The contestants were chosen through the kind word of strangers and randomness, and the transitory nature of taco trucks made finding them not always an easy task. Though a taco truck’s reputation may be firm, the truck itself may shift from parking lot to parking lot forever in search of the greatest crowd. At times I felt less like a fast food critic and more like the reporter from the TV show The Incredible Hulk who was always one step behind the evasive Bruce Banner. As an additional challenge, I tried to not favor one region of town over another. But enough with the explanations; let me introduce our first three contenders. May the battle begin.
Representing the West Side is Taquitos El Guero, located a half block from the intersection of Commerce and Murry. The truck didn’t seem to have moved much recently as half of it was jacked up on cinderblocks, and I noticed that it was actually not a truck but a trailer. Next to the trailer was a small covered dining area built to accommodate the overflowing crowd of people.
Things seemed to be going well for Taquitos El Guero. Had they transcended the need for mobility with their success? I pondered this as I took a bite out of the al-pastor torta. The pork was well marinated, the bread was toasted just right, and the price was wonderfully cheap — overall, incredible. The asada taco was great as well but not in the same stratosphere. The pollo tacos, however, were nowhere near as good and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. I could only wonder what cut of chicken it was — tendons, knuckles? How could I go from the magical al-pastor torta to this depth so quickly? Chicken tacos are not the most common item at taco trucks, perhaps for a reason I have yet to grasp. After this experience, I decided to focus on beef and pork.
As the sun faded, I left to rest, digest, and figure out more destinations. Dizzy with al-pastor satisfaction, I almost turned the wrong way onto Commerce Street, but corrected myself in time to avoid getting hit by a monster truck. Lucky to be alive, I went to the gym and sat in the sauna in search of mental clarity and physical rejuvenation needed for the long night ahead.
Tacos El Puerto is located on the South Side at Fair Avenue and South New Braunfels in the parking lot of a mysterious country karaoke bar called The Other Woman. This was a real taco truck with stools for seating and a gasoline generator blaring in the background. Here, we focused on the asada and al-pastor tacos, which were quite delicious, but didn’t achieve the soaring heights of Taquitos El Guero. The price was still great: a plate of tacos ran around $4.
At this point I began to wonder if the taco-truck taco was inherently superior to restaurant tacos by nature of its simple elegance — grilled meat with a few chopped onions, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime served on a hot corn tortilla. After my last two taco-truck meals, the beans, lettuce, and tomatoes typically served with restaurant tacos seem like distractions.
Much, much later the night culminated in the Los Angeles Heights neighborhood at the intersection of Blanco and Santa Monica. There, in the parking lot of a paint store (of all things), we found Tacos El Amigo de Jalisco. With much of the city asleep, including most restaurants, this seemed like the best way to enjoy the taco-truck experience. There was something noble about a taco truck staying open so late to feed hungry, drunk people. Standing in the cold while waiting at the stainless-steel counter, one could appreciate the personal one-on-one attention.
So how were the al pastor and asada tacos? The prices were still cheap but higher than the previous two trucks we had tried. Inversely, the taco quality was worse. But here’s the thing: Overall, the tacos were still good. My disappointment was only relative. Round One was a success. Round Two should be even better.
For more taco-truck tales, see “Devil in a red taco truck,” May 5-11, 2005. Nominate your favorite taco truck for Mark’s grand tour: firstname.lastname@example.org.