Fast food on wheels

Taco trucks are great for quick, filling food … but all are not equal in the eyes of a this taster

Taco trucks are one of the greatest culinary joys of living in California. No, really, I’m not kidding. You probably take them for granted. I certainly did, but then one irrationally expensive, bland and unrecognizable “Mexican” dish in Spain led me to an epiphany:

We Californians are extremely lucky.

You see, we are in a land of ubiquitous quesadillas, bargain burritos and tacos for the masses. When I returned to Chico, I seriously craved some spice, and I knew exactly where to look: taco trucks. Except, I didn’t know where to start.

Well, I devised a plan: a taco truck guide. I would suck it up and try every taco truck I saw. I would tantalize my taste buds and sacrifice my stomach so that the good people of Chico wouldn’t have to. For a week, every time I found one of those telltale white trucks, I stopped and ordered chicken tacos con todo, “with everything.”

Each taco-truck taco comes with two roughly 4-inch corn tortillas and chicken prepared any number of ways. Typically the “with everything” means salsa, diced onions and cilantro. Most people swear by the burritos at these anti-establishments, but I just couldn’t convince myself to consume that much food.

So I settled for the two-taco taste test. I graded and compared these trucks and their tacos until I could eat no more. My research ended up showing that while taco trucks are among the best places to get the tastiest, most authentic tacos, the trick is finding that one really great place.

The good news: I never got sick. The bad news: I won’t crave tacos again for a long, long time.

The List

Tacos El Paisa:
2nd Street and Walnut
Hours: Mon.–Fri. 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

Tacos: $1

Burritos: $3

Hometown: Santiago, Durango

The ambience of this shiny new truck on a busy street corner (short on parking) is pure Mexico. The fiberglass roof of a neighboring building—the hulk of Ruby’s Ranchito, a once-legendary Mexican eatery now all peeling paint and sagging walls—shades Paisa’s plastic patio furniture. These tacos were lightly filled with small chicken pieces fried up greasy. The meat here was tasty but came with too little of the mild, vaguely tamarind-flavored salsa. No skimping on the onions, though. Even with older tortillas, these tacos were agreeable. Still, you’re better off driving over to the original (and unrelated) Paisa at 8th Street and Pine.

Tacos Tonaya:
Nord at Stewart (Nord Market)
Hours: Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–11:30 p.m.

Tacos: $1

Burritos: $3.50

Hometown: Tonaya, Jalisco

The little lot that Tonaya shares with Nord Market is rundown and sketchy, but, with easy parking and a solidly covered eating area set back from the street, this truck is off to a decent start. Tonaya’s chicken tacos come in two fresh tortillas filled with a healthy amount of shredded chicken in a juicy red salsa. The salsa didn’t cover the bland flavor of the meat, wasn’t spicy enough for my taste and splashed all over my Styrofoam plate. I’d visit this truck again only if I were out late and wanted a quick, very cheap snack. I’d just remember to ask for plenty of extra napkins.

El Paisa:
8th Street and Pine, (Downtown Liquor and Market)
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Sun., 8:30 a.m.– 4 p.m.

Tacos: $1.25

Burritos: $4

Hometown: Mocorito, Sinaloa

Shrimp tacos are the specialty at Paisa, and this truck’s entrepreneurial owners awake early Sunday morning to serve breakfast burritos. So right off you know they take themselves very seriously. El Paisa’s spot, on the side of Downtown Liquor and Market, has plenty of shady seating and is surrounded by the leafy green trees and well-maintained lawns of a residential neighborhood. Definitely order your food for here. Paisa’s tacos were a little more expensive than at most trucks, but the extra quarter goes a long way in superior quality and flavor. The chicken was grilled to perfection and slathered with a thick, spicy red salsa and sprinkled with red onions and cheese. This centrally located truck is a Chico must-eat.

Tacos El Tapatio:
1st Avenue and Longfellow
Hours: Mon.–Sat., 10a.m.–9 p.m.

