The day of the taco
The quest for the perfect taco truck taco
The perfect taco: It’s easier to describe than to find. It’s defined by a single bite with a dozen tastes, all coming together in a perfect, unified, harmonic whole. I like feeling every part of my mouth light up. The pleasant, tingling sting of the cilantro and onion that hits the roof of my mouth, the flickering flame of hot sauce on the tip of the tongue and the middle of the cheeks, the chalky texture of tortilla against the teeth, the savory bass notes of the carne asada that resonate from the back of the mouth all the way down to the stomach, the citrus tang of lime tickling the nose, the crisp snapping sound of crunched onions, the powdery ghost of corn tortilla lingering on the fingers—all of it coming together, in slow motion, and registering in the brain to form a single, sizzling thought: taco.
Now, tacos come in a wide variety. Soft or hard shell? Cheese or cheeseless? But I’m a taco traditionalist. I like the classical Mexican taco: carne asada on two corn tortillas with lime, cilantro and onion. And most importantly, for The Day of the Taco, I wanted them mobile.
The Day of the Taco was a Wednesday. And I woke up hungover but listo for a taco. My mission was simple: I was going to spend the day scouring the streets of Reno, looking for tacos. More specifically, I was gunning for the perfect carne asada taco from a taco truck. Carne asada, which literally means “roasted meat,” are the thin strips of lightly marinated steak that are the basis for a lot of the best dishes in Mexican cuisine. A taco truck is—anyone? anyone?—a truck that sells tacos. You may know them by other names, like “roach coaches” or “luncheros.” You’ve seen the vans and trailers around construction sites and in the warehouse areas of town: mobile kitchens with stainless steel exteriors, the bright pasted-on signs in English and Spanish and sometimes combinations of the two that are neither, the groups of people standing hunched over paper plates.
A more timid or reasonable person might consider exploring the area’s taco trucks slowly over the course of a couple weeks. Not me. I figure anything worth doing is worth doing in a crazed frenzy. I was going to hunt down these taco trucks like they were going out of season. I was going to find them, eat their tacos, and move on, like a cilantro-fueled shark.
The Day of the Taco was to begin when my girlfriend, Sara, came home during her lunch break. It might seem weird—lazy even—to begin my Day at lunchtime, but the way I figured it, lunch was primo taco time, and I wanted to continue going strong through the nocturnal taco hours.
I was armed with a master list of “mobile food units” supplied by the helpful Dave McNinch of the Washoe County District Health Department, the government agency that inspects food-serving vehicles. McNinch had warned me that the point of these trucks is to provide portable food service, therefore the trucks don’t usually make a habit of stagnant idling. They’re always moving. Like the superhero Kalimán racing to the scene of a crime, these taco trucks rush to wherever people are in dire need of a taco.
Muy caliente y picante
Sara came home, and we got underway. I felt like a pilgrim, as though we were embarking on an important, meaningful journey. I inspired Sara with a bunch of blowhard puffery about the taco being a “finely calibrated delicacy.”
We drove by a handful of the addresses on my list, but no luck. Either there were no taco trucks in sight, or the truck was there but vacant and unmanned, a taco truck in siesta mode. I was starting to think that taco trucks were like police officers, ubiquitous except when you need one.
Finally, we pulled into the parking lot of El Sazon Mexican Restaurant, 2290 Oddie Blvd., Sparks. There were three taco trucks sitting out back, and a driver loading one.
“Hi,” I said, awkwardly—I was clearly interrupting this guy’s work. “Are you open? Can I buy a taco from you?”
He eyeballed me for a minute. “Why don’t you go into the restaurant? It’s the exact same food, but with air conditioning. It’s too hot out here.” It was in the high 90s. “In there, you can sit at a booth, have chips and salsa, or a margarita.” He said each word with enthusiastic emphasis, spreading the phrase “chips and salsa” out over the course of four breaths. And then he added, with a clear note of resignation, “I’ve got to drive this truck out to a construction site.”
It was plain that he would rather enjoy himself in the restaurant than drive out to a worksite. It was also obvious that he wasn’t going to sell me a taco. If I really wanted one, I would have to go inside.
It was early afternoon, close to 1:30 p.m., and Sara and I had been taco-truck-hunting for over an hour, to no avail. We were hungry and irritable, and Sara had to get back to work. She made little effort to conceal her opinion that this whole taco-hunting mission was just another one of my wacky misadventures. She accepts these follies as part of the complexity of my charming personality, but even she has her limits. And an hour and a half of driving around in oven-hot weather with me barking “turn here” and cruelly, endlessly luring her on with perpetually unfulfilled promises of tasty tacos just around the corner is pretty close to her limit. She’d had enough and was going back to work.
My sister, Brenna, met us at El Sazon and relieved Sara of her babysitting duties. Brenna had just gotten into town the night before and had been immediately excited when I told her about the taco mission. Though we grew up here, she lives in New York City now, and I’ve often heard her complain about how the city that seemingly has everything has no good Mexican grub. Whenever she comes back home to Reno, it’s always one of her first priorities to go out for Mexican food.
