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Taco Trucks de Santa Rosa

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  • Melanie Wong Aug 12, 2001 11:16 PM
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Sebastopol Road between Dutton Avenue and Stony Point Road in the Roseland district of Santa Rosa is where you’ll find an ever-changing mix of taco trucks day or night. Over the past few months I’ve been working my way along the south side of the street (haven’t even made it to the other side yet) trying to figure out who does what best. I’ve only had a chance to visit each of these from one to four times so keep in mind that these are initial impressions.

Nearly all their customers are Latinos who sit at the couple outdoor tables to eat their meal. I’ve not seen more than a handful of gringos in all my visits and those are to go orders. The taco vendors all seemed surprised when I wanted to eat my food on the spot and not have it wrapped to go. To me the fresh grilled aromas and flavors are ephemeral and demand instant consumption. In general, the salsas are spiked much hotter than offered in the County’s taquerias that appeal to a broader crowd. If you’ve got a delicate constitution, best to ask them to go easy on the hot sauce.

All of them charge a buck per taco and offer a wedge of lime with the order. Some have other accompaniments as well. The tacos are the authentic small-sized ones made with doubled corn tortillas with a little bit of meat of your choice. The soft and chewy tortillas used seem to be uniformly of the same high quality, tasting of corn and on the thick side. Maybe they all use the same brand. Standard topping is chopped cilantro leaves, diced fresh onions, and hot sauce.

The most challenging part has been figuring out the hours of operation for these gypsy trucks. Even if they’ve told me when to find them, they’re not there during that time when I come by again. My experience has been in the summer and things be different when daylight savings time ends. I list what I’ve uncovered, yet , it’s best to not have your heart set on one and be flexible about moving on to whoever’s there at the time.

Starting from Stony Point Road and moving eastward, the first truck you’ll find is El Grullense in the parking lot of Giga’s Sports Bar. This seems to be an afternoon truck which packs up by around 8 pm. It’s run by a couple of animated Latina matrons who get a big kick out of flirting with the mostly male customers. The tortillas here are warmed up on an oiled griddle adding another dimension to the tacos. The lengua taco here is on the stingy side. The meat is not seasoned well and the salsa tastes tinny.

Next as you progress eastbound is La Texanita next to the car wash. This is a day-time truck around for the lunch hour and departing around 6:30 pm. Here they have gulf coast-style seafood offerings. The pretty young ladies who take your order have the best English-language skills of the bunch, and they get some sizeable tips ($10-$20) from the flock of well-dressed young men who congregate here. The taco de pezcado is a bargain at $1 with small piece of battered deep-fried red snapper, tartar sauce, spicy red chile sauce, a dice of juicy fresh red tomatoes, and crisp shreds of iceberg lettuce. While the menu says tartar sauce is included, I’ve found that you need to ask for it. The tostada de ceviche, $2, is very good here. Also looking good, but not tasted yet are the coctels of ceviche or shrimp and the shrimp tostadas. The carnitas are light-textured and non-fatty here and the lengua is rich and tender. Each taco was topped with a kind of salsa, a verde made from tomatillos for the lengua and salsa fresca for the carnitas. They’re accompanied by radish slices and grilled scallion. The tables are set with bottles of hot sauce if you need more heat. On weekends the drinks man sets up his refrigerated dispensers and sells horchata, tamarindo, and jamaica (hibiscus) aguas for $1. The horchata is made from scratch and isn’t diluted by too much ice. When the aguas man isn’t here, I’ll settle for a non-alcoholic sangria soda from Señorial.

Further along is the second La Texanita truck in the Joyeria Angelica parking lot next to the Roseland School. Not around during the day, this one shows up in time for the dinner crowd. No seafood here. The carnitas and lengua tacos are good here as well. What’s special here is cabeza (head meat, such as beef cheeks) with long-braised flavors and not too watery. Pickled veggies and grilled scallions accompany the taco plates. The cinnamony horchata here is packed ahead of time in individual cups with ice and depending on when you show up will be somewhat thinned down.

