-long taco-eating odyssey between New Year's Day and January 30th, burrowing deep into the city's taco core to find its salsa-drenched essence. The 21 trucks I describe below are among Fruitvale and San Antonio's most visible, drawing laborers in paint-flecked coveralls, hipster tacotarians, and neighborhood vatos for LDL cholesterol–packed bliss.

Collectively, they're a city treasure, a living, wheezing, grease-fume-emitting bit of authentic street culture. Not to mention a hella cheap source of lunch.

Like the automat and the drive-through espresso bar, taco trucks are an American invention. Robb Walsh of the Houston Press traced the lonchera to mobile Texas chile and tamale stands of the 1890s. By the 1930s, they were hitched to automobiles, and by the late 20th century, through some alchemy, the tamale had morphed into the taco, and the Tex-Mex roving genre had moved into modified panel catering trucks.

Oakland Tribune writer Angela Woodall reckons that the Oakland scene began in the early 1980s, when Primitivo Guzman, inspired by the trucks of LA, fired up a lonchera — El Zamorano — at what is now the corner of High Street and International Boulevard. Guzman went on to open a couple of El Taco Zamorano restaurants, and later Guadalajara. Members of his extended family run a number of loncheras, including Tacos Alonzo on Foothill, Tacos el Novillo on Fruitvale, and the Zamorano truck on International at 48th Avenue.

These are zones unconcerned with novelty. Sorry, but you won't find some Top Chef–like compulsion to mix it up, add scallops or exotic chiles to the mix — a single, unvarying palette rules. A good taquero is much like any other taquero; variations express themselves as differences in the taco-maker's home region (a salsa, a way of cooking carnitas), not driven by the urgency for self-expression. Remember, cabrón: These are businesses that stay viable by offering a basic, onion-flecked amenity. Of course, cooks being human, they sometimes yield to slackardly impulses that result in watery, fatty meats and bland salsas.

There is consolation in conformity — namely, a basic level of quality reigns. In my latest exploration of the trucks, I've spit out bites of a taco, and not just once. More often I've struggled to differentiate how this clump of cabeza differs substantially from that one. However, when something subtly but noticeably better did present itself, it stood out like a traffic cone abandoned in a fenced-off parking lot.

My rating system was roughly systematic. In order to make meaningful comparisons, I generally stuck to the same taco order: lengua (tongue), cabeza (head — beef cheeks and surrounding parts, like the muzzle), and al pastor ("shepherd-style"). If a truck had an obvious specialty — a shrimp tostada, or a taco de tripa (not stomach, but the lower intestine of a pig, also known as chitlins), I ordered it.

Why that particular trifecta? Well, in my opinion, they're the fillings best suited to realities of a taco truck kitchen, where the flattop griddle (plancha) and steam table reign supreme. Much as I love the tacos al carbon (filled with meats grilled over mesquite charcoal, casually) of the Mexican streets, that ain't happenin' in a mobile loncheria. And chicken? Well, although these are done cazuela-style traditionally (stewed, the meat pulled form the bones), and could potentially work in a lonchera, the reality is almost always flavorless and disappointing.

A few things to keep in mind:

Lengua, or tongue, is never peeled (which kinda sucks), but taqueros worth their salt will trim away the fat and gristle at the base.

Cabeza, or head, should be tender and gelatinous, with a rich beefy taste that indicates it hasn't just had the crap boiled out of it.

In Mexico, pork al pastor is usually sliced off a vertical spit (along with a peeled pineapple roasting at the top of the spindle), exactly like gyros. Its origins are unknown, although many believe it was born in Merida in the Yucatan, where Lebanese immigrants adapted traditional shawerma. It should have a rich, round spicing that includes achiote, or annatto, a Yucatecan favorite.

If you're a truck novice, keep in mind that ordering "everything" usually means a flurry of chopped onion and cilantro, and sometimes salsa (in some places you add the salsa yourself, from a squirt bottle). Tacos almost always come with sliced radishes, occasionally a raw scallion or griddle-softened spring onion, and vegetables and chiles en escabeche — pickled carrots, jalapeños, and occasionally onions. At some places you can ask for frijoles de la olla — pot beans — on the side.

International Boulevard corridor

Tacos Sinaloa #3. Parking lot at 2138 International Blvd. (at 22nd Ave.)

