Tuesday, June 24, 2008

IEM Session #3- ¡Este Pinche Judio No Puede Comer Cincuenta Tacos en Un Dia!

photo by tigerlily

To understand what this is all about, read the intro .

It’s been almost exactly a year since I last regaled you with stories of my gustatory insanity, but I’m back and ready to pick up where I left off. So, where the hell did I go? The short answer is I’m lazy and I put on 25 lbs.

The long answer is in June 2007 I went to New York to do a special vacation edition of IEM. At first, I thought I’d just do a regular IEM session and pick one food and eat it all over NY. I was considering pizza, but I figured I’d wind up writing, “This is the greatest pizza ever!” for every pizzeria, since Bay Area pizza is so mediocre. Also, I was on vacation, after all, and didn’t want to spend all day eating only one food. And the wife said she wouldn’t come along if all I was gonna eat was pizza. So, I decided I’d change the rules a little for this special edition. The new rules stipulated that I had to eat 8 meals per day over the course of 2 days and I had to travel through all 5 boroughs to do it. In theory, this was a great idea for an eating adventure and I had a wonderful time eating delicious food in parts of NY I’d never visited. I don’t know if all of the mass transit travel burned calories, but at the end of the trip, I was nowhere near as full as I should have been. If I hadn’t been so tired of riding trains, buses, and ferries, I could have easily eaten 5 more meals each day. The fact that I wasn’t ever stuffed sort of lessened the drama of the trek and it didn’t have the same ridiculous flow as when I’m concentrating on just one thing. Because of the lack of drama, I could never get motivated to write about the trip and I didn’t want to do another session until the previous session has been posted to the blog. And then, I put on 25 lbs. Who could’ve guessed that a guy who eats 16 meals in 2 days could gain weight? So, I went on a diet and got back to my fighting weight and am now pretty good about restricting my extreme food blowouts to once or twice a month these days. I’ve been able to maintain my weight for almost 2 months now, even after the eating session you’re about to read. I plan on doing the sessions at least every other month as long as I’m able to keep from blowing up again.

You’re about to read a very long description of a man eating a lot of tacos. Some of you may be impressed by the sheer amount of tortillas and pork I ingested. I appreciate your awe. However, it must be said that this session should be considered a failure. The original goal of the session was to eat 50 tacos in one day- 2 tacos at 25 places. For comparison’s sake, one taco at every stop would be an al pastor taco (“the control taco”), provided it was available. Additionally, I would attempt to try as many different varieties of meat available, repeating meats only when the establishment didn’t have a new variety for me to sample. I’d tried most of the meats available previously, and didn’t fear any of them, with the exception of sesos (brains.) I vowed to eat at least one sesos taco on this session, but I never encountered one in the entire session. I don’t get it. I used to see sesos on Oakland taqueria menus all the time. The only explanation I can come up with is mad cow disease scared the trucks and taquerias from carrying brains. I think the sesos taco has to be disgusting and it might cause me to vomit, so I strategized that I would eat the brain taco first, lest all my good works go rocketing skyward in a geyser of masa, cilantro, and seasoned pork. But I never found sesos. Just to show you I cannot be stopped by sesos, if I ever find a sesos taco around here I will eat it and capture it in an upcoming session, as a special “sesos extra.” Although it was technically a failure, this session was a blast. I love hanging around the Fruitvale district and its environs. I think I may have been Mexican in another life. I really think I could have eaten the full 50 tacos with better planning, but it was difficult even to get through 36. However, despite my discomfort, this was absolutely a walk in the park compared to fish and chips. I would gladly eat multiple tacos again and will do so very soon, but fish and chips (See IEM #2) still freak me out to this day. I’m sure I’ll eat them again to get over my aversion, but it might be a little while.
EATING DAY: Saturday, May 24, 2008

1. EL GRULLO- 2630 Foothill @ 27th Ave, Oakland- 8:35am- Al Pastor and Cabeza (beef head) - $1.25 each

The original plan was to start at one of the taquerias in the Dimond District, the closest business district to my home. Unfortunately, neither of those places were open when I rolled up at 8:20am, so I had to move on to other areas or waste valuable eating time. Pacing would be crucial on this session. I’d eaten at El Grullo years ago and couldn’t remember it one way or another. It’s on Foothill in a semi-crummy neighborhood. There’s usually some unsavory types walking around up to no good. But at 8:35am, it seemed plenty safe. The décor is welcoming here. There are lots of photos of food on the wall and hand-lettered signs. It has a very family-run feel. And it opens at 7:00am. Nice folks behind the counter that smiled when I ordered in Spanish. I ordered a cabeza taco for the first time in years. If all head tacos are this good, I won’t be waiting long before I eat another. It was kind of like stew meat. It was rich with flavor with just enough fat. It was definitely not a “weird meat” taco. Don’t fear the cabeza. The al pastor was definitely serviceable. It was juicy with a lot of crispy edges, but it didn’t pack the highly-seasoned flavor punch I crave in al pastor. This is the kind of place I might come regularly, if I didn’t already have a go-to place.

