Last week, I had the opportunity to judge the sixth annual Taco Truck Throwdown at Chuckchansi Park in Fresno. The trucks were assembled at a game for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies, aka The Fresno Tacos. Perhaps you’ve heard of them? Last year, the Grizzlies made headlines after rebranding as “The Fresno Tacos” for a single game (think Tacos on the jerseys and hats, obvious merchandising possibilities). The taco team got covered all around the country, and was so popular that this year they announced they’d be playing as the Fresno Tacos for all 10 Tuesday home games.
It’s been a big hit. Taco Bell offered to supply the tacos if the team would rebrand permanently (they haven’t accepted as of yet). ESPN’s Darren Rovell even called Tacos creator Sam Hansen “the best marketer in baseball right now.”
Hey, everyone likes tacos! It’s a fun, novelty story. But if you’re not from the Central Valley, you might not understand how cool it is to be the subject of a national news story for something positive for a change. Something other than, say, a guy having sex with a sheep to relax. It’s not that Fresno’s a bad place, or even that much of a backwater. Certainly less depressing than Stockton (best known as the fightin’ Diaz brothers‘ hometown), its San Joaquin Valley neighbor to the north.
Greater Fresno has about 1.1 million people, the fifth-largest metro area in California, and for the most part, it’s your basic anytown, USA — strip malls, fast-food joints, some nice neighborhoods, some crappy ones. But by virtue of the fact that it’s landlocked, and is about halfway between the Bay area and LA — such that most people’s experience of it is driving through the crappiest corner on the way to somewhere else — it’s easy to feel like California’s redheaded stepchild. I can’t count the number of times someone in college (in San Diego) or at a party here in San Francisco asked me where I was from and I said Fresno County and they responded, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
What? Hey, f*ck you. I’m not one of those people who’s especially prideful about the place where I just happened to fall out of my mom’s uterus (fastest sperm, YOLO), but why the attitude? When people tell me they’re from Orange County, I don’t immediately start asking about Richard Nixon (even though I secretly blame them for him — eat sh*t, Yorba Linda). The way people casually insult the San Joaquin Valley right to your face makes it a little easier to understand why the Diazes are always shouting their area code and flipping everyone off (also known as the “Stockton hey buddy“).
The point is, becoming known for something, especially something as universally beloved as the taco, even in a novelty blog post kind of way, is pretty cool. And it’s not as if Fresno just appropriated the taco either. Fresno County’s taco truck tradition predates the food truck trend, and food truck parks, and the Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, etc. by a wide margin. In a town built around agriculture (raisins, oranges, stone fruit, etc), taco trucks were a way for migrant farm workers to get a quick, cheap lunch on their short lunch break from picking fruit in the blazing sun. And of course, the rest of us eventually discovered them too. Most people I grew up with had a favorite taco truck — usually identified by location rather than name. Like, “the one at Academy and 180” (great carne asada burritos, incidentally, if you’re ever passing through).
As Joe Mathews of Zocalo wrote in a piece called “Is Fresno California’s Taco Capital?”:
The competition and the nearness of agriculture keep the quality of the food high, and the diversity of taco styles reflects how the agriculture industry, over the generations, attracted people from every corner of California and Mexico to the San Joaquin Valley.
I’m not here to tell you “Fresno has the best tacos,” because there are a lot of good taco shops all over California. But as someone who grew up in Fresno County (I grew up in Del Rey and went to high school in Reedley, if we’re getting specific), I can attest that the Mexican food here has its own unique identity. Whereas San Diego’s also excellent Mexican food has a heavy coastal Mex/Baja California influence (think Rubio’s, the fish taco, etc), and the Bay area’s has a distinct Central American flair (pupusas, etc), Fresno’s is a different melting pot. It’s been influenced by food cultures all over Mexico, brought over by farm laborers; Tex-Mex and New Mexico, mixed with local agriculture, and with additional influence from the Okies who migrated to the Central Valley in droves during the Steinbeck era. Not better, necessarily, but definitely distinct. I’ve never been able to get, say, decent chile verde outside of the Central Valley.
To make a long story short, the Grizzlies going taco crazy wasn’t just a marketing stunt, it also made perfect sense — something that was right there all along that we only just realized we should be proud of. When Mike Osegueda reached out to ask if I’d judge this year’s Throwdown, I jumped at the chance.