Scene: With its seafood sibling (see next entry), bright-orange Sinaloa inhabits a virtual strip mall of taco goodness and spiritual devotion — apt gateway to International Boulevard's sweeping streetscape of taquero culture. Along with the mirror image Mi Grullense trucks further south, the Sinaloas are the best known (and arguably the most accessible) taco trucks, either in or out of the barrio. Here, twin loncheras bracket a swath of real estate that, besides parked cars, sports a party room and commissary kitchen, patio tables under a broad overhang, and a shrine (painted Slushee blue, adorned with plastic flowers) to the Virgin of Guadalupe. This may be the only place in town you'll see spindly art students in painfully ultra-skinny-leg jeans eating in proximity to saggy-pants vatos with neck ink and swagger. Miracle? You decide.

Comida: The taco de lengua ain't bad — a judicious spurt of tomatillo salsa mixing it up with onion and cilantro. But the tongue itself? Weak flavor, like it was stored in water after cooking. On the other hand, the cabeza is full bore: soft and stewy, with a lush beefy taste and zero clots of fat.

Extra cookie: Chorizo tacos aren't everyday fare, but when you crave one, this is it: grizzled and grainy, greaseless as a chorizo taco can be, with a thrilling burnt-spice shadow and slow sear from the chipotle-laced salsa.

The takeaway: Perfect start to any truck odyssey — pray to the Virgin for luck and a minimum of churning stomach acids.

Mariscos Sinaloa #1. See previous entry.

Comida: You're in fish taco territory, but banish all thought of those Mrs.-Paul's-Fish-Stick-and-mayo stomach bombs you get in Cabo and Mission Beach. Here, a taco de pescado means a scattered mosaic of crisp, griddle-fried diced fish, red onion, tomato, and jalapeño. Fantastic. Tiny bay shrimp blanket a double layer of tortillas for taco de camaron, all discretely slicked up with smoky, lip-burning chipotle salsa.

Extra cookie: The taco maker toasts the tortillas on the plancha, yielding a crisp-chewy aureole around the rim.

The takeaway: Tastes so vivid you swear you can hear the breeze rustling the palapa fronds.

Tacos el Grullo. Parking lot in front of C&H Sound, 2610 International Blvd. (near 27th Ave.)

Scene: A single stand-up table, where kids nurse Mexican bottle Cokes after school; the truck's backside mural depicts a sweeping panorama (the landscape around El Grullo, Jalisco?) done up in an arid, tawny palette.

Comida: Doused in green salsa, the heap of pale lengua is swampy. So is the cabeza, and fatty as hell. An oily, strong-tasting taco al pastor is essentially indigestible, if not technically inedible.

Oh, hell no: That green salsa — beneath the tang, it tastes beery, like it's begun to ferment.

The takeaway: Trust the kids — stick to Cokes.

Mi Grullense. North end (closer to 29th Ave.), 1301 30th Ave.

Scene: One of two side-by-side loncheras: same name, same lot, essentially identical food, different operators. The name refers to El Grullo, a town in the Autlán region of Jalisco, where many in Fruitvale have roots (check out the painted image on the lonchera's back: a stone crane — a grullo — in the fountain of El Grullo's plaza). Together with the Tacos Sinaloa compound (see prior entries), these trucks represent the omphalos of Oakland taco culture, the inevitable destination for outside-the-barrio cravers of comida.

Comida: The lengua is moist, but suffers from fatty mouth feel — ew. Sloppy-wet cabeza is better, the clump of brisket-like shards rocking a marked beefiness. Both come pre-slathered in fairly wan tomatillo salsa. The taco al pastor is an unequivocal miss: tough matchsticks of pork and wisps of fried onion, splooged up with heavily achiote-laced spicing.

The takeaway: Accessible, but the food's merely middling.

Mi Grullense. South end (near 30th Ave.), Goodwill parking lot, 1301 30th Ave.

Scene: See previous entry.

Comida: Soft, stewy tongue, and cabeza every bit as briskety as that of its rival. Similarly so-so salsa douses both. The pastor is marginally tastier than at the Mi Grullense to your left, with a nicer texture (though still firm) and a warm-tasting salsa with a throbbing achiote heart.

Extra cookie: The yellow corn tortillas here seem extra plush and maize-y.