Next in the line-up is Delicias Elenitas on the west corner of West Avenue in the Lita’s Coffee Shop parking lot. This is an afternoon and evening truck which appears after the coffee shop (serving breakfast and lunch) has closed. The coffee shop’s covered patio offers lots of seating attracting more family groups and the set-back from the street makes it more pleasant. My one visit was on a Sunday evening when a salsa bar was set up offering many types of delicious salsas from mild to incendiary and condiments of chopped jalapenos, diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, olives, and more. The horchata man has a small stand and you pay him separately. He seemed to be in command of all things dairy, selling not only horchata but also doling out extra crema and crumbled queso blanco for a charge. His horchata is sublime, much creamier and fuller flavored. I suspect he uses whole milk rather than skim, and didn’t mind the premium price of $1.50 for this drink. The tacos of carnitas, lengua and carne asada were all good and I really liked the avocado-based salsa from the bar. Looking around me though, I noticed that most of the customers were chowing down on huge tortas. These must be the specialty, as the price here is a $1 more than the competition and it’s still the most popular item. Driving by on weekdays or Saturdays, I haven’t seen the same salsa and horchata set-up, so I have yet to revisit. Perhaps Sunday is the best day to drop by.

Across the street on the other side of West Avenue is the second Delicias Elenitas truck. It’s in an abandoned gas station next to David’s Shoe Repair. They say they’re open from 11 to 11 every day but that’s not always true. The folks here are from Guanajuato and offer a change of pace with a more diverse and extensive selection of antojitos. The clientele seems older and more established driving new monster pick-up trucks and packing cell phones. I’ve been here more than the other places and still haven’t sampled all the things that grab my interest. There’s a master at work here who packs a ton of flavor into every bite. The seasoning here is extra hot and salty (the Szechwan of Mexico) but oh so delicious. I inevitably need two drinks here to keep my head from blowing off. Fortunately, they stock my favorite flavor of Jarritos Mexican soda, toronja (grapefruit) which can cut through the chile burn.

The taco de lengua is decent with a very hot red salsa and accompanied by a grilled scallion and radishes. About 5” across, the sopes, $4, are large here. My al pastor sope was topped with real cotija cheese (and not Kraft parmesan from the green can) and the crema tastes pure, fresh and not gummy. The gordita with carnitas, $4, was very salty with crisp brown edges on the carnitas filling and a chewy freshly made fat gordita. The other things that sound great on the menu are quesadilla de masa con patatas y chorizo, huarache, taco de suadero (meat between the ribs), and tostada de tinga. The enchilada plates are popular and look fantastic too.

The best item is the pambazo de tinga, $3.50. Think of a sloppy Joe made with fiery sauce. The beef for tinga is stewed until it’s falling apart into flavorful shreds with carrots, onions and lots of black pepper in a hot chile sauce. This sandwich is made with a big round hamburger-size roll, filled with tinga, crumbly queso blanco, crema fresca, and shredded lettuce and then brushed all over with more chile sauce and heated on the griddle. Not pressed like a panini but browned a bit on the grill. The bread seems like day-old but I think that keeps it from disintegrating instantly from all the juices. The whole thing is wrapped up in paper and cut into halves, otherwise you’d never be able to pick it up. Even so, tackling one of these pambazos is a eight-napkin event.

Finally, Tacos Los Magos is in the Union 76 gas station lot on the east corner of Dutton. Walking up to it, the spicy barbacoa aromas start the juices running. But it must be something else in the air as the taco al pastor turns out to be bland and undistinguished. The lengua is just okay, not as soft and buttery in texture as I prefer. The red sauce is hot with a big kick here. The one unique thing that might bring me back is the scoop of soft and sweet stewed white onion slices that accompanies each plate along with a pickled jalapeño pepper and wedge of lime.

My exploration of the Roseland district continues and I haven’t gotten sick yet. I hope that chowhounds can overcome their fears and will try the trucks for some of the best Mexican food to be found in these parts.

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  1. b
    Brandon Nelson

    Gracias.....
    having the coach info is golden.
    That is one heck of a scouting report Mel. Thanks for the time, I'll be better prepared the next time I'm on your side of the hills. I haven't found a taqueria that is a runaway favorite in the Santa Rosa area, so

    Hounds I have to second our dear Miss Wong's sage advice about trying the trucks. The best tacos in the Napa Valley are served on 4 wheels. Street food is one of the great chowhound adventures, one that separates us from the foodies. The only time I have ever gotten food poisoning from a meximeal was at a decidedly gringo establishment.

