By Kaitlin Steinberg
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By Eating Our Words
The bifstek taco at the Jarro trailer on Gessner came with Angus sirloin, sliced paper thin, without a thread of gristle, grilled well-done, and layered on two lightly fried corn tortillas. On the stainless steel counter that runs along the front of the trailer, there were salsas and condiments in six decorative, three-legged Mexican bowls.
I grabbed a fat lime quarter from one bowl on the shelf and squeezed it over the top of the steak. I skipped the bright orange chile de árbol salsa and the neon green Serrano slurry. This time I wanted to try a dark chocolate-colored salsa made with dried chiles in oil with a dash of orange juice for sweetness. For a topping, I spooned up some escabeche, onion slices marinated in lime juice and flecked with Mexican oregano and chile powder.
This steak taco was one of the hundreds of tacos I'd eaten in the last six months while writing the Taco Truck Gourmet blog for HouStoned. And it was also my last, as the blog had run its course. With a note of nostalgia, I folded the two tortillas around the meat and condiments, cocked my head to one side in the time-honored taco eater's pose and took a huge bite.
The meat was so tender, it dissolved on my tongue. The juicy beef melded with the familiar flavors of corn tortilla and lime juice. The raw-flavored dried chile salsa came on like mole poblano's punk-ass cousin. And the juicy raw onions added some crunch.
One morning six months ago, I tried to get breakfast at the famous taco trailer called Taqueria Tacambaro behind Canino's on Airline Drive ("Taco-Truck Gourmet," August 24, 2006). The proprietress, Maria Rojas, didn't have any egg tacos. She said she only had fajitas. I pointed to a pile of white things on the griddle and asked her what they were.
"Mollejas," she replied, which is Spanish for sweetbreads. The incongruity of eating a dish I associated with French haute cuisine from a taco truck made me grin. Just for kicks, I ordered a taco stuffed with sweetbreads and topped it with raw onion, cilantro and salsa. The fluffy, barely-cooked-through sweetbreads, hot off the griddle, were the best I have ever eaten in Houston.
Maria Rojas said she served the same food at her taco trailer that you'd find at the little puestos (food stalls) in the mercado of her hometown of Tacambaro in Michoacán. She chose her location near the fruit and vegetable stands of the Farmers Marketing Association on Airline Drive because it's the closest thing to a Mexican mercado you can find in Houston.
I might never have tried the taco de mollejas at Taqueria Tacambaro, if they weren't one of the only things available. The experience convinced me that there were some hidden treasures out there. So I decided to make a concerted effort to find the best taco trucks in the city and write about them.
I already knew there was nothing inherently wonderful about taco truck food. It can be better than, worse than or just the same as the food in a taqueria or a Mexican restaurant. But there are some fundamental differences.
Taco trucks are operated by immigrants for immigrants. This makes them a fascinating culinary phenomenon, first of all, because they're serving some items no other venues offer, and second, because they challenge high-minded ideas about authenticity.
For a sampling of our favorite taco trucks, click here.
Taco truck fare is defined by the Mexican-style taco, which is comprised of two lightly fried corn tortillas stuck together, then filled with some kind of meat. The price ranges from $1 to $2 each, with the vast majority falling smack in the middle at $1.50.
Optional toppings include a first tier of raw onion and chopped cilantro, which is generally free. For the second tier, an additional option of lettuce and tomato, there is generally a small charge. Jalapeños, sometimes pickled but more often roasted, are also available for a pittance. Salsas range from the simple to the elaborate; they are always free and always applied by the consumer.
Variations include other corn dough platforms, such as gorditas, chalupas or sopes, which go for $2 to $3. Flour tortillas are sometimes available for an extra 25 cents, and they are occasionally homemade. The oversize Mexican sandwiches called tortas are $5 or $6. I've also seen Frito pies and nachos on taco truck menus, but Tex-Mex crispy tacos and cheese enchiladas are notably absent.
Even though the cooks and the customers are mostly Mexican immigrants, it would be a mistake to assume that taco trucks serve authentic Mexican food. Goat is the most common meat in the Michoacán Mercado stalls, according to Maria Rojas.
On Houston taco trucks, fajita meat is by far the most common offering. You can get it on tacos, quesadillas, gorditas, tortas and scrambled with eggs on a breakfast taco. That's because the city's meat purveyors sell low-end beef for fajitas from as little as $1 a pound.
Nor can you say that taco truck food is all Americanized. Maria Rojas's tripe and sweetbreads tacos are exactly the kind of food that newly arrived immigrants will go out of their way for. Curiously, cutting-edge culinary types like Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain are big into offal dishes, too. And, of course, so are the French.