The takeaway: A pelo or two better than middling.

Tacos el Paisa. Parking lot behind La Parilla Grill, 2900 International Blvd. (enter on 29th Ave.)

Scene: Lovably tarnished stainless, amid the relatively peaceful surrounds of a shrub-lined lot away from the boulevard.

Comida: The coarse-textured, deliciously soapy tortillas are sick, but the stuff on top? Nyeh — the tongue is delicately moist, but the taste skews offal-funky; curds of fat stud the cabeza. The pork in the pastor is on a different plane entirely: agreeably shreddy, and with deft, clove-dominant spicing. Salty.

Extra cookie: Tacos come in Styro butchers' trays — Earth destroying, but cute.

The takeaway: Nicely done pastor, in a parking lot with a whiff of Zen-like serenity.

El Ojo de Agua. Parking lot at Fruitvale Ave. and E. 13th St.

Scene: A popular spot, no doubt as much for its prominent location on car-choked Fruitvale north of the BART station than for the food.

Comida: Lengua and cabeza are both fatty and bland, under-trimmed and over-boiled, beneath a blanket of thick, searing salsa verde. The pastor pork tastes like somebody boiled the crap out of it, then attempted a retroactive sexing-up with clove-spiked chile powder and a big dollop of watery guac.

Oh, hell no: Thin, flavorless white tortillas suck.

The takeaway: The food's terminally waterlogged — somebody throw it a lifeline.

Tacos el Novillo. Parking lot of Guadalajara restaurant, 1001 Fruitvale Ave (at San Leandro Blvd.).

Scene: Along the traffic-strafed corridor between the freeway and International Boulevard, Novillo occupies a broad, shadeless parking lot with zero tables — prepare to eat off your Hyundai's hood, or at the narrow aluminum counter that runs along the lonchera itself.

Comida: Decent lengua; better-than-decent cabeza (big chunks, frankly fatty and satisfyingly gelatinous). A taco de tripa (small pork intestine, aka chitlins) is a trifle greasy, though its shredded texture puts you in mind of carnitas.

Extra cookie: A single squirt-bottle salsa, but it's a good one, vinegary, and with flecks of charred tomato skin.

The takeaway: The ambience flunks, but tacos earn a solid C.

El Rebozo. 3215 International Blvd. (near Fruitvale Ave.)

Scene: Okay, this isn't a truck, but a propane plancha set up on the sidewalk in front of a tiny juice and snack shop. Still, with its little clot of enthusiastic patrons and unusual offerings, it deserves honorary lonchera status.

Comida: Jalisco-style crisp-fried tacos dorados, filled with either stiff refried beans or slushy mashed potato, for a buck apiece. Load 'em up with shredded iceberg, grated cheddar and Jack, tomato, onion, and a vinaigrette-like salsa of pickled jalapeños.

The takeaway: Greasy but jovial.

Tacos los Michoacanos. Parking lot of Sabeh Auto, 3524 International Blvd. (near 35th Ave.)

Scene: The little truck is scuffed and adorned in a way that charms, fronted with a big old mural of rancho life, which, like the best farm fantasies, begins with a chesty chica in a strappy top. A couple of gray, impressively scarred picnic tables facilitate hanging out in the cramped, broken-down little lot.

Comida: Weekends you can get Michoacan-style menudo and birria with handmade tortillas; the tacos are just as earthy and full flavored, reflection of the folksy, balls-out cooking of Michoacan state. Lengua and cabeza are both perfectly carne-licious, but it's their vinegar-spiked, charred-tomato-skin-flecked guajillo-chile salsa that makes these mouth burners among the best in the 'hood.

Extra cookie: The mustard-yellow tortillas — coarse, chewy, and gloriously warm tasting.

Oh, hell no: A taco al pastor smells as if the meat is about ten minutes from going off.

The takeaway: Gutsy and gorgeous — but skip the pork.

Taco Zamorano. Parking lot of Supermercado los Mexicanos, International Blvd. at High St.

Scene: Allegedly the site of Oakland's first taco truck, but as loncheras go, plain white Zamorano has something of a personality deficit; it anchors a sprawling, perennially car-choked lot at one of the busiest corners in Fruitvale.

Comida: The finely shredded cabeza is nicely done, dark tasting and richly beefy. The crumbly chorizo taco is salty, no more than predictably greasy, and delivers a bracing little jab of spices.

