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.

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