La Vida Taco 

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

Page 4 of 4

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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