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Oakland taco trucks: carnitas

I was out "taco trucking" last night with a visitor, and ended up trying carnitas at two trucks.

One was completely new to me truck: El Grullo (which I learned today is a town in Michoacan), which is parked at the Chevron station at the corner of High and Foothill. The carnitas here was very good: tender, moist and redolent of pork fat, with some nice browned bits to add caramelized fat flavor. Very close to my benchmark carnitas taco at El Novillo (Fruitvale and E.12th).

The other new-to-me carnitas was at one of my favorite trucks: El Gordo #2 at International and 42nd (evenings and weekends only). Although I've seen rave reviews for their carnitas, I've never had them: I usually go for their excellent al pastor, with a suardero "chaser," and the one time I went specifically to try the carnitas, they didn't have any. This was a very different take on carnitas: although the meat had a good porkiness, the "star" was the salsa. Most other places use a green salsa with their carnitas, but El Gordo uses a red salsa that has a smoky quality that made me think it included chipotle. However, my companion was a journalist who had arranged to meet and interview the owner of the truck -- the charming Carlos Montero -- and Carlos assured me there was no chipotle in the salsa. Perhaps he was protecting his "trade secret" or perhaps there was something else providing that smoky note, but it was very good. I didn't like it better than the green-sauced versions where the pork is more the star, but it was delicious in its own right.

It was really interesting to meet and talk to the owner of one of my favorite trucks, and hear about his history in the business: his father has a taco cart back home in Mexico, which is memorialized in the mural on the back of the truck (note: after all the times I've been there, I never noticed until I saw it going down the street the other day that El Gordo #2 is actually a trailer, not a truck: Carlos said he switched from a truck to a "wagon" because it's lower and has a plexiglass front, so that people can look in and see the food cooking, which he says appeals to customers. I noted also that at night, with the lights on inside, the interior "action" is clearly visible to cars going by, making it good advertising. He had the wagon specially customized for him by an outfit in LA that specializes in outfitting taco trucks.). Carlos said he started out with a smaller set-up in a nearby parking lot, and that he's going to be opening a taqueria in San Leandro in the next month, demonstrating clearly the important link taco trucks play in the economic upward mobility of the immigrants who run them.

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  1. Sure would like to know the new San Leandro location, please!

    1 Reply
    1. re: sydthekyd

      He didn't give me an exact address. He said it was on Floresta near Washington and he said something about "Bally's" -- there's a Bally's Fitness at 567 Floresta Blvd, so presumably it's somewhere on that block.

    2. Thanks, Ruth, I love your taco reports! Did El Gordo have some browned bits as well? I know these things shift from taco to taco, but some browned bits are the best (not the all crunchy style of La Bamba in Mountain View that a lot of people love). My fave place on the peninsula serves their great tasting carnitas with too much oil (Taquerian El Grullense). The tacos are kind of swimming and it is unnecessary.

      8 Replies
      1. re: P. Punko

        I was so wrapped up in the salsa I didn't notice any crispy bits in the El Gordo carnitas.

        Interesting what you said about the oil. One thing Carlos pointed out was that at his truck and many others they make the tacos "al vapor" -- tortillas steamed instead of fried. He said people like taco truck tacos because they're less greasy, and thus lighter and healthier. Also, I noticed that El Gordo basically now serves only tacos: the prices for the other menu options (burritos, huarches, etc.) have been scratched out. I noticed that they had some burrito-sized tortillas in the truck, so I guess they would make a burrito for you if you asked, but I'm not even sure they have the rice and beans to go into one. The reporter and I had a discussion about why tacos would be a specialty, with me pointing out that burritos are arguably not authentically Mexican (having purportedly been developed in "Alta California") and that the purity and simplicity of a taco compared to a burrito makes tacos more sophisticated.

        1. re: Ruth Lafler

          Odd argument--al vapor's the standard around here.

          1. re: Robert Lauriston

            I don't know if it's the "standard" -- I do notice that it's a feature that's often advertised, which suggests to me that it's *not* the standard: if it were, why would they go out of the way to mention it? Now that I think about it, I see "al vapor" proclaimed more and more often on "bricks-and-mortar" taquerias. Perhaps the preferrence Carlos noted has caused more places to prepared their tacos that way (or at least, to advertise that they make them that way).

            1. re: Ruth Lafler

              It's nothing new, steaming's been the default prep for tacos around here my whole life. I'd be shocked if I ordered a taco and it came fried.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                I don't know Robert... The Sinaloa trucks that I go to regularly are definitely crisped in a bit of the meat grease before being topped.

                1. re: adrienne156

                  Right. I don't mean fried like the boxed taco shells of my youth, I mean heated in a small amount of fat on the griddle. Tacos with hard-fried tortillas are available some places, including some trucks, but are identified as "tacos dorado" (golden tacos).

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Yeah, I much prefer the tortilla griddled for more than a hint of crispness, but it seems I get them both ways- sometimes very soft, with no evidence of tortilla warmed on the griddle- my first trip to the El Novillo truck the tortillas were really griddled and every subsequent trip not so much at all. I think I will specifically ask for extra griddle next time.

                    1. re: P. Punko

                      Sometimes it depends on which meat you've ordered. Seems like tongue or birria, for example, as braised meats are on steamed tortillas, whereas, other meats like carnitas or carne asada that are heated on the grill will be served in griddled tortillas that are heated right beside them. Also I've been noticing that the steamed tortillas are often the very thin ones, still served double, but have such a delicacy that they show off the meat more.

      2. I'm resurrecting this thread to recommend another carnitas vendor: the Mar Y Tierra taco wagon parked just outside the Fruitvale BART station (it's there for the small Thursday farmers market at the BART station). I asked the woman taking orders what taco meat she recommended and she suggested the carnitas. I asked if it was soft or crispy, and she said crispy.

        It was indeed well browned and carmelized, but in large enough chunks that there were pieces marbled with of unctuous fat. The orange-red salsa left a lingering warmth. A truly delicious few bites for $1.25. In a related note, we swung by Nieves Cinco de Mayo later in the day. The featured new flavor was chipotle, and it was delicious: smoky and spicy and cool. I wouldn't eat a whole scoop, but I had them add a small amount next to my coconut (lovely with soft bits of fresh coconut) and it made a delicious counterpoint.

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        Nieves Cinco de Mayo
        3340 E 12th St, Oakland, CA 94601