We went into El Sazon. Their tacos are pretty good—corny tortillas, tangy lime, frisky cilantro and onion—but the meat was more chewy than succulent. However, I’d still give the joint a recommendation. I don’t know how the tacos from the trucks compare to those in the actual restaurant—I guess you’d have to be a construction worker to find out.[page]
All’s Wells …
It was clear that I was going to have little luck finding actual open-for-business taco trucks using the address list I had. I’d have to strain my memory and use my instincts—do some serious Professor X action. In order to find the taco trucks, I’d have to think like a taco truck … if I were a taco truck, where would I be? And the answer came in a flash that resonated through my innards: Wells Avenue!
If streets were edible, then Wells Avenue would be the most delicious in town. In addition to a wide variety of Mexican joints, there’s a barbecue place, a fresh produce co-op, a high-end seafood place, a bunch of Irish pubs for those necessary pints of Guinness and a whole bunch of other places. And I knew for a fact that there were (at least sometimes) taco trucks there—I’d eaten from them.
Luckily, Oddie Boulevard, the street we were already on, transforms into Wells Avenue. So it’d be no problem for us to travel the length and breadth of Wells, no doubt encountering a glorious series of increasingly impressive taco trucks. We set to it. And, before long, we spotted, near the southwest corner of Wells and Cheney, a truck adorned with a Spanish name that was clearly serving food. Looked good, too—there was a small but contented crowd out front.
We pulled over, and I marched right up, and without looking at the menu, ordered a taco con carne asada.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said the woman in the window of the truck, “We don’t do tacos—just tortas.”
I glanced back up at the name above the window: Tortas Ebenezer. The torta, as you probably know, is the halfway point between the taco and sandwich. I felt like an ass for assuming that any place that was serving food and speaking Spanish would inevitably serve tacos.
I went ahead and had one of their tortas. It was big, tasty and filling, and mine came loaded with carne asada, jalapeños and cheese. At $5 a pop, they’re a little more expensive than a taco. (If a taco doesn’t cost a buck, it probably costs a buck 50. Any more than that, and it’s overpriced.) But the tortas pack a more stomach-filling punch, probably because they’re served on a fat, fluffy sandwich roll instead of a couple of thin, floppy discs made of corn.
The owners of Tortas Ebenezer, Joaquin Ansta and Bety Trejo, are friendly and excited to talk about their business. They start off most mornings at 7 a.m. with all fresh ingredients and sell their tortas until they run out.
That ends Wells
Farther south, near the northeast corner of Wells and Capitol Hill Avenue, at a prime spot in front of the King Ranch Market, was a cart labeled “Chicago Deli on the River.” The cart was obviously not in Chicago, nowhere near a river, and probably not what you’d strictly define as a deli. They also had a sign that boasted of selling “Mexican-style” hot dogs.
According to the woman working the cart, a “Mexican-style hot dog” is a hot dog wrapped in bacon and grilled.
So it wasn’t a taco … but nor was it something I could say no to. I love meat wrapped in other meat—and a hot dog wrapped in bacon? A hot dog. Wrapped in bacon. There’s a kind of base, sexual appeal there that no true carnivore could ever resist.
The dogs came in two sizes—since I was trying to pace myself, I went with the small ($2.50).
You get the hot dog (wrapped in bacon!), you pile on grilled onions, fresh tomatoes and jalapeños, ketchup and mustard, and you’re set with a whole heap of delicious. It’s probably artery-clogging and fat-making, but it’s undeniably wonderful.
I know that this whole Mexican-style hot dog thing doesn’t really fit with the taco theme, but it was just such an amazing discovery I feel compelled to share it. A hot dog. Wrapped in bacon!
When I finished wolfing down the dog—and inevitably getting ketchup on my shirt in the process—and stopped marveling at what I’m sure isn’t really that unusual of a concept, I had a chilling realization: We had come to the end of Wells Avenue.
And we hadn’t encountered a single taco truck. The surefire bet, the street I imagine lined with taco gold … and there hadn’t been a single taco truck. I’d had a torta from a torta truck, and a hot dog from a hot dog cart, and I had a taco from a taco truck company, but I had yet to actually eat a taco from a taco truck. I was four hours into my quest to eat tacos from taco trucks. I’d eaten tacos, and eaten food from trucks, but no tacos from actual taco trucks.
If I wasn’t feeling a little high from the heat, the hangover and the hot dog, I probably would’ve broken down and cried. (If I ever get around to writing my memoir, The Heat, the Hangover and the Hot Dog might be a good title.)
Right and Wrondel
But just when all seemed hopeless, I found it. The Reno taco mainline: Wrondel Way.
Near the intersection of Wrondel and Grove Street, I found not one, but two taco trucks: Yeseria Tacos and El Shaddai. El Shaddai was closed—it was around 4 p.m., kind of a witching hour between lunch and dinner—but Yeseria was just starting to pick up. I was on my own at this point—my sister is a girl with a busy social calendar—but was finally able to fulfill my dream of walking up to a taco truck and ordering a taco with carne asada.
“Just one?” asked a man in the truck. (There were four people in the truck and only one of them spoke English.)
“Just one,” I said proudly. Nobody ever eats just one taco—but I was on the prowl … no taco truck monogamy for me.
