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.
Since few of my dining companions like sweetbreads and tripe, I took a French friend of mine, an artist named Bernard Brunon, to Taqueria Tacambaro. He was utterly amazed. And then he started taking other Frenchmen and visitors from France to eat tripe tacos there. Now photos of Taqueria Tacambaro are turning up in French art publications. I predict this taco trailer will someday be listed in French travel guides.
The Jarro taco trailer on Gessner has become legendary among taco truck owners. This is the most successful taco truck in the city. It does so much business that its owner, Guillermo "Memo" Piñedo, has opened a freestanding restaurant right beside it.
There are guys who eat lunch at the trailer during the week and then bring their families for a sit-down meal in the restaurant on the weekends. Jarro also serves tacos al pastor, made with marinated pork, and the Yucatecan specialty cochinita pibil, which is marinated pork cooked in banana leaves. While you can get tacos al pastor at almost any taco truck in the city, Jarro's steak tacos and the cochinita pibil are unique. And so are the unusual salsas.
"There weren't any taco trucks around here when we started," Memo says. "Now there are taco trucks all up and down Gessner." They are trying to duplicate Jarro's success. "But they don't get it," he continues. "It's the quality of the food, not the location, that made this taco trailer successful."
Guillermo Piñedo and his wife once ran a three-location chain of Jarro Café restaurants in Mexico. The original was in Mexico City, and the other two were in the beach resort communities of Ixtapa and Cancún. The devaluation of the peso in the Carlos Salinas era crippled their finances. Then Memo Piñedo was kidnapped.
"That was when we decided to get out," Señora Piñedo remembers.
The original idea was to come to Houston and open a restaurant. But the Piñedos didn't know much about the city, and that made it difficult to pick a location. The real estate negotiations, financing and permit processes were also daunting. A friend of theirs who worked as a chef at a Houston restaurant suggested they consider a taco truck instead. At first they dismissed the idea.
There are no taco trucks in Mexico, so it was hard to imagine. But their friend drove them around to see a few in Houston and they began to realize the brilliance of the concept. Memo saw that if your location wasn't working out, you could just move somewhere else.
The Piñedos invested $25,000 in a trailer and another $5,000 for everything else they needed. Their $30,000 investment was a tiny fraction of what it would cost to start a restaurant. And they had no loan payments to make. They paid several hundred dollars a month to rent a location in front of a liquor store on Gessner, but they had few other expenses.
Business was slow at first. "Memo only sold three kinds of tacos," says Señora Piñedo, "steak, cochinita pibil and al pastor."
The "bifstek" sold at most Houston Mexican restaurants is tough as shoe leather and riddled with gristle, so nobody was interested in a steak taco from a taco truck. And few of the laborers and immigrants who make up the majority of taco truck customers had ever heard of the slow-cooked Mayan pork dish called cochinita pibil.
"I ended up giving a lot of tacos away for free," Memo recalls.
And there were the weird salsas. Taco trucks, like taquerias, usually offer red and green sauce. Heat levels vary, but you seldom taste anything as hot as Jarro's orange chile de árbol or bright green serrano salsa in Houston. His friends pleaded with him to offer conventional fajita tacos and regular salsas, Memo recalls.
"Owners of other taco trucks asked me why I was paying $2 a pound for sirloin when you could get fajita beef for 75 cents. I said, 'America has the best beef in the world; why not put it on a taco?' They thought I was crazy. But I wasn't going to sell what every other taco truck was selling," says Memo. "I was going to sell the kind of food we had at our restaurants in Mexico. I was going to do it my way."
Within three months, word of mouth about the sirloin tacos and the super-hot salsas had spread, and the Jarro taco trailer on Gessner was swamped with customers. "I had to hire four workers to keep up with the orders," Memo says. Jarro taco trailer workers all wear uniforms, and the trucks are sparkling clean and painted in striking black with very professional graphics.
Behind the Jarro Café, there are two brand-new taco trailers that Memo has recently ordered. He intends to expand his brand with franchisees. Why franchise taco trailers instead of restaurants? "Because the trailers are cheaper, easier to run and more profitable," Memo says.
"It's crazy to have a taco trailer out front in the parking lot competing with your restaurant, huh?" Memo says with a laugh. But there's no way he would close it. The trailer makes as much money as the restaurant.
Why don't the taco trailer customers come inside?
"There are lots of reasons," Memo explains. Some loyal outdoor customers are laborers who don't have time to change clothes and clean up. It's also faster outside, and it's 25¢ a taco cheaper.
"It's my drive-through window," he jokes.