Extra cookie: Yellow-corn tortillas pack a delicious, mineral-edged sweetness.

The takeaway: Misplaced your car in the lot? Seek consolation here.

Tacos Guadalajara. Parking lot, International Blvd. at 44th Ave.

Scene: Neatly painted, with stainless quilting as shiny as a new ten-centavo coin; the nine-car lot is ringed with trees and a narrow strip of lawn — soothing touches on a corner known to get itchy with sex workers and their pimps.

Comida: Hefty tacos and, in addition to carrots and jalapeños en escabeche, the taquero loads up your plate with hunks of griddle-cooked onion. Best-tasting lengua on the street — clearly, it's been poached in well-salted water. But the texture is fatty and curdle-y in places, sign of poor trimming. The cabeza sweats oil, but it, too, has absorbed enough seasoning to coax out every drop of beefy richness.

Extra cookie: Fried pork tripa — lower intestine (chitlins) — are chewy, ever so slightly creamy, and masterfully seasoned.

The takeaway: Mad flavor, shaky skills.

El Taco Zamorano #1. Parking lot next to Santo Coyote restaurant, International Blvd. at 48th Ave.

Scene: The stainless-steel quilting is tarnished, but that only lends a measure of seasoned credibility. According to the Trib's Angela Woodall, this is Oakland's original lonchera (moved from High Street and International). No tables, so be prepared for car-hood dining.

Comida: The lengua racks up three stars out of five — big, reasonably tender cubes, without excessive fat or gristle. The cabeza is better: simultaneously chewy and soft, though the taste skews bland. Two squirt-bottle salsas: the verde is only passing, but the rojo kills, with a blazed-cannabis whiff of heavily toasted Mexican oregano.

Oh, hell no: The smell of piss haunts the little parking lot.

The takeaway: Hold your nose, mijo — you could do worse.

Tacos los Amigos. Parking lot, International Blvd. at 55th Ave.

Scene: Not the prettiest lonchera on the strip; boasts a funky picnic table and a few outsized Nixon-era patio chairs in quinceañera pastels. The truck? At face level, a Plexi window scarred and scratch-tagged, beneath a sign (complete with grinning emoticon) that warns, unconvincingly, "Smile, you're on camera."

Comida: Big cubes of lengua are just okay, and the cabeza, which oozes grease, is decidedly sub-okay. But the pastor? It drips oil, and the pork is overwhelmed by the dull, bitter throb of stale spices. Camera or no camera, smiling is not an option.

Oh, hell no: The menu board teases with birria tacos, but even on a Saturday, the goat is a no-show. Judging from the pastor, it may be just as well.

The takeaway: Pass, amigo.

Foothill Boulevard corridor

Tacos la Esmeralda. Parking lot of El Ranchito Market, 1534 23rd Ave. (at E. 16th St.)

Scene: The air can get funky from the less-than-pristine fry oil in the nearby churro cart, and the quilted-stainless lonchera, whose specialty is mariscos (seafood), has seen better days. But its painted decorations belong to a balmier, altogether more idyllic setting than this motor-oil-stained lot: a beach, a boat, a floating octopus, and thick, headless shrimp.

Comida: The pastor is Sloppy-Joe slushy — chopped pork is slightly stiff, but seasoned well. The real star here isn't tacos at all, but the tostada de ceviche de camaron y aguacate: on a crisp-fried tortilla, bits of semi-stiff ceviche shrimp in a hash of cucumber and tomato, with long slices of creamy avocado. There's the bite of chile, a puckery jolt of lime, and, well, the sullen-looking churro lady and her toxic cloud of oil don't seem to matter.

The takeaway: The ceviche tostada? A three-buck bong hit of beachy summer.

Tacos Alonzo. Parking lot of U & I Liquor and Market, 2730 Foothill Blvd. (at Mitchell St.)

Scene: A couple of stand-up tables clad in scratched Formica butt up against the U & I sign; the truck has its own patina, but from age and the weather.

Comida: Lengua? Perfectly respectable, in fine, tender cubes. The pastor is pregnant with orange grease. Tripa (chitlins) are in unusually thin slices, crunchy from frying, and with characteristic creaminess; they sit on the tortilla in a flurry of chopped tomato — it needs plenty of tomatillo salsa.

