WHEELING AND DEALING
The streets of every major city get heavy traffic from catering trucks. But cities like Oakland, with large Mexican-American communities, have made parking lots and corners grind spots for taco trucks that serve cheap and delicious food fast. Gimme what you got for a torta!
By Maclean Jackson
So many hate on fast food. They say, “It’s unhealthy!”, “It’s corporate!” “They use third world baby cows!” Maybe the problem is that the haters can’t think outside the Happy Meal box. Maybe it’s time to abandon the Acura, balk at the mall and walk down the boulevard in a Hispanic community for quick, handheld delicious food. Catering trucks in California date back to the LA area in the early ’50s and ’60s, when the trucks would service factories and Hollywood sets for lunchtime convenience, but today taco trucks up and down the West Coast serve authentic Mexican fare like tortas, tacos, menudo and tamales. California’s Bay Area is known for its diverse culinary delights, which usually means more money, more problems. Looking for an alternative, Mass Appeal asked Ajene Moss, an East Bay native and creator of the website tacotrucks.net and photographer Dylan Maddux to find out what’s on the menu in East Oakland’s taco truck scene.
Hit International Boulevard, the life vein of East Oakland, and you’ll find all types of people washing down a lime sprinkled carne asada taco with a refreshing Jarrito Mexican soda. Taco trucks start opening up at around nine AM and some keep at it until around three in the morning. Look down International Boulevard at around five PM and you’ll find at least two taco trucks on every block. Some owners set up tables and benches outside their trucks where families, couples and friends, all enjoy food. The prices are pretty much standard: $1.25 for a soft taco, $3 for a torta, $4 for a burrito—the hot sauce and limes are free. Though the prices are cheap like commercialized Mexican fast food chains, the recipes and quality are as different as night and day, bringing that authentic Mexican food to the block. You’ll find meats like carnitas (fried pork), tripas (beef intestines), lengua (beef tongue), carne asada (beef steak), chicken breast and thighs, al pastor (roast pork), cesos (brains) and cabeza (beef cheeks). The menu is more of a guide, as most taco truck cooks will make customized orders: select a meat to fill a torta (sandwich), quesadilla or tostada and accompany it with a bowl of menudo (soup).
For five years, 30-year-old Johnny Gomez and his brother have manufactured catering trucks at their LA-based West Coast Catering Trucks. As a Native Southern Californian, Gomez has gone from witnessing the evolution of the catering truck to customizing them. “In the late ’60s and’70s, there were no individual owners, there were only major companies that had [catering trucks]”, says Gomez. “This one company called Royal [had] 200 hundred trucks. They would lease them to people or have their own employees, and they would go to construction sites or factories—different locations where it was inconvenient for them to bring their food [from home].” The catering truck companies had contracts with the businesses, where they would go to the parking lots of businesses for a designated amount of time. “Each truck probably had about four or five stops during the day,” explains Gomez. The trucks offered a variety of fresh, cheap food to the workers and became very popular with the blue collar LA population.
Around this time, the catering trucks started hitting the streets of the Bay Area and like the blue-collar persona of the Oakland Raiders, they generated a dedicated fan base. The rise of the Hispanic community throughout California allowed trucks to specialize in authentic Mexican fare. Then, in the early ’80s, after realizing the earning potential of this budding industry, more individuals started breaking away from the companies, buying catering trucks and going on their own routes. “Little by little, there was a change. Now instead of the catering trucks having a route and having four or five stops, they would sit up at one location and then they would be there the whole day,” Gomez explains.
Some are scared by the “roach coach” image associated with taco trucks. Jose Montes, an employee of the El Ojo De Agua #3 truck in East Oakland says, “They see which ones are clean, people notice when the trucks are dirty and they won’t go to them. We’re very clean, as you can see.” Gomez also points out, “A catering truck has to pass through major health codes and inspections. On top of that, in my personal opinion, they sell fresher food than average restaurants because the catering truck will buy their meats and poultry and produce on an everyday basis.” A restaurant might buy meat for an entire week at once, but the taco truck owners do it one torta at a time and prepare most items fresh on order. With the abundance of taco trucks, each kitchen might have a specialty to draw customers. If the tortas aren’t stacked, slide down the block and score a superior sandwich. Jose Montes feels his truck’s best dish is the Tortas Especial—“We’re the only people that make Hawaiian and Cuban style tortas, and the ‘Mother in Law’: it’s got pork, lettuce, tomato, onion and avocados.” But what if the local palate isn’t tolerant of a particular Tejano technique? “If the catering truck does bad or doesn’t quite provide you the success or the sales that you want, you get up and you move to the other side of town,” says Gomez. “That’s the good thing … you have the option to move around at any time of the day, until you find a good location.”
Since the trucks don’t always have set locations, customers might distinguish a truck by its appearance. “Some people get really creative because you don’t want to have that type of business and have it all blank on the side. People will drive by and expect a delivery van,” Gomez explains. “You want to outfit it with some nice graphics and logos, maybe some food painted on the side—something that catches the eye.” But don’t expect corny talking Chihuahua mascots hitting the streets, woofing about a particular truck anytime soon. What keeps people coming back to a truck is the quality of the food. “It’s all a matter of what the customer asks for. If the customer demands a certain item, a certain food, at a certain price, at a certain convenience, there’s always gonna be people that’s gonna be there to provide that service,” says Gomez. “It’s like any other business—if the demand wasn’t there, catering trucks would not have evolved to what they are now.” Por favor believe it!