2. TACOS ALONZO (TRUCK) - Foothill @ Mitchell- 8:46am- Al Pastor and Lengua (beef tongue)- $1.25 each

Alonzo is a block east of El Grullo in a parking lot in front of a liquor store. Lots of people were hanging out in front, including a couple of derelicts looking through the garbage. I think some of the guys there may have been Jornaleros (day laborers), but I don’t think they’ll be finding much work sitting on the curb drinking malt liquor. They kept looking at me while I checked out the menu on the side of the truck. I suppose they wondered why a dorky looking gringo was ordering tacos in the rain at a quarter to 9 on a Saturday morning. The truck was staffed by what appeared to be a grandfather, his wife, and their elementary school age grandson. They were also very friendly folks, despite being child labor law violators. The first thing I noticed about the food was it came with a fat grilled green onion and grilled jalapeño- very classy. They both tasted great on the tacos. The tortilla was interesting. I don’t think it was homemade, but it was different from your average taqueria tortilla. It was made with a lighter corn, I think, and kind of tasted like a pancake. The tongue was the best I’ve tasted. It wasn’t at all rubbery or bland, like most lengua. In fact, it had crispy edges like the best carnitas, with a flavor reminiscent of carne asada. The al pastor had amazing crispiness as well, but like El Grullo, it was also a little less “pastor-ish” than my favorite version of the stuff. I would totally go here again if I was driving down Foothill and wanted tacos to go.

3. TAQUERIA CAMPOS- 3659 Foothill @ Harrington- 9:02am- Al Pastor ($1.25) and Tripas/Tripe ($2.00)

I passed at least 6 taco places on Foothill on my way to this joint, but I didn’t feel like looking around for parking, so I decided I’d go to the first place where I could park in front. Campos has an interesting set-up. They have sort of a walk-up window on the sidewalk, a “lobby” in the front where you order food to go, and a room in the back for sit down meals. They also seemed to have a family vibe here. In this case, the girls working behind this counter may have met the legal age requirement to work, though. It was a little disconcerting when they took the meats I ordered out of the fridge. They were both in big plastic buckets. The cook scooped out the goo like she was bailing a clogged toilet and dropped it right on the grill. I’d had tripas tacos before with mixed results. Once I had them and they were delicious. Another time, they were really rubbery. I also once had tripe at a Chinese all-you-can-eat hot pot place that about made me throw up the 3lbs. of meat I had eaten up until that point. I’ll be damned if there wasn’t some poop left in that intestine! Because of my unease with tripe, I don’t order it much. And I was surprised to find out that tripas tacos were 75 cents more than all the other tacos at Campos. What? In most “civilized” countries people throw that stuff out along with the cow hair and the teeth and whatever. And here they were charging a premium for it. But it was worth it. This stuff was grilled nice and crispy like a thick slab of bacon. And there was nothing organ-y about it. For whatever reason, the tripas taco came with a chunk of tomato, while the al pastor taco did not. Maybe tomatoes and tripe are the perfect combination like peanut butter and jelly, beans and rice, or hot sauce and watermelon. I’m pretty sure the tortillas here were homemade, as they were much thicker than normal. They were so thick, that Campos didn’t bother giving you the double-stack tortilla seen on most taqueria tacos. The al pastor was good and a little more seasoned than the previous 2 places, but it still wasn’t the holy grail of pastor I was seeking. I will definitely return here, but when I do, I’m ONLY eating tripe. I can pretend I’m a Rockefeller while I splurge on several $2 dollar tacos made from a cow intestine. What an aristocrat I’ll be!

4. MI PUEBLO FOOD CENTER- 1630 High St. @ Bancroft- 9:22am Al Pastor and Trompa (beef lips)- $1 each

I have mixed feeling about this store. It’s the biggest Mexican grocery store in Oakland, if not the entire Bay Area. Up until 2 years ago, this was an Albertson’s supermarket. (Probably the worst Albertson’s in Oakland, I might add. It always looked like a tornado had gone through there.) Now it’s clean and well-organized with the best selection of Mexican/Central American food around. In addition to the usual canned stuff, they have a huge bakery section with fresh stuff coming out all the time- including the cheapest and best bolillos in town. There’s also a massive meat and fish section with everything from bagra to arrachera. Huge produce section. Lots of bulk sauces. Then they have a hot food section that has stuff you don’t even see in most regular restaurants at rock bottom prices. And the taqueria is the cheapest in town. Since you know the ingredients are from the store, you can be sure it’s all fresh. The staff is all very friendly, and they all have these cute little name tags that also say where they’re from- e.g. Maria Elena Villareal, Zamora de Hidalgo, Michoacan, Mexico. Card dealers in Reno have to wear similar name tags (e.g. Louise Gruntsch, Fresno, CA), but they all look like they want you to euthanize them. The staff at Mi Pueblo quite upbeat for grocery store workers. On the other hand, I can’t help but think this store is kind of the Wal-Mart of Mexican Groceries. I do most of my shopping at another Mexican grocery much closer to my neighborhood. It’s a much smaller place and the selection isn’t as good (no bakery or taqueria, either), but I have kind of a rapport with the employees and I know where everything is there. It seems inevitable that Mi Pueblo is bound to impact the business at the smaller places. Anyway, the taqueria at Mi Pueblo is awesome. They have pretty much every variety of taco there (except for sesos) and they only cost a buck. I had to order Trompa, as I had never even heard of it before, let alone seen it on a menu. It was light in color, and resembled thinly sliced pork. It was pretty mild and not seasoned much and was only slightly chewier than your “regular meat” tacos. I don’t know if I need to order this again, but with the standard pico de gallo and a little extra hot sauce added, it was more than edible. The al pastor here was the best so far. It had great crispiness and the right amount of char to it. It still wasn’t what I dream about in my pork dreams, but it’s definitely good enough for several return visits, especially when you consider there’s a guy in the parking lot with a cart that makes churros from scratch that you can get stuffed with pudding!

