Keep on (taco) truckin’
Sacramento taco trucks will soon vanish. Meanwhile, their authentic Mexican eats are more popular than ever.
Leaving Midtown and heading northbound on 16th Street, where Craftsman homes and stately Victorians give way to neglected vacant lots and well-worn storefronts, is the unexpected onset of culinary adventure. Some grid dwellers know this north Sacramento area as “that place you pass on the way to Arden Fair Mall,” but in this neighborhood lay rare jewels, unhidden and in plain sight.
They’re cheap and fast purveyors of authentic Mexican and South American specialties worthy of the attention and dedication of the most snobbish “foodie.” Taco trucks landed on Gourmet Magazine’s radar in 2007. And taco-truck culture also has bred a multitude of Internet bloggers, who faithfully document choice locations, complete with all the hallmark trappings of foodie-ism, including, yes, an Asian-fusion taco truck in Culver City, Calif.
Last year, however, the Sacramento City Council saw fit to declare food-vending vehicles at permanent locations a nuisance, effectively a death sentence for Sacramento’s taco trucks, this despite similar measures being struck down throughout California. Only a handful of local trucks survived the ban—and they’ll disappear, too, by 2012.
Joshua Lurie-Terrell, local resident and curator of YumTacos.com, recently served as guide to Sacramento’s going-the-way-of-the-dodo taco vendors. Lurie-Terrell, author of a useful Google map documenting trucks both here in Sacramento and as far east as New York, has been featured on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. And with a merry taco-eating band in tow—Lurie-Terrell’s partner in crawl, Gaela; this writer; and said writer’s lovely girlfriend—we set off to explore the last days of the Sacramento taco truck, leaving no ceviche tostada unturned.
The first stop is an unpaved lot near the corner of Northgate and West El Camino boulevards, which plays host to not one but two reputable taco trucks. Like Geno’s and Pat’s in Philadelphia, which sling cheesesteaks within 100 feet from one another, La Mex Taqueria and Tacos La Piedad in Sacramento go mano a mano, but with tacos.
Lurie-Terrell steers the hungry fellowship toward La Mex.
Taco trucks have a lot in common. Menus typically are short: tacos, of course; sometimes burritos; sopes; tortas; pupusas at Salvadoran trucks; and the occasional ceviche, all with choice of meat. All fare is relatively inexpensive, and La Mex is no exception: Three tacos total only $3.
Containers filled with chopped onions, cilantro and salsa for garnish sit in an icebox below a small window on the side of the truck where we order. As for the fare, La Mex’s chorizo taco is a mass of rich, paprika-spiked, smoky meat tucked between fluffy tortillas. Lurie-Terrell gets a ceviche tostada, which sets off a Pavlovian response in the salivary glands. He insists that everyone wait, however, hinting there’s a truck to come with ceviche on par with the seafood he’s had on Mexico’s beaches.
The next truck, La Piedad, is literally a “short walk” away—just across the parking lot. A car full of mariachis pulls up, followed by another filled with fellow taco enthusiasts.
“You know it’s good when the mariachis eat here,” proclaims one of the customers boisterously.
Although it’s late for lunch—nearly 3 in the afternoon—patrons still queue four and five deep at La Piedad. Most appear to be longtime repeat customers, locals and regulars. And this makes sense: La Piedad’s one and only menu item, the taco, is exceptional.
Each order of tacos is paired with sides of caramelized grilled onions and a long, charred, blistered-skin green chili pepper. Made of just a few humble ingredients—warm, doughy tortilla; chopped onion; cilantro; utility salsa—it’s the meat that truly makes the taco. Spiced delicately, exceptions being the adovada and al pastor, the seasonings do not mask the meat and allow natural flavors to shine through.
La Piedad’s baconesque buche appears to be quite popular. But even better is the cabeza, which tastes like carnitas and pot roast got together and had a baby. And, yes, cabeza means “head,” but, more accurately, what you’re eating is beef cheek: tender and fatty, a bit musty but with a unique, mild gaminess. Trust La Piedad’s skill with this decadent economy cut. It’s damn good.
So good, in fact, maybe that’s why it’ll soon be illegal.
This brings us back to the matter of the taco-truck ban.
Last March, the Sacramento City Council, spurned by complaints from competing brick-and-mortar restaurateurs, unanimously passed a measure to prevent mobile-food vendors from operating on private property for more than 30 minutes at a time. While the council made a few small concessions, the ordinance effectively banned mobile-food vending within 400 feet of any residence and at any time after sundown.
Nine trucks were grandfathered in until 2012. These are the trucks worth visiting before they’re gone.
Some Sacramentans, who cite that dubious businesses like area credit swaps still remain legal, say the taco-truck ban highlights an unfortunate cultural divide. “Food plays a much larger role in cultural identity, in the day-to-day experience of a Mexican, so you see food everywhere in public places [in Mexico],” explains Kraig Kraft, a local foodie and UC Davis doctoral candidate.
“You can find manta ray tacos in Sonora, grasshopper tacos in Oaxaca, shrimp tacos, eyeball tacos, brain tacos—if it’s edible, it will go into a taco,” says Kraft, who recently spent nine months traveling the country researching chili peppers (look for his work in an upcoming issue of Edible Sacramento).
He laments the commoditization of food in America. “If you look at what [street-food vendors] are serving, none of it is prepared in the same earnest way as the food you encounter on the streets of Mexico. Rather than finding a handmade tamale, you find the same pretzel, Hebrew National hot dog and Coca-Cola [in New York City].”
Indeed, the lead up to the council’s 2008 decision was very much a stand-off between food as regulated commodity and food as culture. While testimony from the public strongly supported mobile-food vendors and their contributions to Sacramento culture and community, such testimony was overruled by council’s concerns regarding the collection of property and sales taxes, labor-code compliance and city aesthetics.
And so, in a town where it remains legal to sell a Crunchwrap Supreme, it became illegal to sell authentic tacos from a truck.
The last stop on this “last days tour” is Tres Hermanos, off West El Camino Boulevard. Lurie-Terrell orders tacos to take home to his wife and child while the rest of us stay busy trying to avoid getting ceviche juice on our sneakers. Lurie-Terrell asks for a business card.
“He wants to have a taco truck cater his birthday,” Gaela says. Taco trucks, after all, are a family affair.
Inside the truck, for instance, is Aurelio Torres, owner and operator of Tres Hermanos, cooking alongside his wife. “I’m trying to live, not get rich. I’ve been cooking in this city for 20 years,” Torres recounts of his Kafka-esque travails dealing with city government: the harassment by code enforcement, the lack of outreach by the city, the feeling that he is neither wanted nor welcomed as a business owner in Sacramento.
When asked if he plans on moving to a brick-and-mortar building after the 2012 deadline, Torres’ response is all too familiar these days:
“I lost my house. My credit is bad. Who is going to lend to me?”
The national taco-truck blogs, in response to the statewide campaign waged against taco trucks, coined an absurdist slogan: “Carne Asada Is Not a Crime.” But with each ordinance passed, the delicious becomes the delinquent, the absurd becomes the norm.
In three-and-a-half short years, Tres Hermanos and the rest of Sacramento’s taco trucks will either disappear or move out of the city. Carne asada will truly be criminalized. The Crunchwrap Supreme and credit-default swaps will likely remain.