Tacos: $1

Burritos: $3

Hometown: Tapatio, Jalisco

High school kids on lunch break swarmed this truck when I first drove by, so I didn’t even bother stopping. When I came back a few hours later, it was still more crowded than any other truck I visited. This lot, across from In-Motion Fitness, has plenty of parking and a nice covered picnic-table seating area. Tapatio, though, skimped on the portion of shredded chicken, and the tortillas were either soggy from the sauce or were just plain greasy. These tacos were satisfactory, but if I weren’t over in this area, I wouldn’t make the drive—especially at lunch or after school.

El Grullense:
Park Avenue near Meyer Street (J&J Lighting)
Hours: Mon.–Sat., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.

Tacos: $1

Burritos: $3.50

Hometown: El Ensinal, Durango

The tacos at this truck were similar to the ones at Tacos El Paisa (on Walnut), and it turns out both owners are from the state of Durango. At El Grullense, though, they heaped a more generous portion of the small, almost crispy chunks of greasy chicken, and their corn tortillas were fresh and tasty. The staff was friendly and amazingly efficient—I was in and out in no time. This truck is in a huge parking lot with no covered seating, so on hot summer days I’d definitely take orders to go. The regional sauce and style of taco served here isn’t my first preference, but if I were hungry on the Southside, I’d stop in.

Costa Del Sol:
Esplanade at 9th Avenue (Matador Motel)
Hours: 11 a.m.–8:30 p.m.

Tacos: $1.25

Burritos: $3.75

Hometown: Unknown

The menu here, instead of being hand-written on scraps of paper like most places, came printed on the truck’s glass window and the backs of colorful business cards. I wasn’t surprised when Costa’s pricy tacos were unlike any others in town. The chicken came in long, succulent but sauceless strips of grilled white meat accompanied by the usual fixings and a bonus slice of avocado. (That’s probably where the extra quarter goes.) Costa provided a fairly spicy salsa on the side and a touch of cabbage salad—which only served to make my tortillas soggy. This joint offered combo plates and papusas ($1.50), thick corn tortillas filled with finely ground pork, setting it apart from standard truck fare.

Tacos Puerto Vallarta:
Esplanade and 11th Avenue
Hours: Mon.–Sat., 10:30 a.m.–9 p.m.

Tacos: $1

Burritos: $3.50

Hometown: Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco

This truck is on the lot of a recently demolished gas station, and with no one else around one evening, I was almost afraid to stop. But as soon as I did, other people started showing up. In fact, one of Puerto Vallarta’s regulars told me this place had the best burritos in town. Since I was comparing only tacos, I couldn’t test the hypothesis. Vallarta’s corn tortillas, though, were dry and hardly filled with shredded chicken. The flavors here were pleasant without being powerful and had a warm spiciness. I was swarmed by gnats as I sat at a picnic bench under their awning—probably just because of the time of day, but it didn’t do anything for the complete lack of ambience here. I don’t think I’ll come back, but if you visit, a burrito to go sounds like your best option.

Burrito El Corporal:
Esplanade at Shasta Avenue
Hours: 10 a.m.–9:30 p.m.

Tacos: $1

Burritos: $3.75

Hometown: Grullo, Jalisco

Now this is authentic Mexican food. Of course, Mexico is a huge country with vastly differing cuisines, but having spent months traveling south of the border, I’m telling you, this is it. You will probably drive past two or three other trucks to get to El Corporal, but you won’t regret it for a second. For my tacos, this truck piled on large chunks of real pollo asado—extremely tasty charbroiled chicken. In fact, they were so full, I could barely pick up my taco! And the thick, spicy salsa roja had a perfectly pleasing hint of chipotle. I was so ecstatic that this truck featured sopes that I had to order one of those as well ($1.75). Not only is the food here amazing, the truck has a huge tree-filled lot to itself with easy access and parking. El Corporal has a permanant seating area with plants, Christmas lights, outdoor booths and umbrella-covered tables. Fabulous!