At this point I began to realize that none of these places had the traditional spit of spinning pork (like a gyro) you associate with al pastor. What’s up with that? My rule with gyros is, “if the meat ain’t on a spinner, the gyro ain’t a winner,” but for al pastor, I never really notice whether or not there’s a spit when I order it. I’ve gotta start looking for the spinning meat and see if it makes a difference.

5. LUPITA’S (Trailer)- Foothill @ 45th Ave- 9:43am- Carne Asada and Pollo (chicken)- $1.25 each

Sure, I ate at the “big box” Mi Pueblo taqueria and I much enjoyed the food, but I always like to help the little guy whenever I can. And the guy doesn’t get much littler than Lupita’s. This isn’t even a taco truck. It’s a small trailer on a not so well-traveled block of Foothill around the corner from Mi Pueblo. I’m not sure how it got there, because there was no truck around to pull it to the lot. Sometimes the little guy is little for a reason. If you’re gonna try and run a successful taco place out of a tiny trailer when there’s 30 other taco places in a 10 block radius, you better bring your A-game. Lupita’s isn’t doing that. First, they didn’t even have al pastor tacos. Not a good sign. In fact, they only had carne asada and pollo tacos. I think the chicken was supposed to be grilled, but it didn’t have the grilled taste you get from the stuff often advertised as “pollo asado.” In fact it didn’t have any taste at all. It was completely dry like it had been microwaved too long or something. And the carne asada wasn’t much better. It was really gristly and tasted more like the meat you find on an AM/PM hamburger than at a taqueria. Lupita’s also had a sign saying they had pupusas, so perhaps they are Lupita’s raison d’etre, rather than tacos. But still, there is no reason to sell tacos this bad.

I was starting to get really full and felt kind of cheated that I had to waste valuable gullet space on these crummy things. I sat in my car and breathed heavily and drank water to get the taste out of my mouth. I sat there a good 10 minutes and no one else came to Lupita’s. Perhaps that was because it wasn’t even 10am and only gluttonous losers eat tacos that early, but I like to think it was because people wanted no part of these sub-par tacos. I drove away cursing the place as my belt strained against my gut, realizing I had eaten 10 tacos in barely an hour. I clearly had a pacing problem, my friends.

6. TAQUERIA LA MEJOR- 3411 High @ Porter- 9:59am- Al Pastor and Chile Verde- $1.25 eaI must have driven by this place a million times and always said, “I gotta try that place.” It’s in a totally non-descript strip mall on High, right below 580, near that crappy mobile home park that will probably be reduced to dust when the next major earthquake hits. I don’t know why I’ve wanted to try it so badly. Perhaps it’s the place’s status as the lone taqueria in its ‘hood that intrigued me- or maybe it’s the donut shop next door. It’s a nice looking place, painted with the brown and tans of old Mexico you usually see at Tex-Mex places in Dallas or at a Chi-Chi’s. They even went as far as to paint the ceiling acoustical tiles brown! I ordered a chile verde taco, which is basically just pork chunks in green chile sauce. You don’t see this much on taco menus, probably because it’s a little messy to eat standing up. This stuff looked an awful lot like the head taco from El Grullo, except with a sort of filmy green sauce. By this point, I wasn’t feeling too hot, but even in my distended state this taco was too bland for me. I had to juice it up with some of their hot sauce. The al pastor was a deeper red than the others and a little saucier, but it still was missing the mark a bit. If I lived around here, I’m certain I’d eat at La Mejor regularly, especially if I didn’t have a car, but I can’t say the place is really essential for people that live west of 35th Ave.

After 12 tacos down, I really felt stretched out, and was starting to realize that I should have planned this quest a little better. Conservatively, I figure there’s probably SOME taco available in Oakland as early as 8am and as late as 2am on a Saturday. That provides 18 hours of eating time. The original goal was 50 tacos, so that means I would only have to eat 2.77 tacos per hour to meet the goal. But for some reason, I felt like I should front-load and eat as many tacos as I could as early as I could. What can I say, except I planned poorly. I’m sorry. This should have been easier than it was and my failure to eat 50 tacos was purely a strategic error. 3 tacos per hour for 18 hours should not be that difficult. Next time, I just need to scope out the places that open really early and close really late and set up a more efficient route. Yes, I said “next time.”

7. LOS COMALES- 2105 Mac Arthur Blvd (near Fruitvale Ave)- 10:36am- Al Pastor & Chile Colorado- $2 each

Until El Jaliciense opened up about 2 months ago, Los Comales was the only taqueria in my local business district. I’d eaten here a few times, but never intentionally. I’d usually just go in when I was down in the Dimond District for some other reason and didn’t feel like driving down Fruitvale for a “good” taco or burrito. I always felt the food here was acceptable, but nothing I’d really go out of my way to eat. Taste aside, the place has a few strikes against it already. First of all, the food is a little more expensive than the taquerias down in the International/Foothill/Fruitvale corridor. Secondly, the place is closed on Sunday. Third, they’re now only a block away from Jaliciense, which is cheaper, open on Sunday, and has better tacos. I ordered the Chile Colorado (pork chunks in red chile sauce) taco for the same reason I got the Chile Verde at La Mejor; it’s not often available as a taco. Comales’ version of the stuff looks kind of like beef stew and was really wet on the tortilla. It’s not something you’d want to eat while driving. It was pretty bland, even with the salsa on it. This might be something to get if you have a stomach condition, or if you want to get a taco for an infant. The place has a little salsa bar, so you could spice the taco up yourself and be perfectly satisfied, though. The al pastor was also very saucy, but once again, it was pretty bland.