The taco truck has a long history in Texas. Cowboy chuck wagons, which were often manned by Mexican cocineros, appeared on the scene in the 1860s. Spanish vaqueros used mobile kitchens mounted on oxcarts on the earliest trail drives in the 1700s. Tamale carts and other mobile food vendors were also very common in Texas before the sanitary laws of the Progressive Era were enacted in the early 1900s.
But the first actual taco trucks in Texas were Model T Fords. One such early taco truck can be seen in a 1939 black-and-white photograph by famous Texas WPA photographer Russell Lee. The photo is titled "Mexican lunch wagon serving tortillas and fried beans to workers in pecan shelling plant, San Antonio, Texas."
In the photo, a Hispanic man squats in the back of a Model T pickup truck with a cardboard box full of tortillas. His customers take the tortillas and make "self-serve" tacos from a selection of fillings in metal pots arrayed along the edge of the open tailgate. It's a unique solution to the lack of hand-washing facilities -- the taco truck vendor never touches the tacos.
Modern taco trucks are a variation of the panel trucks known in various parts of the country as "maggot wagons," "grease trucks" and "roach coaches." These mobile canteens were easily adapted to the street food traditions of the Latino communities of the Southwest, where they became known as loncherías.
In Texas, the taco trailer is increasingly popular as a lower-cost alternative to the taco truck. The trailer is hauled back and forth to a commissary by another vehicle, generally a heavy-duty pickup truck. Jarro Café buys their trailers from a fabricating company in Monterrey, Mexico. The simplest design can be purchased for as little as $15,000.
In 2003, a rash of complaints about Houston taco trucks triggered a crackdown by the health department. Angry restaurant owners who considered the trucks unfair competition went to the press with accusations that the trucks weren't following the city's sanitary standards. Reports of illnesses were rumored. Television crews caught a few infractions on video. Since then, Houston taco truck operators report that enforcement has stiffened.
The rules require taco trucks or trailers to show receipts for daily trips to a "commissary," which is the only place where they're allowed to discharge greasy wastewater, fill their tanks with potable water from an approved source and undergo required maintenance. There are 12 such commissary locations in and around Houston.
Every taco truck or trailer in Houston must obtain a license from the appropriate health department in order to sell food. The mobile kitchens are subject to the same sort of inspections as restaurants. There are around 800 mobile food-service operations inside Houston city limits, and 600 in the nearby suburbs.
So what's the best taco truck and the best taco in Houston? I am calling it a tie between Taqueria Tacambaro and its tacos de mollejas and the Jarro trailer and its phenomenal Angus sirloin tacos and stunning salsa bar.
If you have never eaten at a taco truck before, either one of these is a good place to start. "Some people avoid taco trucks because they think they are dirty," says Piñedo. "Go take a look inside our trailer. It's cleaner than a lot of restaurants. There are clean taco trucks and dirty taco trucks, just like there are clean restaurants and dirty restaurants."
"When I was a little girl, we visited some relatives in San Diego," says Ms. Piñedo. "We got chips and sodas from a big stainless steel food truck that parked at a construction site nearby. It was so clean and shiny. I said, 'I wish we had those trucks in Mexico.' Now we own one. The food may be Mexican, but taco trucks are totally American."
"It's a restaurant without the headaches," says Memo. "When I came here, it was my dream to own a restaurant. Now I want to sell the restaurant and buy more taco trailers."
Las Fabulosas Taco Trucks...Delicioso!
Our Top Picks
There are some muy sabrosos tacos out there if you're brave enough to eat at a taco truck and don't mind ordering in Spanglish. -- Photos by Robb Walsh
In front of Jarro Café
What to get: Don't miss the steak (bifstek) taco made with thin-sliced Angus sirloin. Also recommended: the Campechana (beef and chorizo), cochinita pibil (slow-cooked pork) and beef-and-mushroom tacos. Flour tortillas are available for a little extra. Don't miss the salsa bar. The dark-green jalapeño-and-cilantro salsa may be the mildest; the dried chile salsa is complex and picante. Only the most dedicated chile-heads should attempt to ingest the incendiary orange chile de árbol sauce and the rip-your-lips-off neon green serrano slurry. The food is a little cheaper and a little faster at the taco trailer, but they have the same tacos inside the air-conditioned restaurant, where you also get chips, ice water, knives and forks and an expanded menu.
