From Tacos to Tikka Masala
What differentiates a "classic" food truck from those on last week's list of Houston's Top 10 "Fancy" Food Trucks?
For starters, a classic food truck has been around for at least a few years prior to the gourmet food truck craze — if not a decade longer. Classic food trucks are usually found at their same spot every single day, decamping only to visit the commissary and then quickly reclaiming their timeworn location in the parking lot of a car wash, a grocery store or an auto repair place.
And, as inveterate taco truck blogger Jay Rascoe of Guns & Tacos put it in a 2011 guide to Houston's best taco trucks: "The true taco truck, the humble servant of the diverse world of mobile cuisine, does not tout self-congratulatory and misleading terms such as 'gourmet' or 'chef-driven.'"
Without further ado, here are our ten favorite classic trucks:
10. El Norteño
Pech and Hillendahl
There are few simple pleasures in life more intense or rewarding than a perfectly roasted chicken, its skin caramelized to a savory crisp. If roasted correctly, the chicken's buttery fat will infuse the flesh with a savory sweetness that's far better than any added herbs, garlic or other marinades. Such is the case at the bright blue El Norteño trucks that line Long Point from Gessner up to Wirt. My favorite is in the parking lot of the flea market that sits between Pech and Hillendahl. A whole roasted chicken will easily feed four people and comes with a whole roasted onion, roasted jalapeños, peppy salsa and plenty of corn tortillas, all for less than $15.
9. Taqueria Tariacuri
Harwin and Fondren
Chili Bob's Houston Eats first turned me on to this food truck, which shares a parking lot with famous knockoff-avenue Harwin's answer to Gallery Furniture: Galaly Furniture. No kidding. The tacos at Taqueria Tariacuri are only average, but you're coming here for a pambazo — the Mexican sandwich that blows tortas and cemitas out of the water. As with the tortillas at Taco Keto below, the pambazo bread is dipped into ruddy guajillo sauce before it's griddled alongside (and sometimes on top of) the roughly diced fajita beef that goes inside. The result is a hot sandwich with typical torta fillings — refried beans, lettuce, crema, tomatoes and crumbly, salty cheese — sandwiched between buns that are barely crispy, buttery and rich with the flavor of roasted guajillo chiles.
8. Antojitos Hondureños
7171 Fondren near Croton
It's tough to miss this bright blue and white setup on Fondren just off the Southwest Freeway, which is one of the most welcoming food trucks on this list — even if it's stationed in the parking lot of an abandoned Grandy's. Antojitos Hondureños has two locations, although I've been only to its Sharpstown spot (the other is at 9713 Airline). As the name would suggest, the truck specializes in Honduran snacks and "appetizers," like the folded-over baleadas that are neither taco nor gordita nor anything else, but something wholly Honduran: refried beans, crema, salty cheese and your choice of meat inside a thick, soft flour tortilla. There are plenty of other great Honduran dishes on the menu here to choose from, but the baleadas are my favorite outside of Honduras Mayan in Bellaire.
7. Tacos Tierra Caliente
West Alabama at McDuffie
What is there left to say about one of Houston's most famous and beloved taco trucks? The neighboring West Alabama Ice House has been popping bottles of Lone Star since 1928, and it often feels as if Tacos Tierra Caliente has been serving tacos next door for just as long. The lengua tacos here are a favorite and the natural pairing for a cold beer on a hot, humid Houston night. They're classic in their flavors and construction: just soft strips of tongue on a hot corn tortilla, sprinkled liberally with cilantro, onions and lime. If the accompanying salsa is too hot, quell it with a beer. Rinse and repeat, all night long.
6. Tandoori Nite
7821 Highway 6 at Pavilion Point
Here's a treat: a truck with its own seating area. How's that? Tandoori Nite is located outside the city limits, stationed fittingly in the parking lot of a Phillips 66 — which makes it the closest to an authentic Indian dhaba as you'll get in Houston (in India, informal restaurants known as dhabas are always located next to gas stations). Owner Ginny (pronounced "Guinea") Mehra serves an array of Pakistani and Indian food — all of it halal — and specializes in tandoori chicken, as the name would imply. Bullet naan studded with jalapeño is a popular side dish for scooping up all the beautiful, creamy sauce from goat korma or chicken curry, and the saag paneer is as good as any you'll find in Little India.
