Monday, December 20, 2010

Oakland Taco Trucks -- A Feast in the Streets (With a Public Transit Option!)

Clockwise from upper left -- El Ojo de Agua, Tacos Los Michocanos,
Tacos El Novillo and Tamales Mi Lupita
If we are talking street food, and we frequently are, and if we are talking tacos, which are also a frequent topic of conversation around here, it's very likely we are already on our way to the Fruitvale section of Oakland where licensing laws and Latino culture merge to create one of the Bay area’s best feeding grounds. 

The number of the highly decorated taco trucks in the area changes, but Oakland has issued permits for 120 loncherias (catering trucks and push carts), half of which are in the Fruitvale area, one of only two neighborhoods in Oakland they are allowed. This concentration makes it easy to go from truck to truck and sample a taco with carnitas here, a tostada with cerviche there as you wend your way through the neighborhood. They are generally open from morning to well after the dinner hour, but be flexible, hours, location, and menu offerings do change. Be prepared for an adventure and bring your appetite.

My Oakland taco truck crawls have all been by car, but it could also be done by bicycle  or even AC Transit.  Amy Sherman, a veteran food blogger, travel writer and taco crawler has put together a tour with all stops convenient walking distance to the Fruitvale BART station.  Thanks to Amy and bloggers Genie Grotto and Shelly Butcher for accompaning me on my appointed taco rounds.

To devise your own crawl, here’s a sampling of some of my favorite taco trucks plus an overview of some typical taco truck menu items. Menus are usually colorful signs mounted on the side of the truck, often in English and Spanish.

While many taco trucks offer the similar fare, the style of cooking, seasoning, regional differences and whims of the chef can make for interesting and tasty variations. These trucks specialize in tacos (usually two stacked small soft corn tortillas topped with a few tablespoons of filling with chopped onions, fresh cilantro and salsa) with a slice of lime. Squeeze the lime on top, fold the taco and eat in a few quick bites over your car hood, the taco truck’s thin ledge of a counter or perhaps a weathered picnic table and try not to drip on your clothes. The accompanying chunks of cucumber, radish or pickled carrots and jalapeno peppers help cut through the rich meat taste. Tacos generally cost $1.25-$2.

Besides the tacos, most trucks offer burritos and some also have quesadillas and tortas (sandwiches). Fillings can include carnitas (shredded, crispy pork), lengua (beef tongue, my favorite), suadero (beef rib meat), cabeza (beef head or cheeks), al pastor (roast pork), chorizo (spicy pork sausage), tripa (chitlins), birria (goat), carne asada (steak), stewed or shredded chicken and more. Trucks specializing in seafood also offer cerviche (raw, marinated fish salad) tostadas and griddled fish tacos (tacos de pescado or tacos de dorado).

Wash it all down with a refresco (soft drink). Or try an agua fresca or atole fresh fruit drink in flavors ranging for horchata (an almondy-cinnamon flavor) to jamaica (hibiscus) to pina (pineapple).

Below are just a few of my favorite Oakland taco trucks. One fan of the area’s loncherias created this Google map to help enthusiasts plan their own taco truck crawls. It includes the taco trucks listed below and many more.

Tacos El Novillo, 1001 Fruitvale Ave. (near E. 12th St.)

This truck offers tacos made with chicarrones (deep fried strips of pork skin.) The chicarrones are delicious, but I liked them better mixed with the al pastor tacos. Get one of each and make your own combination plate.

El Ojo de Agua, 3132 E. 12th Street (at Fruitvale Ave.)

The tacos are great, the tortas are excellent, but they are also known for their drinks, especially their licuados (Mexican milk shakes).

Tacos los Michocanos, 3524 International Blvd. (near 35th St.)

The difference here is the hearty and earthy style of Michoacan style cooking. My last taco there had some of the best lengua I’ve ever eaten. Plus I love the killer salsa. On weekends Los Michocanos offers a homemade tortilla option.

Tacos Sinola (two trucks), 2138 International Blvd. (at 22nd Ave.)

This is more of a two-truck “surf and turf” complex. The truck closest to International Blvd. offers an array of tasty meat-based tacos. The truck further back specializes in seafood, particularly in fish and shrimp tacos. In between are parking, covered seating and a colorful shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

One of my favorite trucks is technically not a taco truck I guess since it specializes in El Salvadorean food. But Tamales Mi Lupita offers sensational cheese and other pupusas (kind of stuffed corn tortillas) served with tangy cabbage slaw, chicken pastilles (little fried pies of deliciousness) and banana empanadas (somewhat like pieces of bananas fried fritter style), among other delights.  It can be found at 34th Ave. and Foothilld Blvd, next the Pupuseria Lupita Restaurant on Foothill Blvd.

For more on taco trucks in Oakland and elsewhere in the Bay area, check out the California Taco Truck blog  or the Chowhound forum discussions on the topic.
Note: A version of this post first appeared on the Poor Taste SF website. Have a taco truck favorite not listed?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I'll try to check it out and include in a future taco truck roundup.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Some East Bay New Year's Options

From Tom Walton, my one of my favorite local restaurant promoters, restaurants in the East Bay with available New Year's seating, including one with vegan options.

New Year's Eve
Gather / 510.859.9180

2200 Oxford Street, Berkeley
Open 11:30 AM to 2:00 PM for lunch, 5:00M to 10:00 PM for dinner. For dinner serving only a $65.00 four-course prix fixe menu with entrée choices of Blue Hokito Squash “Steaks” with Sangiovese braised pardiña lentils and sunchoke bay leaf salsa; Braised Beef Cheeks with Yellowfin potatoes, celery root, Savoy cabbage, horseradish and crème fraiche; or Whole Roasted Local Fish with winter citrus, fennel and fresh pressed olive oil. Vegan options will be available.

Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto / Berkeley
1919 Fourth Street
Open 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.; bar is open until midnight. In addition to their regular a la carte menu, Spenger’s will be serving special holiday a la carte entrees including fresh local crab and prime rib. With every dessert ordered, the restaurant will offer a complimentary glass of sparkling wine or sparkling cider. A specialty of the house is personalized private parties.

Zut! on Fourth / 510.644.0444
1820 Fourth Street, Berkeley
Open for two seatings, the first from 6:30 to 7:30 PM and the second from 9:30 to 10:30 PM. Serving only a four-course (plus an amuse bouche and a glass of Moscato d'Asti) prix fixe menu with entrée choices of filet mignon, shellfish risotto, or vegetarian ravioli. Early seating priced at $70.00, the late $90.00, plus $30.00 additional for paired wines by the glass. Mal Sharpe's Big Money in Jazz Band will play during the second seating with live music TBA during the first seating. Complimentary midnight toast and dancing.

New Year’s Day 2011 dining out options

Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto
See Above
Open 11:30 AM - 10:00 PM. Regular a la carte menu plus a la carte holiday specials including fresh local crab and prime rib.