Much to my chagrin, the Dimond business district isn’t very Mexican. It caters mostly to the poor black folks living below 580 and around 23rd Ave. and the affluent white folks living above Mac Arthur and in the hills up towards the gaudy Mormon temple. (There’s a fancy French bakery and a Peet’s coffee down there, but there’s also several places to get a hair weave and the Southern Café soul food.) Maybe that kind of clientele doesn’t like their meat spicy, so Comales tones it down for them. The place has seemed to do a good business ever since I moved to the Dimond area in 1999. Serving bland tacos must work for them. It just doesn’t work for me. On the plus side, the tacos at this place are pretty massive. If the tacos had a little more kick to them, they would totally be worth the extra 50-75 cents they charge. If you’re from North Dakota, you have an ulcer, and you like to eat a lot, Los Comales is your taqueria.

I ate the tacos from Los Comales at home very slowly. Unlike the fish and chips, which made my stomach feel like it contained an F-5 tornado, the tacos just sat there. This must be what being pregnant with triplets feels like. Every so often, the runt of the litter would kick me hard, but mostly they remained still, feeling like they were going to have an average birth weight of 12lbs. 4oz.

8. LA CALACA LOCA TAQUERIA- 5199 Telegraph (@ 51st St)- 12:30am- Baja Pescado (fish) $3.85; & Pollo $3.25

I'd driven by this place a few times, but had no idea what to expect. Yeah, it’s in the Temescal area, which is currently about the douchiest area of Oakland, but I figured it was possible that a “real” taqueria might want to open there and get a piece of the yuppie/hipster action. Temescal has quite a few decent eateries, e.g. Genova Deli, Asmara Ethiopian, S&S Fish and Chips, Lanesplitter, and Bakesale Betty. The only problem is all those a-holes up there with their baby strollers and/or tight pants are always jamming up the place, forcing me to wait in line on the sidewalk like a schmuck while they talk about their new condo or the latest Death Cab for Cutie record. Because of this scene, I REALLY have to be in the mood for the food up there before I step foot into the Temescal. When I walked into La Calaca Loca, it took about a millisecond before I knew that this wasn’t a REAL taqueria. There are signs all over the place for Niman Ranch this and organic that. There’s a bulletin board with flyers supporting the Green Party candidate for dogcatcher and lots of faux Dia de los Muertos sculptures. But there was no “taco, burrito, torta, quesadilla (your choice of meat)” sign to be found. And they play Caribbean salsa music at low volume, rather than Banda music so loud the tuba feels like it’s piercing your duodenum. The look is “forced ethnic,” like what I imagine a Chipotle Grill must look like. It is not the kind of place you find down on Int’l and 38th Ave. However, since I was already there, I felt obliged to eat, even though I was about 2 hours away from being even slightly hungry.

Of course, there was no al pastor available. The fish taco had big pieces of fried fish, breaded a la Long John Silver’s; or if you prefer- H. Salt. It had Baja Sauce on it, which is a cream-based sauce that could have been watery tartar sauce for all I know, but it tasted pretty good. The fish seemed fresh, too. If I ever want to eat a fried fish taco at this price, I could see returning here, despite the atmosphere. It’s definitely better than the place on Piedmont that does a similar fish taco. As for the chicken taco, what can I tell you? It was the traditional stewed chicken taco, but the spices seemed a little gourmet-a-fied. Not bad, I guess, and it was a pretty big portion, but I’m just not a big fan of the stewed chicken taco or burrito, in general. The chicken reminds me too much of the chicken we used to eat for Passover. The to-go menu says you should contact Jack Schwartz for catering information. I’m guessing Mr. Schwartz is the owner. With a name like Schwartz, he may have had stewed chicken for Passover, too, except he liked it. Although I’m guessing he’s not from Guadalajara, Señor Schwartz does have the good sense to put Mexicans behind the counter and in the kitchen. The high-fallutin’ types in Temescal need to make sure they’re eating authentic, fair market, locally-produced tacos, after all.

The best part of my visit was the teens sitting at the table next to me. La Calaca has their own habanero salsa in squeeze bottles on the table. A zaftig bro-dude covered his burrito with it. After one bite, he started whining to his chums that it was now so hot that he couldn’t eat it anymore. His annoying cries went on for several minutes while I ate my fish taco. When I realized I wasn’t crazy about the chicken taco and I wanted to get the taste of Passover out of my mouth, I asked the kid if he would pass me the habanero salsa if he was finished with it. He said he was finished with it but, “Dude, I wouldn’t put it on your food. It’s really fuckin’ hot, dude. I totally ruined my burrito, brah!” I told him I was willing to try it anyway and he handed me the bottle. I proceeded to douse my taco with the stuff as he looked on in disbelief. I ate the taco while they stared at me aghast. After I had taken a few bites, I shrugged and continued to eat the taco until it was gone. The apparent ringleader immediately began laying into his voluptuous friend. “Dude! That guy schooled you! You fat pussy!” And he went on and on an on… The kid hung his head in shame like he had been beaten up by a girl or like he shit the bed at sleep away camp. To be fair, the salsa was actually pretty hot, but I wasn’t gonna let these chumps know that. I think it’s possible that all of the habanero ate away some of the taco matter hanging out in my gut. During the fish taco, I thought I was gonna have to quit, but I was able to finish the chicken taco without too much difficulty. After I was done eating, I went home to rest for a while. About 30 minutes into a nap, I woke up with some serious rumblings going on below the equator. I went to the can and proceeded to sweep out my tombs. The habanero stunt was a good idea. Not only did it enable me to make a cocky teen look like a fool, it cleansed my innards to fight anew.

