Los Hooverville del Taco Trucks
Fortunately, Karen always keeps us well fed whenever we come to visit, so we never really consider eating out that often. But there are the few times when we're on our own, and attempting to find something worthwhile and interesting often leads to frustration in the land of Panda Express and Perko's.
My philosophy thus far has been that no matter where you are, no matter the size of the town, large or small, that in that town there has to be at least one place that does the best of whatever it does. If you are in a place where the dining situation looks rather bleak, a place where Olive Gardens, Jack In The Box's, and Applebees's dominate, there's gotta be one place – I repeat, one place – that stands apart. And sometimes a place like that can be fancy and "gourmet", or it can be ethnic, or sometimes it can be just a little stand on the side of the road that sells smoked fish. There has got to be that one place that, if they just put a damn hot dog on a bun, it is one of the best damn hot dogs you've ever had. In every town, I know that place exists.
Modesto is no exception.
I'm sure this comes as no surprise to you, gentle readers, that restaurants are made to suite the taste of the diner. Restaurants live on the expectations of the average diner. Only the people who can afford to eat out often, do. And depending on where you eat, you are not eating the opinion of the chef, you are eating the opinion of his or her regulars. Sometimes just knowing a restaurant's clientele is all of the truth in advertising you'll ever need. And remember that cost is no indication of quality.
When in Rome, find out where the Romans eat.
I had been hearing of the taco trucks in Modesto as sources of delicious Mexican food for really really cheap. In my area of San Francisco, I rarely encounter taco trucks and seeing as I don't get to the Mission very often, I've always settled for the more known and established eateries such as Pancho Villa, Los Jarritos, and La Rondalla. When Bruce and I were visiting Oxford, England, we saw that town's version of our taco trucks – the kebab vans. And while those also looked tempting, we steered clear of them in favor for the more traditional pub food. Now I wish we hadn't.
Kebab Vans, Oxford, England
The taco trucks we checked out last Thursday, besides being interesting cultural landmarks, were my first initiation into their inexpensive, yet delicious world. What brought us to Modesto on a weekday was to celebrate Bruce and Karen's birthdays and to help his dad go through some things for a yard sell.
On our lunch break, Bruce and I headed over to two areas of Modesto I'd heard about, where good taco trucks seemed to flourish. The first area was a place literally, and figuratively, on the "other side of the tracks". This is the place I christened Los Hooverville del Taco Trucks.
About a few blocks away from the county jail, and surrounded by bail bondsmen storefronts, was a little strip of 8th Street in which 6 taco trucks were lined up side by side with their backs towards the train tracks that run through the southern part of town. The front of the trucks were obscured by large tents under which sat picnic tables and taco truck patrons. Edging up against the tents were rows of cars that belonged to the patrons stopping by to get a quick bite and possibly a drug deal or two.
I had to mention that last part because, admittedly, those folks hanging around the taco truck tents were a pretty rough looking bunch. This being the bunch that Karl Marx would call the "dangerous class" or the "passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of old society" (day-amn Karl! you're sooo bitchy!) who may be swept up in proletarian revolution but for whom it's conditions prepare it more for that of a "tool of reactionary intrigue".
Not that I have anything against "rough looking" people (Hell! Some of my relatives could be those people!), but personally speaking, it's not easy for me to enjoy my food in the presence of angry winos, young thugs, and barefoot women shouting "Goddamit Billy, where's my money!"
At taco truck Jessica #2 we had two tacos: the carnitas, or shredded pork, and the lengua, or tongue. The total cost: $2, and they were ready in minutes. Among the taco meat choices were cheeks, brains, and tripe. Now, I'm a pretty adventurous eater, but I feel slightly ashamed to admit to you that I still get the "ick factor" whenever I see these items listed. Believe me when I say that I'm trying to get over this and I was truly tempted to order these "meats", but in my moment of trial and weakness, I played it safe. So I ordered the tongue. I know. I'm a wimp.
This was my second time eating tongue. The first time was a tongue sandwich at the Second Avenue Deli in New York where, while I enjoyed the meat, the sandwich was pretty boring. At least I knew I liked tongue. Bruce, however, is no fan seeing as he had to eat tongue sandwiches one too many times as a kid.
Our tacos came out on a paper plate and wrapped in aluminum foil and we took these and went back to our truck, put down the back and ate our tacos. Bruce had the carnitas which was good but salty. My tongue taco had a rich, chile, slow-cooked flavor that was slightly spicy but not spicy hot, the meat was tender, and the tacos were pliable and hot. Sure, it was a little bit messy, a little bit greasy, and a little bit salty. Perfect if you ask me. And the carrots, radishes, and limes were not only a great addition/condiment, but the presentation value also scored a perfect 10. Hey, you eat with your eyes too, you know.
