Outta the Back of a Truck
Some of the best food in Salinas, California, is found on the street. Why would the city take it away?
On city streets from New York to New Delhi, people cook food. The idea is simple: You need a quick, inexpensive meal or snack; the vendors provide it, and eke out a living without the overhead of rent, waitstaff, or utilities.
Is it that easy? No. There are permits, health codes, and labor regulations that keep the vendors in check. There’s also competition, and market share. As has been reported both locally and nationally, business interests in the city of Salinas, California, are angling to legislate the vendors out of existence. In January, following a complaint made in October by the Salinas United Business Association, the City Council agreed to stop issuing new permits, effectively capping growth. At press time, the City Council had delayed a June 19 hearing to review a resolution limiting when and where the vendors can operate. A petition to save the taco trucks has so far gathered more than 800 signatures.
Salinas currently has about 30 taco trucks clustered in a four-mile radius. Such a density of food under threat makes us hungry, so we went to investigate. With the able guidance of veteran Chowhound Melanie Wong, who has been helping publicize the plight of the vendors, we sampled a wide variety of Mexican dishes, made by hand with great care. We arrived in Salinas on a Tuesday afternoon. We ate. We left full.
Mariscos Las Glorias
On our first stop, we start light. An order of ceviche is an intensely corny tostada loaded with shrimp tossed in a spicy mix of tomatoes, lime juice, and red onion. We also sample the campechana, a delicious blend of ice-cold seafood from shrimp to octopus, all swimming in a briny broth of oyster liquor and lime juice, topped with two oysters and a couple of generous hunks of avocado. The seafood is incredibly fresh and light. This truck serves a delicious hot sauce, called Tiburon, that we haven’t seen elsewhere; they tell us that they get their seafood shipped from Los Angeles and the hot sauce comes with it. As we eat through our order, a crowd lines up; when people see us taking photographs they want to tell us how delicious and fresh everything is. But we already know.
El Grullense, a mobile offshoot of El Grullense restaurant in East Salinas, has changed our mind about tripas. It’s not honeycomb tripe; it’s beef intestines, fried to a perfect crisp, slightly chewy and caramelized, with a faint hint of liver. The al pastor is rich with spices: clove and cinnamon. And the carnitas is like carnitas confit—tender, greasy, and delicious. It’s interesting to survey what sort of tortillas the trucks use, and how they’re prepared. At El Grullense, they’re thicker, and warmed on the griddle. The tacos are served with grilled onion and jalapeño, and as with other trucks, there’s a little window for self-serve condiments, in this case pickled carrots and radishes, lime, and salsa. We wash it all down with Sidral Mundet, a Mexican apple soda.
Digna Hernandez, with a sweet smile, suggests that we get a chicharrón gordita and a potato and chorizo huarache. Hernandez is not in the business of fast food: She makes each tortilla fresh to order from masa, and chops the vegetables for each dish. She has also been one of the only taco trucks involved in a campaign promoting healthful eating. The gordita is grilled to a crisp outside, with a soft interior, and filled with toothsome chicharrónes in a red sauce. The huarache is named for its sandalesque appearance—like Birkenstocks, with a lip to hold in the filling of beans, potatoes, and chorizo, topped with lettuce, tomato, and crema. The freshly made molcajete salsa of dried arbol chiles and tomatillos alone is worth the trip. We also manage to eat a nopales taco—the fresh prickly pear cactus chopped and grilled with onions.
Tacos Colima #1
We eat tacos while Chris, our photographer, is across the street, returning just in time for the last bite. The cabeza—intensely beefy cheek meat—is reminiscent of short ribs. The beef birria taco holds tender stewed meat in a slightly sweet sauce, and the lengua—cow tongue—is perfectly shredded and paired well with a tomatillo salsa. These tortillas are very thin, with just enough structure to carry meat to mouth. The owners of Tacos Colima tell us that they’ve been cooking for 30 years. We accidentally leave without paying, but return two taco trucks later to hand over our $3.
Catering 2 Maria
More a rolling fry station than a truck, this vendor offers deep-fried gorditas. The meat isn’t as tasty as Mayra’s, but the braised chicken and seasoned ground beef with carrots and potatoes are hearty and simple. We sample our first ear of corn, a.k.a. elote, slathered with copious amounts of mayonnaise, Valentina hot sauce, and crumbly Cotija cheese. At each stop, we explain why we’re photographing all the food (and why we’re eating so much); here, the proprietor asks us if we’re for or against the vendor ban. With a mouthful of mayonnaisey corn, we assert our support for the vendors.
The Mexican hot dog, well documented on Chowhound, was highly anticipated. Start with a warm bun, squirted with mayonnaise. Add a bacon-wrapped hot dog; top with mustard, tomatoes, onions, pickle relish, and ketchup. It’s served with a griddled jalapeño on the side. It looks so good while he’s making it we have to order two. We perhaps regret that later.
No one will accuse us of not ending strong: At Señor Valdez’s stand we order another hot dog (necessary for comparison), two tamales, another elote, and a champurrado to wash it all down. Señor Valdez seems impressed—perhaps even amused—at our ordering frenzy. The hot dog is terrifying, piled high with condiments including onions braised in butter and mustard and finished off with a squirt of Cheez Whiz. You bite into it through a sea of bun and condiments, reaching the bacon-wrapped hot dog last. The corn tamale is wrapped up in honeyed masa, a hint of salt setting off the sweet, buttery corn. The other tamale, simply called dulce, consists of brown sugar and cinnamon–inflected masa dotted with raisins and pineapple. The champurrado, a slightly sweet, slightly chocolaty drink, is thickened with masa and puréed corn.
The Salinas City Council has yet to reschedule the hearing on the fate of the taco trucks. For updated information, check back on Chowhound. And if street food is at risk in your community, do something.
Photographs by Chris Rochelle