Osegueda and Sam Hansen started the Taco Truck Throwdown in 2011, the year Hansen started working for the Grizzlies, while Osegueda (now at Yahoo Sports) was working for the Fresno Bee. Osegueda had come to Fresno after growing up in the East Bay, and it makes a certain kind of sense that it took an outsider to appreciate something Fresnans had so taken for granted, even if it was a head slapper when he did. Last year’s event sold 38,000 tacos to a sold-out crowd of 17,000, from 24 trucks. With 32 trucks, this year’s promised to be even bigger. Introduced through a mutual friend, all Osegueda wanted to know from me before the event was, are you willing to eat 32 tacos? Yes, yes I was.
Here are some things I learned:
I guess this one should’ve been obvious, but when you’re trying to sample 32 tacos, you really shouldn’t start off trying to eat the entire taco, even if they are small (and some were only about the size of a sand dollar). Probably just one bite at first. I knew this consciously, but when the rubber met the road and I realized I’d actually have to throw half a taco in the trash, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It felt like a mortal taco sin. I ate most of the first 10 tacos as a misguided apology to the universe (I also wanted to sample them with each the different salsas on offer, most trucks having at least three). Would not recommend. Food waste still hurts my soul, so next year I’d suggest each judge should have a second, possibly a third, like a duel.
Hunger Affects Flavor
I once read an anecdote about a guy who was lost in the Australian outback, who at one point, when he was on the verge of starving, ate a mucousy kangaroo fetus that had fallen out of its mother’s pouch. Just grabbed it and ate it raw. People asked how terrible it was and he said it was the best thing he’d ever eaten. Point being, things taste differently depending on how hungry you are. I tried to eat a big but bland breakfast early the morning of the Throwdon (I’d heard competitive eaters fill up on plain rice to try to expand the stomach) and nothing in the middle of the day. By 4 p.m. when the event started, I was starving. Early in the competition, the greasier the taco the better. I was full by 10 and started to hit a wall right around the high teens. Somewhere around the 23rd or 24th taco, we were served a “BLT taco,” with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and a big slab of pork belly. Normally, I love those ingredients. After 20-some tacos, I almost puked. It was too rich. An hour earlier, it might’ve been delicious.
Variety Stands Out
Most of the trucks understandably served us their best sellers. A logical choice, but in practice, it meant that about 60 percent of the tacos we ate were carne asada (sliced steak, usually some kind of skirt, flap, or flank cooked on a plancha and cubed, and maybe finished off with a little lime and/or fresh garlic), 30 percent Al Pastor (pork with a red bbq sauce often cooked on a vertical spit, gyro-style, often with pineapple), and 10 percent other. That made Dusty Buns’ duck carnitas with mangos, Las Adas Manzanillo’s fried mahi (the only fish), and Tacos Los Girasole’s black mole tacos, among others, stand out. Chef Mike’s Mobile Cafe served us a Peruvian-style taco, with beans on the inside and a yellow, aji amarillo chile sauce between the tortillas.
Most of the Mexican tasters thumbed their noses at the idea of putting the beans in the taco (and in theory, I’d probably agree), but it made my top 10, easily.
Of course, you can also go too far, like the mac and cheese and brisket taco we had (some great foods just shouldn’t be combined). But some of my favorite tacos are the less-frequently-ordered tacos, like lengua (tongue). We judged one cabeza (head — a great hangover taco), but no lengua. One of the best I had all day was a friend’s buche taco (fried pork stomach), though it wasn’t part of the official competition. Which means I guess I actually ended up eating more than 32 tacos.
Advice For Taco Trucks
I thought about titling this section “taco rules,” but tacos shouldn’t have rules. That being said, I, as a now-veteran taco judge, do have some helpful guidelines. But just as George Orwell’s final rule of writing was “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous,” my final taco guideline is to ignore any of my guidelines as soon it gets in the way of what you think is a delicious taco. Innovation is rebellion.
Grill Those Tortillas
Home-made tortillas are ideal, and a made-to-order tortilla cooked right in front of you would obviously be a massive selling point. But if we’re being honest, I doubt I could tell the difference between a made-to-order tortilla and a store-bought or pre-made one in a blind taste test, provided you treated it right. So throw that sucker on the grill. If you can get some char and grease on the outside while the inside stays soft and pliable, that’s perfect. Some trucks did one tortilla, others two. If you can do it with a single tortilla without it breaking, that’s great. If not, no biggie.
Hands down the best tortilla I had all day was this puffy, hand-made job from Tacos Los Girasoles.