    Chow!!!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Brandon Nelson

      The level of chilis used is bound to kill anything! Also, the amount of turnover that these trucks get doesn't leave food sitting around for long.

      Have only covered this 4 or so blocks of Sebastopol Road, just the south side of the street. There are 3 or 4 more trucks on the north side plus several taqueria restaurants.

    2. Melanie, the pambazos are major finds. they are not native to your area...or anywhere in the north of mexico, for that matter.

      The rolls SHOULD be stale, for firmness. They are, as you noted, fried on the grill (though it's important to note that they are fried close to the chorizo--or whatever other meat is used--which gives them a reddish or dark hue). If made correctly, they should be a whole lot better than sloppy joe's, but still definitely not a light, easy snack for polite company.

      I love grapefruit Jarritos, too, but tamarind is also real good, and more commonly found. Jamaica (hibiscus) is a really good thing when you can find it right (that is, homemade).

      Great report! If I were you, I'd be searching for: huitlacoche (a black fungus from corn) and flores de calabaza (squash flowers) quesadillas, and for places that make a variety of carnitas (in Mexico, carnitas are a category, not a cut). Also, I suspect you can get tamales and atol at one of these trucks, perhaps only on weekends. You may want to do a Sunday pass-through to see what's on special offer.

      ciao

      12 Replies
      1. re: Jim Leff

        Wouldn't Guanajuato be considered central Mexico? Are pambazos from this area or an acculturation? My understanding is that most of the wine country Mexican labor force is from Michoacan and Jalisco states. Guanajuato is just inland from those places.

        With harvest starting and workers arriving, I will definitely be cruising on Sundays to see what's special. Actually, this is the time of year to try to wangle an invite to a worker party --- big copper cauldrons of carnitas cooking over an open fire in the vineyard.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Not sure of the exact origins of pambazos, just that you can't find them in the north (by which I meant the border area...maybe "northern" was a bad choice of terms). Though lord knows I've tried.

          1. re: Jim Leff

            I'd never heard of a pambazo before seeing this truck and had to ask what it was. The order guy said, como torta and made a circular shape with his hands. He suggested either tinga or chorizo and potatoes for the stuffing. Another interesting thing on the list is quesadilla de masa con rajas which he said is peppers and cream - had that? This particular truck will be a source of new taste sensations, I can see that, but sadly, I can only get there on weekends. Now if I can just time it so that the horchata guy across the street is here at the same time...

            1. re: Melanie Wong
              c
              Caitlin McGrath

              AFAIK, rajas is sliced, grilled poblanos, so expect a little bite.

              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                If you could have seen the steam coming out of my ears downing this delicious pambazo drenched with black pepper, chipotle and something else that was very hot in the sauce, some grilled poblanos will be a piece of cake. But I do think I need to wait for the extra creamy horchata to coat the stomach.

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  My mouth is literally watering.

                  Has anyone else noticed the decline in both quality and quantity of Taco Trucks in Oakland? My favorite (I can't vouch for comparative quality, but it was on my way to the Coliseum and had good $2 burritos) is long gone, and others don't seem to be where they used to be, at least not reliably.

                  1. re: Melanie Wong
                    c
                    Caitlin McGrath

                    Oh, poblanos aren't much heat, to be, sure, and are very tasty; I just wanted to clarify what kind of peppers "rajas" are.

                    My own neighborhood is certainly devoid of real Mexican, but I've discovered a place that makes an okay taco, and at least uses the requisite two steamed corn tortillas, which are reasonably fresh. How pathetic does this sound? But serious tacos here take work. At any rate, I get what are called on the menu "cactus" tacos, but I'm half covinced it's actually rajas because of the flavor and heat. Or do nopales have a bite I'm unaware of? (I haven't had a lot of nopales.)

                    1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                      No, nopales themselves don't have any heat. But I'll bet among those pieces of green cactus pads, there are some serrano or jalapeno chili bits mingled in.

                2. re: Melanie Wong

                  Chorizo and papas (cutesily reduced to "choripapas" by some) is the canonical filling for pambazos. You must go back and try it. It's one of my holy grails.

                  God, I feel like getting on a plane right now....

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    I'll practice saying "choripapas" as cute as I possibly can and follow it up with muchisimas gracias. (g)

                    If I'd known you were this wild about pambazos, I would have posted sooner. This topic was for Panpan's benefit...the idea of a budding chowhound growing up in Manchuria discovering beef tacos and searching to relive that memory in the new world is inspiring.

