Salinas Chowdown Report: Venimos, Vimos, Comimos Tacos
We came. We saw. We ate tacos.
Yesterday 11 chowhounds (and one feisty Chihuahua) hit the streets of east Salinas in search of good chow. Taco aficionados rallied in my hometown to test my premise that our street vendors can throw down and beat the best of San Francisco, Oakland, Napa Valley, and Sonoma County, the other communities famous for food destination-worthy taco trucks. We hit ten street vendors in six hours, including a break in the middle for some independent exploration. A highly ambitious itinerary for a delegation of this size, yet the chowhounds were up to the challenge.
The vendors included my favorites and also the ones that seem to be the most popular. In some cases, my prior experience might have been limited to a single taco or none at all (e.g., La Paloma) and putting them on the tour was the chance to sample and critique more widely.
1:00pm Mister Taco truck, Sun Street at East Market Street
1:45pm El Grullense truck, Kern Street at East Market Street
El Compita truck, Kern Street at East Alisal Street
2:30pm Tacos La Paloma truck, 352 Griffin Street
3:00pm Mariscos Las Glorias truck, Bridge Street at E. Rossi St.
Mariscos El Kora truck. Menke Street at Bridge St.
3:45pm Treasure hunt in the Alisal district
5:30pm Julio Valdez cart, East Market Street at Ivy Street
6:30pm El Kiosko #2 truck, 8 Williams Road at East Alisal Street
Tacos Colima #1 truck, 201 Williams Road at East Market Street
7:00pm Tacos Acámbaro wagon, 330 Griffin Street
Split into four teams (Guajillo, Pasilla, Arbol, and Chiltepin), the ‘hounds were also turned loose in the Alisal district for some ad lib chowhounding beyond our set itinerary. Their mission was to get a feel for the food terrain, both on the street or brick and mortar, and scavenge for other chow treasure in virgin territory.
My own team, Chiltepin, chowed through a wide-ranging tasting menu:
Al pastor quesadilla de maiz, tripas taco, carnitas taco, cabeza taco, and carne azada taco from Mr. Taco
Tres leches cake from Panaderia Guadalajara (E. Market)
Carnitas taco and buche taco from El Grullense
Campechana al estilo Sinaloa from El Compita
Sesos taco and carnitas taco from La Paloma
Campechana al estilo Nayarit and ceviche de pescado tostada from El Kora
Campechana al estilo Sinaloa (vuelve a la vida?) from Las Glorias
Squeezed-to-order carrot-orange jugo, palmier, pineapple pastry, and walnut and rompope gelatinas from Panaderia Guadalajara (N. Sanborn)
Tamale de elote (aka uchepo), champurrado, and Mexican hot dog with everything from Julio Valdez
Sope al pastor and carnitas taco from El Kiosko #2
Piña Jarritos from Quality Market
Stewed nopalitos, birria taco, chicharrones en chile taco, and cabeza taco from Tacos Colima #1
Campechana (bistek and tripas) taco and al pastor taco from Tacos Acambaro
At the start, I had put $20 into the collective taco kitty. At day’s end, my lunch and dinner eating cost only $15 and I got change back!
My fellow taco-trekkers, muchísimas gracias for making the journey to Salinas to see and to eat for yourselves. Let’s hear about your favorites, discoveries and opinions of the day!
Photo album -
Google Map of Salinas Street Food –
This area is obviously a taco chowhound's paradise. Thanks to all hounds who participated; we all await your comments, opinions, and photos.
Thanks also to Melanie for organizing and publicizing the story of the Salinas food vendors' struggle to remain in what is obviously a thriving and much needed local dining niche . (Your explanation of how a crawl might work was also helpful for us 'virgins' . I somehow imagined having to eat a dozen tacos!)
I can hardly wait to plan a weekend in the area just for the street food and regional specilaty shops, beginning with the Farmer's Market....
re: toodie jane
As a veteran of many taco crawls, I brought my kit (originally assembled for dim sum tastings). It includes a couple of small, sharp knives, a small cutting board, a pair of tongs, and most useful, a pair of kitchen shears. I also brought extra cups (for sharing drinks) and spoons, forks, plates, and my Chow Cruiser, which has a shelf that extends partway out the hatchback and acts as a table. My team (Guajillos) cut all our tacos into pieces (shears, used point straight down, are best for this). Some heartier eaters actually ate whole tacos!
re: Ruth Lafler
Ruth, thanks so much for your experience on the taco trail and showing us how to do one. I'm incredibly grateful to you for making the trip down here from your Fruitvale stomping ground to give my hometown favorites a workout. And, I'm glad that ahclem captured the scene of your tailgate spread with those colorful plastic picnic plates and shears in action.
