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Sep 17, 2001 09:16 PM

Report: Oakland Taco Trucks, part IV

  • r

With both Saturday and Sunday at my disposal (my weekends are invariably either overbooked or wide open), I hoped to finish-up my survey of Oakland taco trucks.

Unfortunately, I was thwarted within sight of the Holy Grail: I found a truck that has pambazos on the menu (El Gordo on the corner of 42nd), but both times I went by they didn't have any (she said she would have some in the early evening on Sunday, but despite my best intentions, by that time I was too lazy to venture out again and too stuffed to do one justice). I did get a huarache from them (again, the only place I've seen them on the menu). This may have suffered from the fact I didn't get around to eating it until later, but it was almost as tough as the sandal it's named for. Still, their horchata was the best I've had: creamy, cinnamony, and served from a refrigerated dispenser without ice. This truck also offers Jaimaca agua fresca so I hold out high hopes for the pambazos.

I did at least finish surveying International Avenue. The trucks peter out east of High Street, and the neighborhood quickly goes from bustling and cheerful to depressingly derelict. The only brightish spot was the Sun Hop Fat 2 Super market at 54th, which also features a taco truck (pretty standard, although they did have birria on the menu and churros, which he wouldn't sell me because they weren't fresh) in the parking lot. I enjoyed browsing in the market -- thanks to chowhound I'm recognizing and sometimes purchasing items I would have ignored before (this time: canned mangosteen -- which was okay but must lose a great deal in the process). Key limes for 49 cents a pound, full-service meat counter with good-looking meat, fish, live fish and crabs (but soft-hearted folks like me have to close our eyes to the live turtles). There are also guys washing cars in the parking lot and my car was so filthy I could barely see out the windshield, so took the hint and had it washed while I shopped -- it was a very productive stop!

The Tacos Zamorano truck was parked at the corner of 48th. Again, I would rate it as "standard" -- I don't know if it always has been, or if it's gone downhill, but it didn't live up to the reputation it used to have as the best.

You can also put Tio Tino at 40th on the "don't bother" list.

There were a couple of other trucks farther out International, but frankly, they would have had to make a really positive visual impression on me to get me to stop in that neighborhood.

Since I had only ordered a tamale there the first time around, I went back to the Guadalajara truck at 44th and checked out their menu further. It turns out "tacos dorados" mean hard-shelled tacos, and seem to be unique to this truck, as do the "sopes" and the "flautas".

I ordered the benchmark al pastor taco (excellent, with Ojo de Agua's the best I've had), a chicken flauta (the only mis-order I've gotten, they gave me a chicken taco, which was also very good: chunks (rather than shreds) of nicely but not overpoweringly seasoned chicken), and after some confusion, a carnitas sope. The confusion came because I had no idea what "sopes" were. I know "sopa" and "sopaipilla" so I was expecting something like one of those and couldn't figure out why he wanted to know my choice of meat! It turns out "sopes" are sort of a cross between a tostada and a tamale: masa formed into the shape of a tart shell and cooked on the grill, filled with carnitas and topped with a thick green sauce, chopped lettuce, etc. (I'm now waiting for everyone to chime it about what an idiot I am to never have heard of this common dish!). I have nothing to compare it to, but it was pretty tasty (the carnitas was excellent -- the flavorless tamale from the first report must have been an aberration).

Both days I couldn't resist stopping by El Ojo de Agua (see Pineapple Tamales report from Saturday). Sunday the proprietress recognized me and with a twinkle in her eyes beckoned over a young man to answer my questions. No hot chocolate today. The "atole calientitos" was guava, which as far as I could tell would be essentially hot guava soup -- a little too weird for me.

I found a Mexican food glossary on the Web today that confirmed that "atole" is a drink thickened with rice or corn and clarified that the separate sign I never did decipher Saturday reading "champurrado" was indicating the flavor of the atole of the day (for those as clueless as I am, champurrado is specifically chocolate atole; as a confirmed chocoholic I'm hanging my head in shame at not instinctively being able to understand a chocolate-related term in a romance language).

He also explained "licuados" -- milkshakes with various additives (bananas, granola, etc.). The "special" licuados are "mamey" (glossary says a type of coconut) and bombe (which I haven't figured out yet -- any clues?).

I got another pineapple tamale (addictive little devils!) and a pork one. The pork tamale was the only disappointing item I've had from them -- the opposite of the unseasoned one from Guadalajara, this one had unblended gobs of paste that seemed to be mostly powdered chiles -- very hot, but without much complexity of flavor.

Still, unless I'm blown away by the pambazos (if I ever get one) at El Gordo, I'm willing to provisionally declare El Ojo de Agua the best all-around taco truck in Oakland.

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  1. Great report! Sounds like you've had a good time doing your investigating. Thanks.

    1. ruth,

      thank you for another thorough and enlightening report. You're an inspiration to us all.

      I am happy to hear about the tasty sopes at Guadalajara -- they are not that easy to find, in my experience. And don't be too hard on yourself about not knowin'. The variety of simple corn dishes from Mexico is mind-boggling and, like chile names, often confusing. For example, if you stuff a sope with a filling, rather than placing it on top, and then fry it, it's called a gordita. (unless you're at Taco Bell. Then a Gordita is a glorified taco...or is that a Chalupa?)

      Trying to motivate myself down toward International, I remain


      1. What's a pambazo?

        7 Replies
        1. re: patrick

          Well, I've never had one (g). But Melanie reported on them in her Santa Rosa taco truck reports, and I decided I had to find them closer to home.

          I'm attaching the link to her report, because it's mouthwatering reading, but since it's also very long, here's the relevant excerpt:

          "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."

          Jim Leff then reported that:

          "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."

          Now that I'm basically done with the other trucks and I've found one that has them on the menu, I'll just keep swinging by until I get one for myself.


          1. re: Ruth Lafler

            Good work, Ruth, I hope you get to try them soon. Jim also mentioned that the "classic" pambazo is with chorizo and potatoes.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              oh my liberty,

              that description of a pambazo made me dizzy from food-lust.

              1. re: patrick

                I suspect that the spirit of Jim Leff was hovering over me when I was typing that. Sounds more like his language than mine, doesn't it? (g)

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  "the spirit of Jim Leff"

                  I'm not dead yet!!

                  1. re: Jim Leff

                    Of course not, but your influence and reach knows no bounds. (g)

                    1. re: Melanie Wong

                      Oh, influence and reach.

                      Y'know, I tried today--unsuccessfully--to convince my mom and her bridge partner not to meet at the usual toxic restaurant ("free sushi at happy hour!") for lunch. There's a great place 1/2 mile away. I evangelized, I reasoned, I reprimanded, I begged. Carrots, sticks, and carrot sticks.

                      They completely blew me off. I can't talk my OWN MOM into going 30 seconds out of her way for ten gazillion times better food!

                      Influence and reach.........