2520 Airline Drive (Behind Canino's)
What to get: Tacos de mollejas and tripitas (sweetbreads and tripe) are awesome. If you don't like offal, try the spicy pork al pastor, crisped up in a frying pan and served with raw onion and cilantro, and the awesome gordita, made with a thick masa cake split in half, then stuffed with homemade refried beans and Mexican cheese. Don't miss the roasted jalapeños. Mexican nationals come from miles around to eat Maria Rojas's home-style Michoacán-style cooking.
Southwest corner of Long Point and Antoine
Look for a shiny new taco truck parked in front of a car wash. The sanitary standards are exceptional. Both the man and woman behind the counter were wearing hair nets. What to get: The breakfast tacos are $1 a piece, and they're huge. They come with your choice of scrambled eggs with bacon, ham, potatoes, nopalitos, machacado (shredded beef), chorizo or roasted peppers on a corn or flour tortilla. The flour tortillas are handmade, and the chorizo is truly exceptional. The thick green salsa is pretty hot. There's no coffee, but there are fresh fruit aguas frescas available.
Long Point and Gessner
This is a "chain" with a couple of blue school buses and at least one blue trailer. They change locations often, but they can usually be found around the corner of Gessner and Long Point. At this writing, there is a blue bus on Gessner north of Long Point and a blue "El Norteño" truck out in front of the shopping center at 9893 Long Point. What to get: "Pollo asado estilo Monterrey" is their specialty -- $6 for half a chicken, $10 for a whole one. Both come with tortillas, a roasted onion, chiles and condiments. The chicken is good, but "costillas al carbón" -- a whole slab of grilled spare ribs with onions, chiles and condiments for $15 -- are even better. A half slab, which goes for $7.50, is more than enough for two.
La Silla Pollos Asados
Lawndale and Highway 225
This bright-yellow bus has a giant chicken character and the saddle-shaped mountain peak called "la silla" (the saddle) painted on the side. "La silla" is a landmark of Monterrey, Mexico, which must be famous for roasted chicken, because all the pollo asado operations brag about their roots there. What to get: For six bucks, these guys give you half of a tasty charcoal-grilled pollo, a bowl of frijoles, salsa and a stack of tortillas. A whole chicken is ten bucks
Tacos Tierra Caliente
1300 block of Montrose Boulevard in the "We Fix Flats" parking lot
Maria Samano and her flirtatious crew from the "hotlands" of Michoacán run this extremely popular taco trailer in the Montrose. What to get: barbacoa tacos with onions and cilantro. Ask Maria for the "salsita," and she'll hand you a squirt bottle full of her creamy green "hotlands hot sauce."
Southwest corner of Westheimer and Fondren
For a change of pace, try this Venezuelan-owned taco truck on the West side. The truck opens for business at 7 a.m. with 99-cent breakfast tacos. There's also a Mexican taco menu if you aren't interested in trying el sabor venezolano. What to get: The patacón looks like a sandwich, but instead of two slices of bread, there are green plantain slices that have been fried together into crispy rounds. A pile of shredded beef, a slice of ham, some cheese, and lettuce, tomato and mayo are layered between two of the plantain crusts. It tastes spectacular, and it's also very filling. A sauce made of cream with a little feta and basil is served on the side. Chile-heads might consider taking their patacones home and doctoring them up with a little hot sauce. The corn cakes called arepas are split, gordita-style, and stuffed with your choice of meats.
El Mapache III
Northwest corner of Renwick and Gulfton
The parking lot of the Bestop convenience store is attractively decorated with potted palms, giving the El Mapache III dining area a festive ambiance. El Mapache means "the raccoon." It's also a nickname for a bandit. What to get: The barbacoa taco features a huge mound of hot cheek meat, nicely shredded and very moist, on your choice of flour or corn tortillas. The salsa is a thick and creamy green concoction. The truck also sells roast chickens, and the beans are free on weekends.
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4400 block of Caroline Street
The Mexican Consulate is on San Jacinto. Behind it on Caroline Street, there are two competing taco trucks, Taqueria Torres and Jesse's Taqueria. Torres has the edge for tangy al pastor, best enjoyed with lots of gooey cheese on a quesadilla. But Jesse's has a decent chicken taco. And they have a copy machine, too. What to get: quesadilla al pastor, Mexican Cokes.
Tacos El Amigo
Northwest corner of Renwick and Dashwood
What to get: "torta cubana," a Mexican twist on the Cuban sandwich made with fajita meat, ham, a hot dog cut into lengthwise sections, cheese, lettuce, tomato and lots of guacamole, with hot sauce on the side. Doña Maria is the head chef, and her food is "todo estilo México," according to her card. The tacos are plain. The gordita is a bad joke. But Doña Maria's Mexican Cuban sandwich is outrageous.