The mole was pretty great too (and provided much-needed variety), though I wish they would’ve stewed the chicken in it instead of just putting it on top. That tortilla though… I’m still thinking about it.
Virtually every taco we judged were of the lay-flat, street-taco variety, but when I do them at home, I love dredging the tortillas in some hot oil until they start to bubble and get just to the point of being hard, but not quite. Where they’re vaguely U-shaped and kind of chewy-crunchy.
This way is probably very Americanized, and I imagine isn’t worth the trouble in a space-limited environment like a truck, which is why you usually only see it in sit-down restaurants. Damned if it isn’t delicious though.
Assemble Your Taco
As in, don’t make me build my own. Part of the beauty of the taco is the taste, sure, but it’s also about construction. This is a street food. It’s meant to be grab-with-your-hand-and-go. Same goes for burgers. Don’t make me add my own fixins, that’s lazy, and it’s cheating. Figuring out how to get all your flavors into one bite is part of the challenge. Likewise, being able to customize is great, but give me your idea of the perfect bite first, then maybe I’ll want to customize. If you want to be a taco nazi and not allow customization, I’ve never seen that, but honestly… I’d respect it. I’d think “whoa, this lady really knows her tacos. I better not embarrass myself in front of her.”
One of my favorite taco fillings was this delicious, tender adobada from Ortega’s Taqueria.
But I had to deduct half a point for serving it make-your-own style, even though the fixins were all available and pretty good. Harsh, I know, but dammit, this is a taco contest, not a taco meat contest.
Cabbage vs. Lettuce
As a semi-profesh taco taster (yes I’ve promoted myself while writing this) my official verdict on cabbage vs. lettuce is… both are fine. I bet you thought I was going to have hot take about this, didn’t you. Frankly, I thought I would too. I even tried to get some of the taco trucks that use cabbage to bash lettuce and vice versa, but no luck. Not even one cabbage purist claiming lettuce isn’t authentic. I get it, both have their merits. Cabbage is crunchier, lettuce tastes better. It takes all kinds.
Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Did I mention the high temperature that day was 100 degrees? (That’s almost 38 degrees Celcius, foreigners). Staying hydrated is a must. These sweat stains were not added in post, they are very real.
In case you ever find yourself in Fresno County looking to do a taco truck tour, here’s who got top marks:
JUDGES BALLOT (TOP 5):
1. El Premio Mayor
2. Tako BBQ
3. (tie) El Sabor De Michoacan
3. (tie) Taqueria Gonzalez (tie)
5. (tie) Taco Boys
5. (tie). Pape Mike’s Mobile Café
PEOPLES’ CHOICE VOTE (TOP 5)
1. El Premio
2. El Mexicano
3. Maria’s Tacos
4. La Elegante
5. Gerardo’s Tacos
MOST TACOS SOLD (TOP 5)
1. El Premio Mayor
2. El Mexicano
3. La Elegante
5. Las Adas Manzanillo
The people’s choice award was renamed this year in honor of El Premio Mayor’s Adrian Loza, who was killed by a train earlier this year. There were some tears when his mother and sisters accepted both awards, which they also won last year.
My personal top three were the carne asada from Gerardo’s, the fried mahi from Las Adas Manzanillo, and El Mexicano. Honestly, there were only two or three legitimately disappointing tacos, and the rest were mostly varying degrees of “pretty good” and “really good.”
Afterwards, I got interviewed by two local TV stations, one in English and one in Spanish. I don’t remember much about the Spanish one other than saying “too much,” probably because I only understood a little more than half the words.
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I’m not really one for sentimentality or civic pride, and I don’t know if tacos will ever be Fresno’s “thing” according to outsiders. But there was a scene in Phil Rosenthal’s food show that made an impression on me. He’s in some restaurant in Japan eating pond loach, when the subject of egg creams comes up. None of the Japanese have had one, and Phil, being from Queens, can’t believe it. So after a few minutes of trying to explain it, he decides to serve them the “delicacy of his people,” so to speak. I loved the way he spontaneously became an ambassador for this thing he’d taken for granted his whole life.
Americans, by and large, and especially those of us who grew up in anytowns mostly dominated by strip malls and fast food joints you can find anywhere, and where most of the buildings aren’t more than 60 years old, tend to feel unstuck from history, from tradition, or any idea of “culture.” Then every once in a while you have these little egg cream moments, where you realize it was right under your nose (or spilling down the front of your shirt) the whole time.
Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.