Behold the taco truck, possibly the most maligned eating establishment in our country. The mere suggestion that one eat there conjures a web of images surrounding poor digestion and unsanitary conditions. Surely "gut bomb" and "roach coach" are not terms of endearment.
But is this fair? Are loncheras, their Spanish name, truly to be avoided at all costs? Or, are we gringos missing out on good eats at a great price? In search of some answers, I headed out the door and down the streets all alone.
I made my first stop at the lonchera owned by La Flor de Jalisco, which parks at the Youth Outreach Center on Union. I was struggling with my decision when I noticed that their tacos cost $1.25. At that price, I could swing a sampler, so I ordered carne asada (grilled beef), pastor (marinated pork) and lengua (beef tongue). Chef Jos Ramos set up the three tacos in traditional fashion -- atop a pair of small corn tortillas with a garnish of minced cilantro and onion -- and I knocked them down. The sweet and slightly smoky carne asada, with its mild red salsa, gave way to the tasty taco al pastor, which packed serious heat. This was an encouraging first try. I headed home for reflection (and a nap). For less than five bucks, I had just filled up on a great lunch at a taco truck! Was this a fluke, or was I on to something?
The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go back. So I did ... the very next day. This time, I tried tacos with chicken, carnitas, birri (seasoned goat meat) and cachetas (beef cheeks). The cachetas rose to the top of their excellent class. Beef cheeks are sinewy and have a high fat content. Cook them nice and slowly, like de Jalisco does, and they become rich, tender, and savory. If you want a more substantial meal, try a burrito, quesadilla or torta. I couldn't resist a torta with pastor ($4), lettuce, tomato, and some excellent pickled carrots piled high in the middle of a soft roll.
Good food two days in a row convinced me to widen the scope of my little experiment. When I asked Jos and a friend of mine about other loncheras, I learned that most operate only on weekend evenings. Luckily it was already Thursday. All I had to do was go home, hang it up, and see what tomorrow would bring.
On a cold and cloudy Friday night, I got back truckin'. Parked outside the Wagon Wheel on Platte, the Lupita's lonchera drew a line of hungry customers. Perhaps they had come for the robustly flavored barbacoa, with its heady blend of cinnamon and spice. It made a great taco ($1.25), but I became awfully jealous when I saw it served in a massive, dinner-plate-sized quesadilla ($4). But I had to stay on task; I had to keep moving.
I headed southeast to the intersection of Airport and Academy, where, I heard, up to three loncheras parked on weekends. I found only one: El Mirador, the Cadillac of loncheras. This ain't no ordinary taco truck. It's a bus. A big one. Climb up the stairs and grab a stool at one of the two shiny, steel counters that run the length of the windows on either side. You can still eat your fill, because the tacos cost the same $1.25 here as elsewhere. The lengua at El Mirador is the best around. Chef Jesus braises it in a tangy tomatillo sauce, producing fat green nuggets that melted in my mouth. He also offers an array of seafood options, including the fresh and spicy tostada de ceviche ($3), a mound of diced shrimp, carrots, onion and cilantro served atop a crispy tortilla.
Even though I didn't find the other loncheras, I had already found enough. Taco trucks have a bad rap. It's no stretch to say that these loncheras serve up the best tacos in town -- good enough to leave stationary restaurateurs sitting and crying at home. Moreover, you can't beat their price, efficiency and convenience. You might need to take a long strange trip to find one, but it's worth it. So, if you're sick of hanging around and you'd like to travel, head out in search of a lonchera and give it a try. Together, we'll just keep truckin' on.
Lonchera La Flor de Jalisco
Youth Outreach Center parking lot, 1801 N. Union
Seven days, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
On the north side of Platte in front of the Wagon Wheel Lounge (2308 E. Platte, between Boulder and Union)
Fridays and Saturdays, approximately 5-9 p.m.
El Mirador, two buses
Northwest corner of Airport and Academy, near the Tres Amigos Lounge Friday, Saturday, and Sunday
Or, the west side of Chelton between Bijou and Platte, near the motorcycle dealership and Wal-Mart Monday Friday, daytime (including breakfast)