There's a taco truck, painted with a glossy landscape of pyramids and palms, parked in a fenced-in yard behind El Tapatio. But that's not where the customers are -- the truck is vacant. Nor are they jostling each other for table space inside the main room of the restaurant, which looks like it was last renovated in 1952. No, there are close to a dozen folks clustering in the parking lot around El Tapatio's side window, which is dolled up to look like a taco truck. Wrapped in shiny quilted aluminum, the building's wing is so good a facsimile that it requires a triple-take to figure out that the tires and headlights are pasted on. The menu painted on its side looks like any you'd see on any International Boulevard lonchera.
And the tongue El Tapatio serves is as good as that of any taco truck in the neighborhood. Richmond's 23rd Street strip resembles Oakland's International Boulevard of a decade ago, fatigued and wary. But amid the mercados and dingy auto-repair shops, you can now spot a half-dozen taco trucks. Most have appeared in the past year and a half.
It's always hard to objectively describe the differences between taco trucks because they can seem so slight: This one specializes in birria. The salsa verde at that one seems a little spicier. But the details do add up.
By all accounts the first truck in the area belonged to La Flor de Jalisco, a restaurant on Macdonald Avenue. The cook at La Flor de Jalisco I at 21st and Macdonald claimed his truck had been there sixteen years, but the owners couldn't be reached for confirmation. It obviously did well enough, however, to spawn La Flor de Jalisco II, which hangs out on the 700 block of 23rd Street. Both serve the standard tacos, tortas, burritos, and quesadillas, along with the standard list of toppings -- steak, chicken, pork al pastor, tongue, and carnitas -- prepared decently if not memorably.
The most distinctive taco I tasted at La Flor I, in fact, was its tripitas, or intestine, which the menu translates correctly as "chitterlings." Sliced into rings and fried, the tripitas crunched with an appealing nuttiness. Its sister truck served insufferably chewy tripitas, but La Flor II's buche, or pork stomach, surprised me twice over. First, it was braised, not cooked in lard until bacony, carnitas style. The second surprise was that I enjoyed the mild flavor of the slippery, tender meat, set off by the sharp tang of roasted-tomatillo salsa verde.
Most of the taco truck owners I've spoken to over the years say they've added burritos onto their menus to satisfy gringo tastes. If you want a Bay Area-style burrito, go to a taqueria that specializes in them: The skinny steak super burrito I tasted at La Flor II, like so many others, was plumped up with meat, rice, lettuce, and sour cream, without enough beans and salsa to strike that perfect balance between setting off all the sensors in your mouth and sending you into digestive hibernation afterward. If tacos are too dainty for your tastes, skip the burritos and get a torta (sandwich) instead.
The al pastor torta at Tacos Los Primos is as good as they come: The cooks split a fat oval roll in half, then fry the cut sides on the griddle until they crisp up. Then they slather on sour cream, press fresh tomato slices and chopped lettuce into it, and finish with a thick layer of Los Primos' addictive al pastor. To make pork al pastor, many trucks just marinate pork in a spicy barbecue sauce and roast or fry it. Lebanese immigrants first introduced al pastor to Mexico, and true to tradition, Los Primos threads thin slices of the meat onto a vertical spit -- the kind you see at shawerma places -- and slices off the outsides to order. Their al pastor is blackened on the edges where the chile sauce caramelizes, and underneath, the deep flavor of the roasted pork comes through.
The al pastor at the eighteen-month-old taco trailer seems to be the reason you never see its parking lot empty. The other reason might be the extra care the cooks put into their taco plates, with garnishes of grilled onions and radishes. As for the tacos, I most enjoyed Los Primos' slow-cooked carnitas and the cabeza, beef cheeks braised until they fall apart into soft, slightly musky threads, finished with a dollop of salsa roja, a spoonful of chopped onions, and a shower of cilantro.
The tortas at many of the other trucks on 23rd Street -- La Flor, El Tapatio, the rickety and unremarkable Cha-Ro-Las, also eighteen months old -- come closer to American sandwiches, basically soft French rolls with a ratio of five parts meat, two parts sour cream, and one part iceberg lettuce, with a tomato added for color. But the other torta of note is made at Los Grullenses, where they also griddle a thick round roll and lighten up on the sour cream. Success depends on the meat, though. Los Grullenses' great carne asada tastes as if the steak has been marinated, not just seasoned. Its carnitas and al pastor couldn't compare -- the latter looked and tasted much like Chinese barbecued pork -- and its tripitas tacos were more popular with the truck's Mexican patrons than with me. But the birria de res, shredded beef braised down in a chile-tomato broth until meat and spice were one, was spectacular enough to warrant a return visit for seconds.
Two months after its faux finish debuted, El Tapatio's takeout window already rivals Tacos Los Primos for overall quality. Its al pastor, while not shaved off a spit, has as much spice as a good chorizo, its lengua (tongue) is soft and meaty enough to wallow in, and the house salsa roja vibrates with a dense, almost smoky heat. El Tapatio does two things that the real trucks don't: It sells ceviche tostadas -- the lime-marinated fish silky and bright, the chopped shrimp ceviche punched up with herbs. Better yet, it's open 24 hours. If you're willing to be on 23rd Street at four in the morning, you deserve some kind of reward.
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