Let Us Not Forget the Taco Trailer
Back before the Austin trailer food boom, some dozen or so years ago, the offerings from vendors on wheels were more limited indeed. Instead of fusions you never dreamed of that make your mouth water, tasty cuisines from around the world and confections like gourmet doughnuts the size of a spare tire, there was the humble taco trailer.
And there still is. In my neighborhood – the East Oltorf/Riverside area that is likely to be nicknamed South Shore (aka "SoSo," alas) – that's largely what we have. Back in the 1990s, when you wanted trailer tacos the cry was, "go east." It's part of where the trailer food movement originated and remains one of my signal local eating experiences.
In the '90s, it was near tradition with a friend to head eastward on Riverside after last call for tacos at the Al Pastor trailer in the large lot of the plaza on the south side of Riverside between Parker Lane and Royal Crest Drive. Not only were their al pastor tacos morsels of magnificence, flecked with cilantro and wrapped in the warm blanket of a tortilla heated by a brief flash on the grill, but it also served a verde sauce whose heat was like an ember, lingering on the taste buds even after I'd arrived home for the night.
My current abode is just down the street from Tacos Ricos (2225 E. Oltorf at Douglas in the parking lot of the Oltorf Food Mart). All my taco trailer needs are now just a stroll away.
Much as I enjoy fusions and high cuisine, my appetite has a strong appreciation for "people's food." It's all about taking cheap and common ingredients and making them tasty and filling; stuff you can whip up at home, but maybe that much better cooked by another, and for a cost that's just a bit more than buying the ingredients yourself.
I may be able to whip up some mighty good breakfast tacos at home, yet they just don't compare with those prepared seven mornings a week by Maria, sometimes assisted by her husband Rico, proprietors of the trailer that bears his name. I assess my breakfast tacos by what I call the Tamale House standard for where I first became seduced by the delights of this decidedly Texan meal.
By the time I moved to Austin in 1989, the original Tamale House that was located on the northeast block at Congress and Cesar Chavez was gone and replaced by one of downtown's original modern highrises that stands there today. But in typical Austin fashion I heard many extol its praises after my arrival here.
As word had it, the buyout to make way for the office building in the 1980s enabled the Valera family, who has already been serving Mexican fare to Austinites for three generations, to open three new Tamale Houses: One at 2825 Guadalupe where the Drag hits 29th St. (now the Taco Shack), where I became addicted to the breakfast taco when I worked and lived a block or so away after I landed in this town. There was another on College Ave. off South Congress where Lucy's Fried Chicken is now cooking up a Southern food storm on the local food scene. And the remaining Tamale House No. 3 from the trio at 5003 Airport. Early last year a new Tamale House opened at 1707 East Sixth, hopefully assuring this long local breakfast tradition will outlast any gentrification. After all, as one Yelp reviewer puts it so well, their food is "amazeballs."
So my first introduction to the breakfast taco set expectations that the primary stuffing of fluffy fried eggs be all but overflowing. My standard combo includes bacon, potatoes and cheese (sometimes I switch out the bacon for sausage), most often with another of bean, cheese and avocado. For just a few bucks I am well sated.
And when I first ordered that up from Tacos Ricos some three years ago, I found I was luckily living a short walk up the street from a superior Mexican food trailer. Soon after I sampled the al pastor and it nicely passed muster. At least once a week I'll have one of their hearty burritos or tortas. They also do a pretty good burger and fries. Their green sauce may not have the long lingering burn of that at Al Pastor, but it carries a tangy accent that conveys its merits.
I'm almost ashamed to say I'm such a creature of habit that it took me more than two years to discover what I consider Tacos Ricos' true treasure: an utterly delightful beef barbacoa. Succulently spiced, it gracefully crumbles and melts as it hits the palate, and is super yummy within any of the basic orders the trailer serves.
When a friend who grew up in South Texas recently stayed with me for a week on his return to Austin from stints in other points around the nation, I called on his close-to-the-border reared taste buds as a test case to confirm my affection for this neighborhood joint. He agreed that the breakfast tacos rocked and was also wowed by the barbacoa. The folks of all ages and stripes who keep Tacos Ricos hopping from early morning to mid afternoon and then dinnertime until after the bars close attest to its appeal.
Yeah, the Spanglish mode of communication from both sides of the window sometimes results in glitched orders, but no matter. I appreciate how the taco trailer enables immigrants to integrate themselves by starting their own business and employing fellow newcomers. And for all the cornucopia of comestibles being served up from trailers and trucks all around town, the taqueria on tires remains an essential aspect of life, as it always should be.