5. Sabor Venezolano
8621 Westheimer at Crossview
Sabor Venezolano is another of those rare food trucks with a seating area — this one covered! — thanks to the gas station parking lot it occupies, which has provided a few picnic tables for the crowds that head to one of the city's only Venezuelan food trucks every day for lunch and dinner. It also takes credit cards and lists all ingredients on a handy menu that's in both English and Spanish. It's more than you'd expect from the funny caravan formed by Sabor Venezolano's two trucks — one still functioning, the other a broken-down Mrs. Baird's delivery truck that's tied to its bumper. Try the arepas, which have a beautifully crispy crust and pleasantly doughy cornmeal interior that wraps around excellent fillings: braised chicharrones in a mild red sauce or reina pepiada, the cool, creamy Venezuelan chicken salad made with avocadoes and mayonnaise. Sabor Venezolano is also the best place for a potato stick-topped perro caliente, or Venezuelan hot dog.
4. Taqueria Tacambaro
2520 Airline Drive, behind Canino's Market
One word: mollejas. No other truck — or restaurant, for that matter — does sweetbreads like Taqueria Tacambaro does sweetbreads. The execution on the delicate little glands is always consistent, always perfect: a crispy exterior that parts with a crunch to reveal a moist, meaty, nearly gooey interior that will turn anyone wary of sweetbreads into a true believer. Although this truck is often MIA, you'll find it behind Canino's Market when it's out. Finish your meal with a few slices of pineapple sprinkled with chile en polvo from the market, or a marronito from El Bolillo bakery across the street.
3. Taco Keto
1401 Cullen at Clay
The ruddy hue on the tacos, gorditas and "kesadillas" at Taco Keto will look familiar if you've had the pambazo at Taqueria Tariacuri — all of them have been given a run through roasted guajillo chile sauce before being tossed on the hot griddle. The salsa puffs up the tortillas on the tacos ever so slightly, giving them a softer and simply more enjoyable texture than a plain old corn tortilla. And as with our No. 1 spot, Taco Keto edges out much of its competition by serving all of its dishes with sautéed onions (in addition to the raw white kind) and a roasted jalapeño. The accompanying green sauce is for the truly brave, however, so beware.
2. Bansuri Indian Food Corner
11200 Wilcrest at Stancliff
This Missouri City-area taco truck is open only at night, but what a crush of business it does during those evening hours. Bansuri Indian Food Corner flips open its window promptly at 6:30 p.m. every night (except Sunday, when it's closed) and stays open for only two and a half glorious hours — three on Friday and Saturday nights. The line is long but moves swiftly as customers swing by for their nightly fix of dabeli (made from an old family recipe) or dahi puri. Those dabeli are Bansuri's most popular item, and it's easy to see why: Savory potatoes and cumin are combined with the sweet flavors of nutmeg and cinnamon mix on a fluffy, barely toasted bun that's the Indian — and vegetarian — equivalent of a slider. Everything here is vegetarian, in fact, and has been since Bansuri first opened in 2008 as Houston's first Indian food truck.
1. El Ultimo
Long Point and Jacquelyn
The man who first introduced me to El Ultimo, Houstonia food editor Robb Walsh, recently revisited the Long Point taco truck and proclaimed that it's still his "No. 1 breakfast taco truck" after all these years. I'm with him, except that I'd extend that No. 1 status to all of El Ultimo's offerings — especially its tacos de orejas (when the truck has the chewy pig ears in stock) and slippery, soft tacos de barbacoa. Every element of El Ultimo's tacos is to my mind perfect, combining to form the platonic ideal of a hot, fresh taco: Soft, puffy, homemade corn tortillas wrapped around well-seasoned meat, buttery slices of avocado, defty sautéed onions, herbal cilantro and a final sprinkle of salty cheese. These are the tacos by which I judge all others — the tacos that no other truck has yet surpassed. El Ultimo stands the test of time year in and year out.