As one of our group said to me, "Teams. . . treasurers, navigators, photographers, goals . . . where's our lawyer? I thought we were just going to stand around trucks, eat tacos and talk." As I explained, I like to plan and provide a lot of structure, just so that it's there if we need it and we're free to abandon it.
Another way to share tacos is to separate the doubled tortillas and slide half the meat and toppings onto each. Some of us got pretty expert at judging which pairs of tortillas would be "slideable" or were sticking too much to try to separate. We tried that too, as well as just biting off one's share.
re: Ruth Lafler
OK. Wonderful reports and pictures everyone.
I always wondered how they served to coctels in taco trucks since they are always in deep glass goblets in restaurants. It was interesting to see pictures back to back.
Were they all sold cold? At Portumex they can be ordered cold or ``tibio,'' which is halfway between hot and cold.. Interesting to see steaming versions. Haven't tried either version yet.
So ... have you thought about marketing those 'taco/dim sum' kits? It made me smile ... and people say I'm too obscessed with food ... I haven't crossed the line into taco kits ... oh wait ... I do carry in the car a sharp knife, bottle opener ... uh .. coooler storing paper plates, cups, plastic cutlery ... never mind.
The cutest thing about my "kit" is that a friend made a small plastic-lined totebag for it out of fabric with a dim sum pattern on it (pictures of dim sum plates with the words "dim sum" interspersed). The shears are definitely the key, as with them you can cut almost anything with minimal handling and mess, and even without a flat surface: just pinch and cut (I stole the idea from the dim sum cart ladies). These were cheap shears I bought at Walgreens for a under $5, btw. The only thing I whipped out the knife for was the corn on the cob.
The biggest shock for me was the number of trucks we passed up in favor of these few pre-scouted favorites. Salinas has the largest concentration of mobile Mexican deliciousness I have ever seen. I can imagine feeling threatened as a local restaurant owner, to be honest.
The first truck we sampled, Mister Taco, I think had the most flavorful meat. The tripe was a revelation. It was fried to a crisp, and had not a hint of the funk that usually scares me away from it, just a livery tang. The al pastor quesadilla was also full of crispy frizzle of cheese and meat, excellent crunch. Loved the carnitas too. It was my first taste of cabeza--beef cheek meat--and it was dark and richly beefy, but softer in texture than the other stuff. I found the carne azada relatively undistinguished. This was also the truck where we learned how to cut a five-inch taco into four pieces and convey most of our bite-size share into our mouths and not onto our shirts or arms.
I wish I could take everyone who has ever doubted the freshness or cleanliness of taco-truck dining to the El Grullense truck. Their carnitas, while low in crispness, were the purest-tasting I've ever had in the US or Mexico. They just sang of good clean oil and good clean meat--no raunch factor whatsoever. This truck also had notably fresh-tasting chopped raw onions, fried silky sweet onions on the side, and very tasty tortillas. The buche (pork stomach?) wasn't strong in flavor, but had a suave silky smooth texture.
We didn't like La Paloma much. Frank, our best Spanish speaker, asked the proprietor what his specialties were, and he replied "todo es hecho con amor." Everything is made with love. I'd say everything was hecho con amor, pero sin carne. Just a couple of scraps of bland carnitas on our tiny taco. I tried the sesos--brains--aha, the Cream of Wheat of meat! No flavor, no texture, just a funky aftertaste.
We passed the El Compita truck on the way to see if the Acambaro wagon had arrived yet, but it hadn't. Lots of guys were crowded around El Compita eating giant tostadas piled high with shrimp, so we gave it a shot, to chase the sesos away. For ease in sharing, we got a campechana--a mixed seafood cocktail of shrimp, octopus, surimi, and a couple of raw oysters, in their own sweet juices mixed with chopped cucumber, onion, tomato and avocado. Wow, was that refrescante! Spooned onto a crisp tostada with an extra squeeze of lime, dripping all over my shoes unless I leaned way to the side while moving it toward my mouth, napkin stuffed into the palm of the opposite hand which readied itself to catch any wayward falling fish, standing on a curb strip as the wind died down and the sun turned warm--wow!
I was the treasurer of our group, not the navigator, and someday I'll try to figure out on a map what kinds of loops and circles we traced through Salinas. Five times we passed the Morelia 99-cent store, and always there was music playing and a happy crowd visible inside. Kenny's Meats Open To The Public looked intriguing as well.