9. EL JALCIENSE- 2045 Mac Arthur Blvd. (@ Dimond Ave)- 3:40pm- Al Pastor & Birria (goat or beef?)- $1.50 each

My wife and I were pretty psyched when this place opened. Another taqueria is just what the Dimond needed, especially when Los Comales is so meh. I went to eat at this place the day they opened and I was very happy with their tacos. I went back with Kelly again that evening so she could try the place and she loved the tacos, too. However, we went there with friends for a non-taco meal a few weeks later, and it wasn’t so great. I can’t remember what, if anything, was specifically was wrong with the food, but the service needed work. We were a party of 4, and they screwed up every order in one way or another. Still, I had faith in their tacos. For this taco-eating session, my friends Lily and Chris joined me after I had gone without a taco for about 3 hours. I was rejuvenated. Unfortunately, I had lost a significant amount of eating time and would have to do some serious eating in the next few hours.
The menu translated Birria as “spicy shredded beef stew.” Can this be correct? Every other time I’ve had Birria, it was goat. Perhaps the place figured goat wouldn’t fly in this neighborhood. Goat or beef, the stuff was great. It had the texture of bbq brisket and was spiced nicely. It definitely seemed more like lamb or goat than beef, though. The al pastor was one of the better entries of the day. It was a little spicier than most, not too fatty, and crispy where I wanted it to be. And the tortillas were obviously oiled before they hit they griddle because they were kind of crispy. Lily and Chris had fish tacos and they were both very satisfied with their selection. The fish tacos here aren’t like the kind at La Calaca. They seem to have some kind of very light breading, but they’re not deep fried. The fish seems to have been breaded and then grilled or something. This place still seems to be very slow after about 2 months of business. Maybe it was the lousy table service for non-tacos that turned some people off. Or maybe the locals just prefer to go get the blander tacos at Las Comales. I really want this place to succeed. The folks are nice, the tacos are great, and they have a salsa bar. What’s not to like? I should be eating here at least once a week. And if you live nearby, so should you.

10. SINALOA (Truck)- International Blvd (@ 22nd Ave)- 4:33pm Al Pastor & Suadero (beef rib meat)- $1.25 each

This place holds a very special place in my heart. I’ve been going here ever since I moved back to Oakland in 1999. Early on, my wife and I usually went to the actual Sinaloa restaurant for sit-down Mexican meals. We actually had our "wedding rehearsal" dinner there. But a few years back, they stopped using the homemade tortillas that set them apart from other places and the quality declined in general. However, we continue to frequent Sinaloa's 2 trucks more than any other. The truck at the bottom of the parking lot has regular taco truck fare, while the one at the top of the lot has seafood tacos, ceviche tostadas, cocteles, some unusual meats, plus the usual stuff. The place is always pretty happening. There are usually a lot of families and couples here, probably because the place provides lots of outdoor seating. It’s a great place to have a cheap meal al fresco on a warm night.

Sometimes it gets a little freaky, which can add to the whole ambience. There are often prostitutes hanging around that look they came out of a rap video. And there’s occasionally a tranny or two. And I once saw 2 guys, apparently from rival gangs, start a serious argument in Spanglish while I waited for my food. I don’t know if the fracas ever resulted in gunplay, as I left as soon as my torta was done. I wasn’t going to wait around to find out. And I was hungry. Usually, it’s pretty calm down there, though.

Chris and Lily were still along for the ride. We all ordered from the upper truck. Lily ordered fish tacos again. She said they were good, but Jaliciense's were better, or at least they were that day. Chris ordered a ceviche tostada. He said it was good, but he thought it was going to be shrimp ceviche, rather than fish, so he was a little disappointed. I’ve had the shrimp ceviche there before and it is fantastic. I got the suadero, another meat you hardly ever see. It’s similar to carnitas, except it’s beef, rather than pork. The stuff was so tender and juicy, but with crispy edges here and there, just like the best carnitas. I can’t believe I haven’t ordered this in the past. I’m never coming here without ordering this.

The al pastor is the gold standard of al pastor. Every bite has so much flavor. It’s saucy and sort of reminds me of a Mexican sloppy joe- a total flavor explosion in every bite. I could eat that stuff everyday. This place is definitely my “regular taqueria.” If I don’t want to think too much and I want a taco, I usually go to Sinaloa. However, I ate the tacos this day with an open mind and they were really as good as I always imagine them to be, even without the attached sentimental value. I also have good feelings about Taqueria San Jose and I think they may possibly have the best carnitas tacos in town, but if I could only eat at one taco place for the rest of my life, I’d have to pick Sinaloa.