The Eating Our Words 100
Of Baked Goods and Breakfast
Trancito Diaz, owner and chef of La Guadalupana.
La Guadalupana Bakery and Café is a small, unassuming restaurant tucked away in the corner of a small lot that it shares with a convenience store and a washateria. It's easy to miss if you're driving down Dunlavy any given day of the week and not actively looking for it. However, if you do venture inside, you will discover some of the best Mexican food Houston has to offer.
La Guadalupana is a gem in Montrose, receiving plenty of attention over the years for its breakfasts and baked goods. This is thanks to owner and head chef Trancito Diaz, who opened the restaurant more than a decade ago. Diaz first came to the United States from Mexico as an immigrant in 1982, where he started out as a simple dishwasher. This first job would serve as a mere jumping off point that would eventually lead to Diaz opening his own establishment.
What does he do?
Diaz oversees the full menu at La Guadalupana. Over the years he has acquired a binder full of recipes. "It holds all the recipes I've obtained over the years with my own personal modifications to fit my own style and make them unique to me." He manages the restaurant every day and employees his son, Robert, as a manager as well.
How did he end up here?
Diaz first learned to bake back home in his own kitchen. However, when he first moved here he got a job as a dishwasher at the River Oaks Country Club. After he'd been at the country club about three months, an opportunity to become a baker opened and he went for that job. Three months after that move, he was promoted to head baker. After some time at the country club, Diaz wanted more and decided to pursue French baking to expand his knowledge and skills of baking.
Diaz got a job at the French Gourmet Bakery, where he took a significant pay decrease. He initially started off just icing the cakes that were ready and picking up what he could here and there, until the manager quit. Diaz then asked the owner to give him a shot. While the owner initially declined, he later changed his mind and gave Diaz the opportunity to manage.
"He said he would only show me how to make [the shop's offerings] once and if I didn't get it right, he would find someone else," recalls Diaz. While he got paid less than the previous manager, Diaz quickly proved his skills and was eventually well compensated for his work. Despite his position and situation, Diaz wanted more and so he left to pursue Italian baking.
He got a job at Mama Mandola's, which supplied several restaurants with baked goods of all kinds. It was here that Diaz learned even more about baking and further refined his skills. After some years here, the company closed and Diaz decided to continue filling the orders for roughly 25 of Mama Mandola's restaurant customers. Within the span of three months, Diaz earned enough money to buy a house or open his own bakery. He decided to take the chance and open the bakery.
"I had enough money to be comfortable and just settle on buying a house," says Diaz, "but I wanted something more. I took the money I saved up and opened the restaurant. However, when I first opened it, we were only a bakery." He hired some employees and continued to supply restaurants.
The origin of a full food menu for La Guadalupana started off with just Diaz cooking for his employees. "We would work here and I would cook everyone lunch, and people would stop in and ask us if we served food or just desserts," he says. "I told them we didn't serve food, but they were more than welcome to join us for lunch. It was here that I got the idea that maybe I should offer a full menu."
If not this, then what?
Diaz is committed to his restaurant and finds it hard to see himself doing anything else. "I can't imagine doing nothing or just working at a regular job," he says. "I consider myself blessed with what I have because I love it. Being able to do something I enjoy and inspire my employees to show them where hard work can lead to."
If not here, then where?
"I've actually had opportunities to visit Moscow for a food workers' exchange-type program," says Diaz. "I applied for it and was accepted, but when I was getting ready to leave, my daughter broke down and started crying. So I decided to stay for my family. I always saw myself in the U.S. to follow my dreams and succeed."
Read the rest of our interview with Trancito Diaz — including his plans for the future of La Guadalupana — at Eating...Our Words.
On the Menu
Here, Eat This
A beginner's guide to German cuisine.
Modern-day Texans may not see much German influence when they look around, but the indirect effects of decades of German settlement still linger in large pockets of the state.
