"Nearly two-thirds of New York Restaurants may close by January," announced a recent CNN headline about the pandemic’s sad economic fallout. Though San Antonio’s hospitality industry is hardly immune, in trying times it’s clearly better to be a Big Enchilada than a Big Apple.
And, at least in theory, it also helps to be a food truck.
From the operator’s perspective, the rolling real estate is less of a financial burden than a lengthy, brick and mortar lease. And, within limits, the food can follow the audience, and the option to operate with two or three employees — can keep labor costs and virus exposure risks low.
On the consumer side, the open-air aspect of the truck is also ideal, with most experts agreeing that outdoor dining is far less risky than indoor. And yet, just when it should be thriving, there’s still a degree of turmoil among food trucks, a fluid fraternity even in the best of times. As I compiled a potential list of trucks to review for what I hope becomes a regular installment of roundup reviews, easily 50% were closed — at least temporarily.
Part of the trouble might have been my list. The quest was initially inspired by happening upon an Albanian truck. I was eager to see how their byrek pastries — phyllo filled with ground meat, potato or cheese — compared to the addictive burek I had tried in neighboring Serbia a couple of years back. I was also keen to explore another assumed advantage of trucks, their ability to evangelize for a little-known cuisine without a huge upfront investment. That left pizza, burgers and tacos off my list.
And byrek too, as it turns out. Though allegedly open, I found the truck shuttered when I found it on Interstate 10 and Wurzbach Road. That Ethiopian truck I had my eye on? Also closed. The Puerto Rican operation I had enjoyed during its occasional appearances at Dorćol Distilling? Again, closed, although temporarily.
Fortunately, there was Carnitas Don Raúl in its new location at Broadway News just north of downtown. It was just far enough out of the Mexican mainstream to be of interest. And it was very good.
To get right down to it: have the quesadilla Moreliana. Bracketed between tortillas as translucent as an ancient parchment, this mashup of carnitas — your choice of provenance on the pig — with refrieds, cheese and a whisper of guacamole may be greasy AF, but oh, what good grease. Pry up the top lid and drizzle in a little toasty salsa roja, then add some of the truck’s exceptional guac.
Carnitas Don Raúl’s carnitas taco with beans was less oozy but almost as tasty. It likes both the red sauce and the zippy verde — and save some of the latter for the chorizo taco. It’s a little barren as served — chopped onion and cilantro would also help.
I said no tacos, and already that rule is broken. So, I broke it again at Tapatio Vegan Tacos. If you regularly seek out vegan options, or are at least vegan-curious, this diminutive truck, parked in the unremarkable lot in front of Sanitary Tortillas, is a good option.
Personally, I found the street taco with seitan asada as unremarkable as the setting, but once the onions, salsa and beans came into play, the package perked up. The sopes come with refrieds, coconut-based cheese, grilled onions and a choice of several toppings — I had the papa and the bean and cheese versions.
Only the startlingly white cheese gave them away as vegan. Eyes closed, the meatless aspect was hardly noticeable. But even better was the pastor stuffed into a sturdy torta with grilled onion. Maybe it was the addition of the traditional pineapple, but the wheat gluten-based seitan was almost entirely convincing in this iteration.
Whether flour or corn, wraps are essential to handheld food around the world. At Abu Omar, a Houston-based halal chain of which there are two locations in San Antonio, the flatbread rules. So does the grilled chicken shawarma. The garlicky sauce transforms the Middle Eastern standby into a flavor bomb, and I’d only wish for the option to add more bracingly sour pickles.
There’s a lot of lamb on the aspirational menu, but, at least at the location at Babcock and Huebner roads, the only way the meat was available was generously shaved, in combination with beef, into a pita-wrapped gyro. The gyro was good, but it needed a little lemon to perk up the tzatziki sauce.
The falafel wrap, with the smashed chickpea-based orbs bathed in garlic sauce, needed nothing but some paper napkins to wipe away the few drips that somehow escaped.
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