11. LOS TRES AMIGOS- Int’l Blvd (@ 20th Ave)- 4:50pm- Al Pastor & Pollo- $2 each

This place is just up the street from our band’s practice space, but I’d never tried it before. I’m guessing it used to be some sort of diner-y lunch counter in the old days. I was pretty excited to go inside. It was dark and there were a few old guys sitting at the counter reading the paper and talking, but nobody seemed to be eating anything. Maybe it’s their clubhouse. They had one of those menus with removable letters like you see at roller rink snack bars. It was covered with years of grease and listed a few non-standard meats, but the counter lady told me they didn’t have anything except chicken and al pastor. Hello! Those letters are removable. Don’t advertise arrachera if you don’t have it, for chrissake. I’m not sure if they never have those other items, or if they were just temporarily out of them, but having a choice of only 2 meats is a travesty. I wouldn’t be surprised if the place was a front for some kind of illegal activity. The chicken taco was grilled, rather than stewed, so I didn’t have an automatic propensity against it, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the worst taco of the days since Lupita’s. It was dry as hell and they didn’t even put the standard salsa on it. In fact, it was nothing more than chicken, cilantro, and a scintilla of chopped onions on tortillas. The al pastor came with the same toppings and was a lot better than the chicken. It was pretty flavorful, with kind of a smoky undertaste. It wasn’t bad at all, but after Sinaloa, it paled in comparison. And it didn’t help that I was starting to get full again, even though this would only be my 6th taco since I jettisoned the contents of my colon just a few hours previously. I might try this place again to see if they have a better selection next time, but it’s only two blocks away from Sinaloa, so why bother?

12. TAQUERIA MI JALISCO- 1309 Mac Arthur Blvd (@13th Ave) 7:07pm- Al Pastor & Carne Molida- $1.25 each.

Kelly returned from work to join me on the evening portion of my journey. It had been 2 hours since Tres Amigos. I wasn’t exactly hungry yet, but I knew I could eat. It was after 7pm and I was less than halfway to my goal. Mi Jalisco is pretty close to our place and the building has changed hands twice before becoming what seems to be a pretty popular taqueria. For about 2 seconds, there was a bbq place here that was never open when I came to check it out. And then it was a burger place that said “homemade milkshakes” in big letters on their sign, but never had shakes. It’s been Mi Jalisco for about 2 years now. Due to its location next door to a very ghetto liquor store, there’s often a good collection of thugged-out dudes hanging out around this place looking generally scary. Jalisco, stays open quite late considering the neighborhood, but I think this stretch of Mac Arthur and its environs may be drug gang territory, so it may be best to restrict your visits to earlier hours. The folks working here are pretty friendly, but I think the local riff-raff takes advantage of them. There’s a handwritten sign printed with all of the house rules, one of which is, “Stay away from the window and wait until your number is called.” There are 3 tables on a floor slanted to such a degree that the place could double as a Wacky Shack at a traveling carnival.

I’m not sure I’ve ever ordered a carne molida taco before. I sort of expected it might be like the ground beef tacos your non-mexican mother would make with ground chuck, Lowrey’s taco seasoning, and Ortega taco sauce. Nope. The meat was ground very finely. And except for a slightly gamey flavor, it sort of reminded me of the tacos you get at Jack in the Box, except not deep fried like Jack’s awesome tacos. I’ve had the al pastor here before in a burrito and really liked it, but it was particularly bland this time. I put some of the provided salsa on and it came alive a little, but I kept running into pieces of rubbery gristle, so that was a little distracting. After eating these 2 tacos, I realized that eating 50 tacos was most likely out of the question. I ate these tacos without difficulty, but I could tell there was not much more room left at the inn. The stench of failure and cumin was coming out of every pore.

13. CARMENCITA’S- 2101- 14th Ave (@ E. 21st St.)- 7:25pm- Al Pastor & Carne Asada- $1.50 each

I really hope this place makes it, but it’s doubtful. It’s on 14th Ave, which is a major thruway with no business district where people drive really fast to get from Mac Arthur to International Blvd. (or 580 to 880) and vice versa. It’s not likely that many people are going to stop to check this place out when they’re speeding by at 50mph. And that’s a shame. We went here the first week they opened and discovered they had great Guatemalan/Salvadoran stuff in addition to tacos and such. I think the friendly owners are from Guatemala. At our initial visit, we sampled their pupusas, which were superb and I tried the Yuca with Chicharron (pork rinds), which was also great. The Guatemalan/Salvadoran section of their menu also includes dishes with plantains, Guatemalan tamales, and "hen soup." A lot of times, places like this will do kind of a half-assed job with tacos, as if they’re protesting having to serve tacos at all, but Carmencita’s tacos are very good. The asada was really tender with great beef flavor. And the al pastor was really well seasoned and had that sauciness that I crave. It wasn’t as good as Sinaloa’s pastor, but it was in the ballpark. The tacos were on the smaller end of the spectrum, so the proprietors were encouraging me to order more food. I didn’t blame the guy for trying. It was the prime dinner hour and we may have been his first customers all day. I felt bad walking out spending only 3 bucks, but I had a lot more eating in store for me. My wife wants to adopt every stray dog in the world. Similarly, I feel like I should regularly eat at all of the stray taco places in Oakland (e.g. Carmencita’s, El Jaliciense, and that new place on the scariest block of 23rd Ave.), just to let passersby see that somebody is eating there. But I just can’t. Unfortunately, some of them are gonna wind up getting put to sleep.