The first waves of German immigration began in the 1830s ahead of the European Revolutions of 1848 that sent floods of Forty-Eighters — German, Austrian and other Central European political dissidents — to the United States. Over 180 years later, Germans are still the largest European ethnic group in Texas, and count as the third-largest national-origin group behind Hispanics. (British is first.)
We can trace many of these immigrants back to Johann Friedrich Ernst, a gardener from Oldenburg who became the father of the German settlers in Texas after obtaining a land grant for 4,000 acres in Austin County in 1831 — an area that would become known as the "nucleus of the German Belt" in Central Texas. Ernst wrote "America letters" to his countrymen describing the bounty of land, livestock, wild game and fish that made Texas "an earthly paradise."
And although those letters were more than a bit optimistic, Texans still view their state as an earthly paradise today — in no small part because of fine food and drink such as our beer, our barbecue and our chicken-fried steak. We have Germans to thank for all of that.
If you like the link sausages in Central Texas-style barbecue, you'll probably love bratwurst and the many other styles of sausage found throughout Germany. At its most simple, a bratwurst is a sausage made from finely ground pork, beef or veal, but there are at least 40 different varieties around Germany — each made different by the blend of meats, herbs and spices and its individual preparation (grilled, fried, boiled, smoked, etc.). There's even a variety of bratwurst that's made with raw eggs and grilled over burning pinecones.
Sauerkraut and red cabbage
Sauerkraut is a wondrous food. It's full of vitamins, keeps your digestive system running smoothly thanks to plenty of lactobacilli and it can be preserved for long periods of time (e.g., during German winters). No wonder the fermented cabbage came to be such a staple in the German diet, just as kimchi is to Koreans. There's even research to suggest that sauerkraut contains cancer-fighting agents. In case you've only ever had sauerkraut or its prettier, more perfumed cousin — red cabbage, stewed down with cinnamon, cloves and allspice — that comes from a jar, treat yourself to the homemade stuff at restaurants like Charivari. There, chef Johann Schuster cooks the cabbage down into a wonderfully balanced sweet-and-sour dish that's both creamy and tangy at the same time.
Notice that we're not talking about just Wiener schnitzel here, but all schnitzel. At its most basic, a schnitzel is simply a cut of meat that's been pounded flat, coated with an egg wash, breaded with flour and fried. Sound familiar? It's the basis of chicken-fried steak (and milanesa, while we're at it). Wiener schnitzel is from Vienna (a.k.a. Wien in its native language) and always made of veal cutlets. By comparison, other schnitzels, like Jägerschnitzel, are covered with a red wine and mushroom gravy, while Rahmschnitzel is topped with a creamier mushroom sauce.
To my great surprise, it was cold cuts and cheese I ate most often while in Germany — both at breakfast and at lunch — not heavier meals of potato dumplings and schnitzels. Slices of what we'd call deli-style meat are incredibly common at both meals, and are eaten with thick slices of cheese, pickles, onions and mustards. While most of the cold cuts are sausages, these differ from the bratwurst and other hot German sausages in that they're meant to be consumed in cold slices, often in sandwich form.
R.W. Apple once wrote in The New York Times: "In Germany, I sometimes think, they don't care which side their bread is buttered on, or whether it's buttered at all, as long as it's made from rye." You'll find rye bread at every single meal, whether it's consumed with butter and jam at breakfast, cold cuts at lunch, or coated with fresh schmalz and eaten with soup and sauerbraten at dinner. And be careful that you don't mistake the schmalz for butter the first time you eat at places like Charivari, King's Biergarten or even Kenny & Ziggy's; it's rendered chicken fat ("schmalz" literally means "lard" in German). Schmeckt sehr gut!
Spaetzle and knödel
Germans love potatoes as much as they love rye bread and cabbage. They're in everything from warm potato salad (Kartoffelsalat) with bacon to knödel: potato dumplings. These dumplings can be incredibly basic, from round balls of barely more than grated potato, flour, salt and egg to fancier dishes that range from savory to sweet. Spaetzle are another common dumpling, but these egg-based dumplings are far smaller and are often, in fact, referred to as simply "egg noodles." Both spaetzle and knödel are common side dishes for meatier main courses.