Two more mariscos trucks came next, around the corner from one another in a quieter section of town. El Kora featured vibrant homemade green sauce that wouldn't have been out of place on a plate of Indian food. Their campechana was full of tiny clams and clam juice, with larger pieces of fish and vegetables, and rather than sweet it was salty and briny. Not my fave.
For a change of pace, we ordered the "vuelve a la vida" at Las Glorias, listed on the side panel of the truck as their specialty. It means "return to life," and is a hangover cure. Guess what, everyone? It's the same as campechana! Theirs featured big oysters and tastier tostadas (made of stone-ground corn).
I didn't take any notes about our "scavenger hunt" cruise through town looking in the shops. But I liked the gelatinas.
I LOVED Senor Julio Valdez. He is a hot dog man with gravitas. His hot dog "con todo" makes a Chicago dog look spartan--pickled chiles, cotija cheese, onions, pickled onions, tomatoes, mayonnaise, a little Cheese Whiz, and I honestly don't know what all else: it was such a profound appropriation and transformation of our so-american-familiar junk food institution that I truly felt a million miles from home. The crunchy-creamy-soft-salty-cold-hot-flavor riot made me laugh out loud. Senor Valdez got a lot of amusement out of our group, too. Watching Melanie give us our marching orders for the next stops on our journey, he agreed that she was "la jefa"--the chief.
His champurrado kicked butt, too. It was a very thick, not too-sweet atole with a mild chocolate flavor well-balanced by cinnamon and piloncillo. The evening breeze was picking up, so it was easy to sip the whole thing right down. But that meant the end of pacing myself bite-by-bite; after that, for me, it was a limp to the finish line (though another in our group actually snoozed in the back seat for the rest of the ride).
We swung by to check on the Acambaro wagon, and they weren't quite open for business yet, but we got to admire their operation. It was a quilted-steel-lined full kitchen in a trailer, and it was spotless, scrubbed to a high shine. Very impressive. Two women--a mother and daughter, maybe?--were all smiles chatting with us through the picture-windowed panel facing the sidewalk. Tripe and beef were stewing together in a big copper pot, and in a half-hour it would be ready to put into a taco. As we walked away, they emptied the contents onto the hot griddle, and the aroma followed us to our cars.
El Kiosko's sope was a little oily and leaden, but the meat was good enough to prolong the inevitable. The shadows were long when we pulled up to Tacos Colima, and a dinner crowd was in attendance. I watched neatly-dressed young men and women each ordering a plate of four tacos each, and thought wistfully of that champurrado I didn't share. The birria was good but salty, the chicharrones were offputtingly slippery, and I was done.
What a day! Great to be in two different cars with people as nutty as me, filled with such a sense of mission. What eats! Thanks for the calories!
My team, Guajillo, chowed through the following:
Mr. Taco: tripas taco, al pastor taco, cabeza taco -- the cabeza was our favorite of this bunch, with deeply flavored braised beef; the al pastor was the spiciest of the day, but a touch more tomatoey than I prefer
El Grullense: carnitas taco, carne asada taco and al pastor taco -- the carne asada was a mistake (he thought I said "asada" not "pescado"), but good nonetheless, especially with a squirt of lime; the carnitas taco wasn't porky enough for my taste, but the al pastor was my favorite rendition: not as spicy as some, but with more complex seasoning, including a hint of clove.
La Paloma: carnitas, cabeza and al pastor tacos -- the worst tacos I've ever had from a taco truck! I actually spit out my bite of the cabeza, the carnitas was bland and the al pastor was bland and had globs of fat. We had to clear our palates with ...
El Compita: tostada de ceviche de cameron (shimp ceviche). This was very fresh, with finely diced tomato, onion, cucumber and peppers, small chunks of barely "cooked" shrimp in a slightly spicy lime/cilantro marinade. It was interesting to compare with ...
Las Glorias: same item, but larger pieces of shrimp and diced veggies, much more "cooked" with the veggies verging on a pickled state. I think we agreed that we liked the shirmp from the Las Glorias version with the fresher veggies and spicier dressing of the Compita version.