Carnitas and Lengua Tacos
After we were done, we drove by Los Hooverville del Taco Trucks and threw some firecrackers out of the window just for fun.
OK, no we didn't.
We actually drove over to get a picture of the popular "Water, Wealth, Contentment, Health" sign that proudly announces your entry to the other side of the tracks. Declining to crossover just yet, we made our way to the second taco truck confluence over on Crow's Landing Road. This was my first time in this part of town and I have to say, I loved it.
Unlike Los Hooverville del Taco Trucks, the trucks on Crow's Landing Road were not circled together, like a Western wagon train fending off the hordes of hostile gringos, but were spread out along the stretch of the 4-lane-wide thoroughfare. This area of Modesto is predominantly Mexican, with mercados, discotecas, strip malls, restaurants, and taco trucks running down the 2 or 3-mile stretch of pavement and fading out into the southern most margins of the city.
Crow's Landing Road Taco Trucks
The two highlights of this trip for me was the huge and immaculate La Perla supermarket and the taco truck Mariscos Sinaloa. La Perla is a supermarket that specializes in Mexican and Latino food and that, previously, I believed only had one location.
For the last few Christmas Eves, it has become tradition to eat tamales from La Perla in Riverbank over at Karen's house. But I found out not that long ago that La Perla was a chain when our friend Laura (of Laura and Tom) told us about one near her house in Burlingame.
We saw two La Perlas while driving on Crow's Landing, one of which had obviously been there for a while, plus the brand spanking new one we stopped at. Once entering the new La Perla, we encountered an abundance of fresh vegetables including ones we had never seen before, such as fresh garbanzo beans and something called Camote del Cerro. Nowhere had we seen such an incredible selection of dried chilies, fresh veggies, meat, and Mexican pastries. Like the other La Perla, this one had a hot food counter as well as tables and chairs to sit at. So much food, so little stomach.
After leaving La Perla, we passed a taco truck called Mariscos Sinaloa. Sinaloa, I later found out, is a state in Mexico that runs along the Sea of Cortes and has a large fishing industry. In addition, it is also one of the largest drug trafficking regions in Mexico and is home to the infamous Tijuana cartel.
Isn't that special?
I don't know how long I stood staring at the menu, trying to decipher it with the limited Spanish I know. Eventually, I rolled the dice and picked something. Honestly, I had no idea what I was ordering, but I knew I couldn't stand there forever. Someone might think I was on drugs or something.
"I would like the campechana, please."
"Regular. With tostadas."
What I got for my $6 was a medium-sized styrofoam cup with a lid covering something liquidy and fishy smelling, four tostado shells, a lime, a spoon, and some napkins. Once I opened the lid and took a few sips, what I tasted was a slightly spicy, cold, tomatoey soup with small-diced cucumber chunks floating up. What I thought I had gotten was a type of gazpacho. It wasn't until I started to dig around that I realized I had gotten more than what I expected. Just beneath the surface of the soup were huge chunks of octopus and shrimp and more green veggies. Wow! Basically, the campechana is a cold seafood cocktail made up of octopus and fish, in this case shrimp. This was a real refreshing treat and afterwards I patted myself on the back for being lucky enough to choose it. Maybe I should've assumed that I couldn't go wrong at the taco truck Mariscos Sinaloa. I'll know better next time.
Campechana from Mariscos Sinaloa
On our way back, Bruce wanted to take a quick jaunt down 9th Street to see if a place he remembered going to when he was younger was still around. On our way there we passed several more taco trucks, and then the ultimate of ultimates: A taco bus! The taco bus, Viva Taco, was an old Bluebird school bus converted into a restaurant on wheels. The inside walls were paneled in "quilted" stainless steel and shone brightly. Several stools lined both sides of the inside of the bus, while a cook stood in back of the bus, where the kitchen is, and a man took food orders in the front. If only we had the appetites to convince us to stay. Viva Taco: please roll through my town! You would be much loved here.
Viva Taco Bus
Who would've expected such greatness from what some naysayers call "roach coaches"? Not I, but now I've changed my tune. From now on I'll sing the joys of taco trucks, kebab vans, and the like. Over those contented, wealthy train tracks, far from that black and white world of food, is a rainbow-colored food world where taco dreams do come true. And the next time I'm in Modesto, you'll know where to find me.
On the other side of the tracks.