Sauerbraten is one of those typical meat entrées, often referred to as one of Germany's national dishes. If you ate pot roast growing up, you ate sauerbraten. Although the name literally translates to "sour roasted meat," sauerbraten isn't necessarily sour. It's simply a tough cut of meat — usually a rump roast — marinated in anything from wine and vinegar to buttermilk, as long as it's an acidic blend that will help break down the meat before roasting. As with any good roast, the juices are saved and thickened up with flour to make a creamy, meaty gravy that's served on top along with vegetables, sauerkraut/red cabbage and dumplings.
Germans like their fast food as much as we do ours, and currywurst is one of their proudest (and perhaps weirdest) examples of traditional German food gone fast: fried sausage covered in curried ketchup with a side of french fries. The dish dates to 1949, when a devastated Germany was attempting to rebuild its bombed-out cities after World War II. Currywurst cropped up as a cheap, filling snack that could be sold on the roadside to lunching construction workers. The Worcestershire sauce and curry powder came to Germany by way of British soldiers, with the curry itself coming from India, and currywurst became fast fusion street food 60 years before it was cool.
Döner kebab and Türkische pizza
Germany has a relationship with Turkey that's not too dissimilar to our own with Mexico. At the risk of simplifying complex international relations, I'll leave it at that. As a result, Turkish food has cropped up over the last few decades as some of Germany's most popular fast-casual food. The Wall Street Journal recently claimed, "There's nothing more German than a big, fat juicy döner kebab," citing the 720 million servings sold each year. With a Turkish population reaching 2.5 million, Germany has embraced other Turkish foods as well, including what it calls Türkische pizza: döner kebab wrapped in lahmacun.
Germans have been brewing beer since at least 800 B.C. By 200 A.D., beer was already being traded commercially in the region that would eventually become Germany, and before its official repeal in 1987, the famed Reinheitsgebot — a regulation concerning the production of beer — was the oldest food-quality law in the world. First conceived of in 1487, the Reinheitsgebot maintained standards for all German beer and mandated that the only ingredients allowed in the brewing of beer were water, barley and hops. To this day, German influence is felt in the Texas beers we still drink. Both the Pearl and Spoetzel breweries were created by Germans, while other breweries such as the Franconia Brewing Company in McKinney are run by German brewmasters. If you love beer, thank a German.
Openings and Closings
Welcome Montrose's Midtown Bar & Grill.
La Guadalupana is one of Montrose's most beloved Mexican restaurants, a charming family-run bakery that also happens to turn out top-notch Mexican breakfasts every day of the week. And soon it could become one of Pasadena's most beloved restaurants, too.
Owner Trancito Diaz told our own Francisco Montes that he's in the process of constructing a shopping center on a piece of land in Pasadena, which he will eventually call "Plaza de Guadalupana." Diaz plans a second location for La Guadalupana as the anchor.
In other openings news, the City of Houston Health Department paid a visit to 415 West Gray this past week for a Change of Ownership Inspection. If that address sounds familiar, that's because it's the site of the old West Gray Cafe. The cafe has been closed for months now as renovations have been in progress. The new name for the newly renovated space? Midtown Bar & Grill — even though it's in Montrose.
Elsewhere, the city's second location of Torchy's Tacos has opened in Rice Village. Reports Eater Houston: "Diners looking to get their fill of a Mr. Pink or a Dirty Sanchez but have struggled to find parking at the location on Shepherd Drive can expect a similar level of frustration from the new spot, which takes over the former Collina's/Gugliani's spot."
And rounding out a short week in openings and closings news is a closing notable for how quickly it happened. Diner's Cafe, which appears to have been named with as little effort as possible on the part of its owners, opened a few short months ago on Washington Avenue with little fanfare. And although — according to the handful of reviews online — it apparently served decent Mediterranean food, Diner's Cafe just didn't have the lamb chops necessary to stick around.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.