14. OTAEZ MEXICATESSEN- 3872 Int’l Blvd (@ 39th Ave) – 9:05pm- Al Pastor & Chorizo Con Papas (spanish sausage with potatoes)- 1.25 each

photo by tigerlily

After Carmencita’s, Kelly and I went to a party at the Cereal Factory to try and catch at least 1 of the bands who were playing. Unfortunately, we missed all of them. However, we did arrive in time for the ceremonial shotgunning of beer they had planned for 8pm. Apparently, some folks had organized an event where hundreds of people at various parties all over the US would shotgun a beer at the designated time. I’d never shotgunned a beer and had to be instructed on the whys and wherefores of how it’s done, but I thought I’d succumb to peer pressure and be a team player. A friendly fellow pierced my can and told me to hold the hole and then pull the tab when instructed to do so. Apparently, the beer is supposed to go rushing out of the hole and into your mouth at Mach 3, but when I pulled the tab, it just sort of oozed out. Maybe I had a dud. It took me a good 2 minutes to finish that High Life. Let me tell you, beer is the last thing you want after you’ve eaten 26 tacos, but I finished mine without any complaints. We hung around at the party for about an hour until we decided to leave with Chris and Lily for more taco-eating. I was actually kind of hungry, but I was pretty sure I wasn’t 22 tacos hungry.
Otaez is an interesting place. There used to be a bunch of hookers hanging out in front of here who would sometimes come inside to get warm in the colder months. They would just loiter in the entryway while the whole place ogled them. They were way more over the top than even the hookers by our practice space. These girls had their asses and tits almost completely exposed, so it was no wonder they were cold. I think the management has successfully rousted them away, though, so don’t go here expecting a floor show anymore. Otaez is divided into 2 separate restaurants connected by a hallway. One side is their sit-down restaurant. Like most Mexican family sit-down restaurants, the food is heavy and the quality varies from dish to dish, but they have great daily specials, their chilaquiles are incredible, and they’re one of the few places in the Fruitvale area that has a full bar, if that matters to you. I miss the short, tight, threadbare uniforms the waitresses used to wear, though. They were similar to the ancient (yet sexy) polyester get-ups the Mexican stewardesses wear on Aerocalifornia Airlines. The other side of Otaez, is what we call the “taco room,” where they just do tacos and maybe burritos. That’s were we went this time. They have a salsa bar that actually also includes self-serve free pinto beans, which is a very nice touch. In addition to the regular meat options, they have a lot of meats you don’t see elsewhere. I believe they have arrachera and maybe even a liver option of some kind. I’ve had AMAZING tacos here before, but not tonight. Maybe we got there too late. Chorizo con papas sounded like it should have been one of the best tacos ever, but it was really dry and salty and had the texture of reheated Stove Top stuffing. I could barely detect potatoes or chorizo in there. It just tasted like salty dry mush. The al pastor was also dry. It had residual flavor that told me this stuff was good at one time, which made the experience even more disappointing. I don’t know what went wrong here. I was fully expecting Otaez to be one of the top contenders of the day and it wound up being in the bottom 3. I’m not willing to write the place off without a return visit, though.
15. TACO ZAMORANO (Truck)- Int’l Blvd@ High St.- 9:20pm- Al Pastor & Buche (pig stomach)- $1.25 each

photo by tigerlily.com

photo by tigerlily

The Zamorano truck sits in a lot in front of an old Mexican grocery and the actual Zamorano restaurant. We’ve eaten sit-down food in the restaurant before and it was pretty so-so. We’ve also eaten at the Zamorano on Foothill, which may or may not be affiliated with this truck. (Note: The Foothill Zamorano has the biggest burrito I’ve ever seen. They take 2 of the monster-size burrito tortillas and layer them before filling with the usual burrito innards. I would reckon the thing weighs more than 6 lbs. I could not finish it, even with a helper. GASP! It’s been at least 7 years since I ate there, and I remember it being a pretty mediocre-tasting burrito, but if you want to shock out-of-town guests by showing them a burrito the size of a toddler, this is the place to take them.
In my past experience, buche is a mixed bag, depending on how it’s prepared. It can be rubbery and funky or crispy and bacon-y, like the best tripas. Unfortunately, Zamorano favors the funky rubber buche. I was chewing this thing for a while, which didn’t burn off as many taco calories as I would’ve liked. The stuff was not inedible, but I don’t think I’ll be getting buche from here again. When I think about it, the only time I’ve enjoyed buche was from a truck on 23rd St. in Richmond, CA, and I probably won’t bother with it again until I revisit that particular truck. The al pastor was excellent, easily in the top 5 of the day. It was moist and spicy with a lot of crispiness to it. I liked how the tortillas were kind of oily, too. Other than the funky rubber buche, my only gripe with this truck is the size of the tacos. They’re tiny. Dozens of other places on International have tacos for the same price and provide 33% more meat. What gives? The only logical explanation is that this can be a pretty dicey corner where the occasional violent incident occurs, and due to the inherent danger, the trucks owners are merely saving up for their next emergency room visit.
16. EL OJO DE AGUA (Truck)- Fruitvale @ E. 12th St.- 10pm- Al Pastor & Chorizo- $1.25 each