We then broke off for our "ad lib" chowhounding and stumbled across Fairway Market, 323 Williams Rd.,which like most Mexican markets has a taqueria in the back. What attracted us was the banner out front advertising pupusas -- not only did that sound like a welcome change of pace, but two of the three of us had never had a pupusa! This turned out to be a great choice, as it offered us a chance to sit at a table (for a change!) while our pupusas were being prepared (an ancient woman -- apparently the proprietress' mother -- was summoned from the back to make them for us) and consumed. They were very good pupusas: one cheese flecked with green chiles, one meat and one bean/meat combo, and despite the fact that we'd felt too full to eat more than one, we polished them off (with help from the canine member of our team, who was clearly showing her Chihuahua roots). I did feel the curtido could have used more punch, but the pupusas weren't of the leaden type that requires a strong curtido. The taco meats included some less-common items, like barbacoa and conchinita pibil, so I wish I'd been more hungry!
We met up with the other teams in time to sample the walnut and rompope gelatinas from Panaderia Guadalajara before we set off for ...
Julio Valdez's "hot dog" cart. Our team decided to pass on the hot dogs and instead shared an ear of Mexican-style corn on the cob. Mr. Valdez has a very light hand with the mayo, using only enough to adhere a generous amount of good-quality cotija cheese and chile pepper; by this time all the teams were sharing bites, as no one could eat more than that. I had a bite of the sweet corn tamale, which was wonderfully light and fluffy, and we all liked the champurrado, with its perfect balance of chocolate, sweetness and corn, so much our team got our own cup.
El Kiosko #2: al pastor sope -- very good, both the sope (which I think was housemade, not from a package) and the pastor
and last but not least,
Tacos Colima #1 -- chiccharon taco, pork rinds braised in a moderately spicy sauce, tasty but too rich to eat at the end of a long day of chowing, I also had a bite of birria taco, which had an appropriately "gamey" meat flavor (probably mutton).
I didn't make the trip back to Tacos Acambaro -- although now I kinda wish I had, if only to get second look at the copper pot they were using to cook the tripe.
Our team had started off putting $10 each in the kitty and came out about even. Not bad for a day's chowhounding!
My wife and I (along with our literal chowhound) were fortunate to make up the rest of the Guajillo team with Ruth. In addition to being delightful company, Ruth not only came completely equipped for taco tasting, but, despite having already driven from the East Bay, volunteered to be the team driver so that we could take advantage her car's pull-out rear tabletop - invaluable for taco division and allocation. It is truly a chow cruiser. (Thanks Ruth!)
As Ruth has already posted a comprehensive team report, I'll only add that I agree with heidipie that the tripas at Mr. Taco were a revelation. Probably the best tripas taco I've tasted (although we didn't return to Tacos Acambaro, so don't know how those compared). And being able to try the two different interpretations of tostada de ceviche de cameron one after another provided an opportunity to internalize exactly what an ideal version would be.
Overall this was a fabulous experience. Going in, my wife and I wondered how we'd be able to maintain an appetite over so many hours of eating, but self-restraint pretty much carried the day. In fact, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that we ordered what we thought was one pupusa to share at the Fairway Market. Once we tasted them, as Ruth reported, we somehow (with only a little help from our chowhound) managed to polish off all three. And still be capable of sharing a tasty ear of Mr. Valdez's Mexican-style corn and some sips of his wonderful champurrado. (Next time a hot dog.)
A huge thanks to Melanie for pulling this together. This was a truly inspiring introduction to both Salinas street food and what is obviously a thriving community culture. Melanie's recent news that the vendors are making progress in their negotiations with the city takes on so much more personal meaning once one has had direct experience of how much pride the best of the vendors take in providing their community such delicious food at such reasonable prices.
A few photos, including pupusas (and chowhound):
That is the cutest dog and so theme-appropriate.
Was that really a pupusa with green pepper? I've never said that. Is it possible it was loroco?
I always thought though that the ingrediants in pupupas could use some expanded. If ever there was a food that could use some fusion ... not that a good pupusa isn't a good thing. However after a while it would be nice to have a riff on the standards.
It was definitely green chile (not green bell pepper) -- the pupusa had the distinctive chile-cheese flavor. And I've had loroco, so I'd recognize it. In fact, when I saw flecks of green in the pupusa I expected it to be loroco and was surprised when it wasn't.
Very cute dog -- she really chowed down on pieces of pupusa!
Such wonderful accounts and photos from you all. A most heartfelt thank you...although you might feel just a bit guilty engendering in the rest of us such longing and desire.
Being from Fresno, the photos took me back to that filtered but intense light of June, the slightly bleached colors, the quality and smell of the air, and the flatness and width of our valley scapes. The quilted stainless sides of the trucks--so universal I wonder why.