Extra cookie: The thin, salty, searing green salsa is delicious.

The takeaway: Nothing special — unless you're on a tripa jag.

Tacos y Mariscos el Mazatlan. Parking lot of East Bay Laundry, 2021 Foothill Blvd. (at Fruitvale Ave.)

Scene: Flyest lonchera in the neighborhood: shiny quilting, crisp paint, and a lift-up bug screen at the order window that actually gets used. And in Fruitvale terms, the setting at one of the district's most congested intersections is bucolic, including a gravel strip and mini streetlamp to forestall thuggery after dark.

Comida: Skip the shaky taco de cabeza and tough-textured shrimp tostada for the tacos dorados, a trio of deep-fried, ground-beef-filled finger slickers. It's the beef that makes 'em worth the artery plaque: fried to a mass as crumbly as spent coffee grounds, and salty, it's radically unlike any lingering Hamburger Helper memories of bulky, skillet-cooked ground chuck.

The takeaway: Not for everyday, but as a pre-sleep, post-Patrón grease curative? Priceless.

Tamales Mi Lupita. Parking lot at 3340 Foothill Blvd. (near 34th Ave.)

Scene: Wedged between a market and Pupuseria Lupita, a Salvadoran tamale, pupusa, and taco wagon with home-style cocinera chops. Burly guys park prominent asses on the narrow curb opposite the brightly painted lonchera, shoveling slaw-like curtido with plastic forks. You can wait for what seems like forever for the pupusas, but be patient, cabrón: food this good takes time.

Comida: Earthy, rustic grilled tortillas hold homely, cazuela-like fillings: choriso con papa (salty and electric, perspiring orange oil), chicharrón (unctuous stewed pork skin). The pupusas are toe-curlingly good, chewy, leaking finely crisped oozings of queso — a pupusa de calabasa contains a slick of cheese studded with green, delicately vegetal cubes of zucchini-like squash.

Extra cookie: The squeeze-bottle salsa verde is a thin slurry of stewed tomatillo, with a compost load of rough-chopped cilantro — perfect foil for rich, salty taco fillings.

The takeaway: Taste the pueblito, baby.

El Centenario No. 2. Parking lot of Hot Boys Auto Detail, 1911 38th Ave. (at Foothill Blvd.)

Scene: The detailing shop ensures plenty of man traffic (though, despite the name, not all of 'em are hot, believe me) to this lonchera with dull stainless quilting.

Comida: The taquero here is a whiz with carnes — think succulent lengua with a hint of delicacy in the taste. The cabeza is just as succulent — yeah, there's a small cluster of spongy fat, but it only adds to the lushness. Moderately spiced pastor has nicely hyped acidity, and the pork has a genial nubbly texture.

The takeaway: Guys, cars, and meat — savor the testosterone.

Taqueria el Güero. Parking lot of All Green Produce, 4095 Foothill Blvd. (at 41st Ave.)

Scene: Kind of a family thing going on, thanks to its proximity to a laundromat and the All Green market, plenty of abuelas treating their niños to tortas and bags of chips. The lonchera has an ice-cream-truck vibe, with white paint and roll-down striped-canvas awning.

Comida: Just say no to tacos — the tongue has a urine-y aftertaste, and the flabby cabeza has an emasculated, steam-table texture. If you've gotta eat something, try a torta. Michoacan-style carnitas have a pork roast quality (quite different from the shredded, crispy carnitas of Jalisco). The roll is oiled and toasted like garlic bread, stuffed with shredded cabbage and a bizarre slather of blended yellow mustard and Mexican crema.

The takeaway: Freaky and familiar.

Tacos el Pollo. Parking lot of the Chevron station, 4265 High St. (at Foothill Blvd.)

Scene: The shiny-bright lonchera sports a whack cartoon chicken. Saturdays, workers from the nearby carwash clomp over in rubber boots for hefty platefuls.

Comida: The taco al pastor? Eek — long, dry strips of pork, mired in a sugary, sweet-sour pineapple sauce. You figure the chicken should be fierce. Wrong: Stewed in cumin-spiked red sauce, the pieces are stiff and desiccated, unredeemed by the green salsa on top.

The takeaway: Sorry guys — this stuff needs serious professional detailing.

John Birdsall blogs at Birdman Eating.

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