            2. re: Jim Leff

              I was back at Delicias Elenitas (white truck, east of West Ave.) tonight as soon as I could get out of the East Bay. At 10:45pm on this Saturday night, it was busiest that I've ever seen it. The other trucks around had many customers milling around and there was as much auto traffic as daylight. The hanging bare light bulbs strung along the length of the trucks lent a certain festive air, and with the darkness of night obscuring much of the unscenic surroundings, one could imagine being at a more exotic locale.

              Unfortuanately, at this late hour, several items were sold out (and blanked out with masking tape on the menu signs). No pambazos, no carne asada, and no rajas. My order was a tostada de tinga ($3.50) and a taco de suadero ($1). The taco was one of the best I've had in my lifetime - and I've consumed thousands of tacos of many kinds. I will remember this moment for a long time. This was my first encounter with suadero which is meat from beef ribs. I'm not sure which part of the rib this comes from, but it had all of the intensely rich beefy goodness that was missing from last night's kal bi (Korean short ribs). What flavor! This seemed like it was roasted, cut into small dice, and then grilled to reheat. This may replace lengua as my favorite carne for tacos. Rather than using the hot red salsa, this taco had been sauced with a less spice and more delicately flavored tomatillo salsa. The tortillas had just the right amount of oil from the grill to heighten the flavor sensations. Truly an outstanding mouthful.

              The beef tinga here has also become addictive. The tostada format sets it off nicely. Tonight, it didn't seem as hot as in the pambazo. I love the ropiness of the beef shreds, sweetness of the carmelized onions and the smoky flavors of the chipotle sauce were more pronoounced this time. These guys know how to build a tostada too - base of whole pinto beans and not refritos, a scoop of tinga, shredded iceberg lettuce, a blizzard of crumbled queso blanco, chopped cilantro, crema fresca and a little bit of salsa verde to add one more layer of flavor. I apprecite that they use the real stuff - queso blanco - and not grated Monterey jack. The granular, almost rubbery texture of Mexican-style cheeses gives that authentic mouthfeel, and they don't melt and turn into goo. This was only a one-Jarrito event on the flame scale.

              Tonight the young man who is more comfortable speaking English was on duty, and I had the chance to quiz him some more. Sadly though, this truck never offers flores de calabaza or huitlacoche.

              I noticed that the Delicias Elenitas (sky blue truck) on the other side of West had the salsa bar set up tonight. But with no horchata man in sight, I had no urge to check out that action.

              I had a chance to try another truck on the south side of the street too, Taco El Tio, which is in the Maytag store parking lot just west of Dutton. The young women who are the order takers say they're here from 6pm until after midnight, and most of the day on Sundays.

              The tables and chairs are much nicer than the competition, tubular aluminum, patio-style with cushions and arm rests on the chairs. And there are a few extra chairs in a row, so you can pretend that you're on the beach on this warmish night. The round umbrella tables are set with a communal bowls of pickled jalapeños and carrots. Several customers were happily slurping from big white bowls, which they tell me is pozole. On Sunday morning, menudo will be available again.

              After having such a great taco up the street, it really wasn't fair to order here, but since I was on the spot, I got a taco de carnitas. While not the earth-moving experience of the suadero, this was a very good one. The carnitas style is juicy and not too lean. One thing of note is that the tortillas were heated on an oiled grill until they were very hot, not just warm, as was the meat. I had to wait a few moments until the whole thing cooled down enough to pick it up with my fingers. The onions were juicy and minced very finely, whereas the cilantro leaves were chopped coarsely and almost whole. The saucing was a garlicky salsa verde of barely warm spiciness. Also accompanying the taco were some radish slices, lime wedge, and a grilled cebollito (scallion). Very delicious rendition of a standard.

              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Foiled again - the Delicias Elenitas (white truck) was gone by the time I arrived at 6:30pm. No rajas for me tonight (Sunday) either.