“For here or to go?” he asked.
That’s sort of a strange question for a place on wheels with no tables or seats, but it basically translates as “paper plate or paper bag?” Since I was in a hurry—I had to meet up with Sara—I went with the bag.
Maybe it was because I only had one, but they really loaded up that taco. These guys packed more meat into a single taco than most places are able to get into the whole enchilada. It was like a whole cow piled on to a couple coffee coasters.
The meat was as good as it was plentiful, but a little dry—though this was easily remedied with the lime and hot sauce they happily supplied me with (as well as jalapeños and radishes). You really get a lot of bang for your buck from this taco truck.[page]
A moveable feast
I took a brief intermission before starting off with the evening shift of the taco team, including my taco-eating compadres Paul “Big Sketch” and Kyle “Lil’ Sketch,” two roommates—their house is called the “Sketch Pad"—known for their wild antics, mischievous buffoonery and general troublemaking. Sara came along for a little while, mostly to supervise, but it quickly became clear to her that all three of us took this taco-eating business very seriously. There would be no time for shenanigans. We set out like mammoth hunters.
Lil’ Sketch, with his keen, leering eyes, spotted our first find of the evening: Taqueria Rios de Agua Viva, a taco truck that had managed to turn an unassuming corner—the northwest corner of Oddie Boulevard and Sutro street—in front of a Salvation Army into a busy, bustling social spot at dinner time. A moderate crowd gathered around the cart, and mouth-watering smells permeated the air.
The tacos from Taqueria Rios de Agua Viva’s had a lot of spice and cilantro sting but skimpier meat than I’d like. (I might have been spoiled by that Yeseria monstruo.) I had a bite of Sara’s al pastor taco—that’s spicy, slow-grilled marinated pork— and it was probably better than my carne asada taco. Of course, it might just have been that I was impressed by eating something other than the carne asada I’d been chowing.
After Taqueria Rios de Agua, we had another long stretch of just driving around, wasting gas, driving out to remote, alleged taco truck locations in Sun Valley and elsewhere and coming up with nada. After a while, Sara, whose life consists of a lot more than just eating tacos, had us drop her off at home where she had more fulfilling pursuits to attend to. She’s probably the only sane person I know.
After a day of prowling, mostly unsuccessfully, for taco trucks, your mind starts playing tricks on you … you start seeing taco truck mirages. Every oversized vehicle looks like a potential taco hot spot. I wanted to run up to FedEx trucks and ask for extra hot sauce.
“Oh, there’s one!” I exclaimed, as we were driving down Neil Road.
“No, that’s an ice cream truck,” said Lil’ Sketch.
“Well, you could probably get a Choco Taco,” suggested Big Sketch.
We might’ve been hunting too early. Some of these kitchens don’t set up shop until after dark. That’s the case with Lulu’s Tacos, which sets up in the parking lot of Speedway on the corner of Peckham and Neil Road after sunset.
We’d gone by the intersection a couple of times already when, not too long after seeing the ice cream truck, we spotted the truck heading in the opposite direction down Terminal Way.
“Follow that truck!” I screamed at Big Sketch, who flipped around with the kind of quick, illegal U-turn usually relegated to Hollywood car chases—but it was the best taco lead we’d had in hours.
We followed it back to the Speedway lot and did our best to wait patiently while they set up and got ready. (Part of their set-up included a TV with a portable satellite.) We weren’t the only ones there. A small crowd gathered pretty quickly.
Now, all the tacos I tried during The Day of the Taco had their merits, but the taco from Lulu’s was probably my favorite. It was the most perfectly balanced taco I had the whole day. Each element was clearly distinguishable—the spicy, juicy carne asada; the two tortillas laid out like a Venn diagram to properly support the maximum ingredients; the cilantro and onion diced finely together; the hot-but-not-overwhelming sauce and the hint of lime—and it all comes together in harmony so perfect it might as well have been The Temptations.
We hunted some more, stopped to have a few drinks, and hunted some more. I was driving the last leg of the journey, taking long, out-of-the-way routes through Hispanic neighborhoods, panning for taco gold. I decided to swing back by Wrondel Way and found that though it was closed at 4 p.m., El Shaddai was open at 10 p.m.
We pulled over, and Big Sketch and I got out and got tacos. El Shaddai was a nice closer. It was quiet and more modest than the last couple of trucks we’d found. There was no big crowd, no satellite TV. And the tacos were good. Mine didn’t quite knock me out the way the one at Lulu’s had, but Big Sketch said that his was the best of the evening.
It occurred to me that I was probably just burned out. I was sick of hunting taco trucks and tired of considering the minute differences between one taco and the next. We’d found some good spots. And the next time I want to find a taco truck, I know where to go—Lulu’s on Peckham after dusk, Wrondel Way any other time.
But you eat any one thing over and over all day long, and you’re going to end up worn-out. No food can withstand that kind of repetitive scrutiny and consumption. The possible exception is banana splits.
Which I might go hunting for next Wednesday.
Big Sketch and I finished our tacos and started to walk back to the car.
“Let’s blow this taco stand,” he said.