Combing Oakland for the Top Taco Truck

Taco trucks are a new destination for gourmands. They are celebrated in blogs with maps of where the best trucks park. In Oakland, Calif., many fans embark on late-night taco treks.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We're not sure if you'll find them in any "Michelin Guide," but taco trucks have some seriously devoted fans. Once a magnet for construction workers and immigrants, these mobile vendors have broadened their appeal.

Corey Takahashi's been checking out some taco trucks in Oakland. He sent this story.

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COREY TAKAHASHI: Sunset in Oakland means show time for El Gordo. Tacos El Gordo is parked in an intersection near the 880 Freeway. Ruth Lafler is a big fan. She's a regular poster at the Chowhound message board, a Web community for food lovers.

Ms. RUTH LAFLER (Blogger, Chowhound.com): I've been by here like on a Saturday at, you know, midnight. And, you know, they've got the salsa music playing and everybody's wearing their night clubbing clothes and it's really - there really is like a little street party there, right around the taco truck.

TAKAHASHI: You jump into the scene as well or just there for the food?

Ms. LAFLER: No. I'm too old and too white for that.

TAKAHASHI: Tonight, Lafler is on a taco crawl through Oakland. The 48-year-old walks through the Fruitvale district, the heart of the city's growing Latino community.

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TAKAHASHI: Oakland's rise in the taco scene has been fueled by changes in another community across the bay - San Francisco's Mission District. Rising prices there have pushed out segments of the Latino community. Many relocated to nearby Oakland. The area around a few of the taco trucks can be intimidating to some outsiders.

What sound like gunshots not too far away could also be a motorcycle backfiring. The Hell's Angels have a clubhouse nearby. Still, the taco trucks lure people like Ruth Lafler who've become increasingly aware that California's changing demographics bring a chance to sample new food.

Ms. LAFLER: The Americanized taco that we grew up with is now becoming relegated to kind of fast-food, Jack-in-the-box places, and this more authentic taco is taking a more central role in people's perceptions of what a taco is.

TAKAHASHI: This evening, the owner of Tacos El Gordo is behind the trailer's counter.

Mr. CARLOS MONTERO (Owner, Tacos El Gordo): Carlos Montero.

Ms. LAFLER: Carlos Montero, it's nice to meet you.

Mr. MONTERO: Nice to meet you too.

Ms. LAFLER: Big fan of your work here.

TAKAHASHI: In 1999, Carlos Montero started selling tacos on the weekend. He had a job at a California steel factory. But to help pay the bills, he revived this skill he learned as a kid when he was an apprentice at his father's taco cart in Mexico.

Mr. MONTERO: It's good, though, huh?

Ms. LAFLER: It's good. It's delicious. Yeah.

Mr. MONTERO: Yeah.

TAKAHASHI: El Gordo is quite a sight. Montero got it customized in East L.A. with a mural on the back of the trailer, stereo speakers and display windows so patrons can watch the cooks. He says devotees come from all over the Bay Area.

Mr. MONTERO: We have Mexicans, of course. We've got Vietnamese. We have Chinese people. We have African-American people and white ones too - all nationality actually. Yeah.

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TAKAHASHI: One fan who understands the outsiders' relationship with taco trucks is 29-year-old artist Ajinay Moss(ph). He's half black and half white with tastes that often lean Mexican.

Mr. AJINAY MOSS (Artist): Where I'm from in Berkeley, there's no taco trucks. That's what got me into in them is that, you know, you could only find them in these - in the poorer areas, and they were so cheap and so good, you know?

TAKAHASHI: For several years, Moss maintained the popular Web site that gave names, locations and personal ratings for taco trucks in Oakland. He's retired the site but it was an early entry in what's now a flourishing Web sub-genre devoted to mobile vendors even though - or perhaps because - some cities have tried to ban the trucks.

Mr. MOSS: It's kind of a nerdy obsession, you know? Some people collect baseball cards and collect comic books. I just want to photograph taco trucks.

TAKAHASHI: Moss took his pictures and designed taco truck T-shirts and even exhibited paintings of taco trucks at local galleries. But not everyone could understand the obsession.

Mr. MOSS: I would get e-mails from people that say why do you even care about this, you know, like they're roach coaches. I would never eat at that.

TAKAHASHI: Moss steers his mother's Volvo station wagon through Richmond, California, another taco truck haven north of Oakland. He's searching for one of his trusty vendors.

Mr. MOSS: There it goes right here - Tacos Rodriguez. Heading out the day.

TAKAHASHI: It's elusive. It's like this great white whale or something.

Mr. MOSS: Yeah, that's what's cool about it. They just show up and be gone and they kind of work on their own hours. Then you'll just see them 10 miles away on the other section of town, catering to a different group of people and, so yeah, pretty cool.

TAKAHASHI: He says sometimes the chase is even better than the meal.

For NPR News, I'm Corey Takahashi.

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