                A quick change of culinary gears and I zipped over a couple blocks to the early La Texanita truck that serves seafood. At first I was disappointed that the aguas man was not on duty, but then saw that the equipment was propped up on the dash of the catering truck. I was in luck - there was still a little of that blessed horchata left. I also ordered a tostada. Camarones (shrimp) was already all gone, so I went with the ceviche and pulpo (octopus) version ($3). This was absolutely super - just the right balance of salty and sour on the ceviche and the chopped pieces of octopus had a bit of resistance but were tender to the bite. The tostada also had a sprinkle of diced ripe tomatoes, a little bit of chopped cilantro, and three slices of ripe avocado. I added a few drops of green habañero hot sauce and I was in business.

                Not quite full, I headed back to the Delicias Elenitas (blue truck with the Madonna painted on the driver's side) for a couple tacos. I discover that the young man (with an pierced earring in right ear and giant crucifix) who took orders for the other D.E. truck last night is here today. I asked for the hours of both and he said the blue truck arrives at 4pm, whereas the white truck across the street starts at 11am. In any case, I go for a couple tacos, one pollo (chicken) and one suadero. This time I made a point to ask for cebollitos and hit the jackpot when my plate appears with five oily/salty grilled green onions instead of just one. Oh, I love these!

                The salsa bar was set-up and I helped myself to some garlicky avocado salsa for the grilled chicken and salsa fresca and thin red chile sauce for the suadero. I made sort of a pile of salad with the green onions, cucumber slices and radish slices from the bar with another scoop of the avocado sauce. These are good tacos but they're not as vibrant as the ones their comrades make across the street. The suadero failed to excite as it did last night, lacking the same richness and intensity.

                These two stops take less than 45 minutes to eat and run. As I was leaving, I noticed that the El Tio truck is back in business. But another time, no room for menudo tonight. This is becoming a regular stop on my chow rounds.

            3. Sunday morning I left the foggy city in search of sunshine and tomatoes - at the Marin Farmer's Market. With a backseat full of fresh produce and other yummy treats, I spent the next couple of hours meandering in search of photo opportunities. Around lunchtime, I ended up in Santa Rosa and remembered the TACO TRUCKS.

              I have never even been to Santa Rosa, and did not have any of my chowhound notes with me. I brazenly thought that I would be able to drive around this city and find the taco trucks. With a growling stomach, I drove around for about 20 minutes, before spying a couple crossing the street in downtown Santa Rosa. I stopped, and asked them if they were locals, and if they could please help me find the taco trucks. What ensued was hilarity. Huge discussions between the two of them, a scolding from the woman who told me that I could not find them before 6 pm (to which I replied, "But I am hungry NOW") and finally, a detailed description of where to go - all of this half in english and half in spanish.

              I ended up at La Texanita, and had three delicious tacos - two asada and one al pastor ... and I could have eaten ten. The tortillas were delicious, and the toppings were great - I believe it was lettuce, cilantro, and lime. The guy taking the orders asked if I was sure I wanted hot sauce (which happens to me all the time) and the resulting salsa topping was a spicy delicious complement to the meat in the tacos.

              After returning to the foggy city and reading Melanie's reports, I now know I should have tried the seafood treats, and somehow I missed the carnitas tacos on the menu, however I had a thoroughly delicious and enjoyable lunch. I look forward to returning and tackling the taco truck challenge!

              1 Reply
              1. re: jen maiser

                Wow, Jen, I'm so glad the info was useful to you. As jazzed as I am about exploring what this taco truck row has to offer, I realize that the prospect is scary for some and geographically impossible for others.

                I love your tale of asking for directions. Great chowhound determination, I admire that! The array of trucks changes throughout the day, fortunately, there's back-up if your first choice is not around. I'm delighted that there's somewhere to grab a bite to eat in Santa Rosa after 11pm.

                The meat tacos at La Texanita are very nice. There's a lightness and bright edge to them, that I suppose comes from the specialization on seafood which should be clean and fresh-tasting. This carries over to the balance point of their other offerings. In contrast, the place where I got the tinga and pambazos offers hearty and deep flavors. Can't go wrong with either.

                That stretch of Sebastopol Road is interesting, no? I need to poke me head into the 24-hour donut shop with the flashing "teriyaki chicken" sign and see what that's about. Several storefront taquerias too, maybe there are some more detailed types of Mexican specialties to be had. Have only visited one of the Mexican markets so far. The soul food/bbq place is in the nabe, as well as Korean bbq. Then on the other side of Dutton is Mekong Market, and within a couple blocks are at least four Vietnamese restaurants.