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 time-worn 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 10 favorite classic trucks -- not just taco trucks -- in Houston:
10. El Norteño Pech and Hillendahl
There are few simple pleasure 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 only ever been 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, parked 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 to scoop up all of 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 of its dishes their 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 here, 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 sauteed 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 only open at night, but what a crush of business it does during those evening hours. Bansuri Food Corner flips open its window promptly at 6:30 p.m. every night (except Sunday, when it's closed) and only stays open for 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.
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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 perfect to my mind, 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, deftly sauteed 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.