photos by tigerlily

At this point, I was almost as stuffed as I was at 1pm earlier that day, but I vowed to keep eating until at least 1am. El Ojo De Agua means “eye of water.” I think it’s some kind of colloquialism for “oasis,” but I’m not sure. It’s a weird set-up. The truck is parked in front of a building (a former service station, I think) painted with their name, however all the food is sold from the truck. If they own or rent the building, why don’t they put an actual restaurant in there? I can’t tell if they use the building for anything. Mysterious. El Ojo has another truck way down on Int’l around 100th Ave, which is probably best visited during daylight and preferably armed. They also have an actual sit down restaurant near the Coliseum, with a somewhat different menu and less emphasis on tortas. Other than Sinaloa, this is the place to come for tortas in the East Bay, provided you order the right thing. Standard meat tortas (pastor, carne asada, etc,) are always great here. You can never go wrong with these. However, they also have combo tortas that have stuff like lomo, pierna, milanesa, pineapple, and ham. I usually get either the Cubana, or the Beso de Novia. Both of those tortas are orgasmically delicious. Apparently, some of the other combos aren’t as stellar, though, so choose wisely if you go that route.

Before this session, I don’t think I’d ever eaten a taco from El Ojo- only tortas. Despite all of my reportage of the various taco meat varieties, in the great scheme of things, there’s really not a huge difference between the meats, especially after they’re garnished with onions, cilantro, and salsa. This was never clearer than at El Ojo. Al Pastor and chorizo are already similar, but at El Ojo, I seriously couldn’t tell which taco was which. They both came with salsa verde and cucumbers, which was a pleasant variation. They both were spiced nicely and were quite saucy. It's possible they screwed up my order and gave me 2 of the same taco, but they didn’t look exactly alike, so I think I got 2 different meat varieties that just tasted identical. Luckily, they were both excellent. I would be happy to get either of these tacos anytime, regardless of what they told me the meat was. I’m not sure I’ll come back here for tacos again; the tortas are just too damn good. But, if for some reason I need more food after I’m done with my torta, I won’t hesitate to order a taco and enjoy the pork grab bag that is an El Ojo De Agua taco.

17. MI GRULLENSE (Truck) Int’l Blvd@ 30th Ave.- 12:03am- Al Pastor & Carnitas- $1.25 each

After El Ojo, I really couldn’t eat any more. Chris, Lily, and Kelly wanted dessert and chose a place on College in Rockridge. There was no way I was going to eat pastries in my condition, but I decided to come, too, when they said I could get a coffee, which might get my bowels to move again. I drank a double espresso at that place, but my colon remained static. I didn’t feel like doing this whole thing anymore, but I wanted to at least hit the 40 mark, now that it was a virtual certainty that eating 50 tacos was completely out of the question. After we dropped off Chris and Lily, the hunt resumed, even though Kelly kept falling asleep in the passenger seat.

I may have eaten at Mi Grullense before, but I can’t remember it. It’s a truck parked in the lot in front of Goodwill and it seems to stay open quite late. There are always people here anytime of day, which is usually a sign of quality, especially with taco trucks. Kelly was completely passed out by this time, so I left her in the car while I went to order. After a couple of dudes in enormous t-shirts ordered, but before they got their food, the truck started to move. At first, I thought they were leaving without giving the guys their their grub, but the truck just move over to the other side of the lot (even darker than where it was previously) and stopped. I have no idea what that move was all about. I recently read something about how in LA there’s a new law that forces taco trucks to move every few hours. Apparently, the rule was enacted due to pressure from real restaurants, who claim taco trucks steal their customers because they sell food cheaper. I don’t think such an edict exists in Oakland, but I could be wrong. The other dudes and I looked at each other and shrugged. They took their order and drove off. My food was ready quickly. I went back to the car and proceeded to eat. If there was ever a time when my fullness could have tainted my abilty to taste, this would’ve been it, but these were some of the best tacos of the day, even with my food baby. The carnitas weren’t as crispy as I usually like, but they had just the right amount of fat on them and the flavor was just porktastic. And the salsa at this place is top shelf. As for the al pastor, this stuff is very similar to Sinaloa- lots of spice and lots of sauce. I was kicking myself from within for saving this place for so late in the day. If Sinaloa didn’t have its seating area and the seafood options, I could see coming here very frequently, as their tacos are so evenly matched in overall quality. For to-go orders, I’ll definitely put this place on the top of the list.

18. TACOS EL NOVILLO (Truck) Fruitvale @ East 12th St.- 12:22am- Al Pastor & Cabeza- $1.25 each

Despite the sublime tacos at Grullense, which seemed to take an eternity to finish, I was ready to throw in the towel and shout, “No más, no más!” like Roberto Duran. I felt like I was no longer breathing oxygen and was somehow respirating pork. Kelly woke up and saw me grimacing and gripping my belly and told me to drive us home. I insisted that I needed to eat 6 more tacos to finish with a semi-respectable 40 tacos, so I could quit with some dignity. I believe her response was something like, “Who gives a shit? 12 dorks on the internet? Stop, already.”

12 dorks on the internet- is that what this was all about? Hell, no! This was my personal Everest, my Kon-Tiki, my Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria all rolled up into one. Surrendering to mere meat and ground corn would be like Lance Armstrong allowing a flat tire on the Rue de Merde to stop him from pedaling to victory. I had to keep going. I just had to.

Tacos El Novillo seems to always be open. It’s in front of Guadlajara, a popular sit-down Mexican restaurant/bar that often has live Mariachis. They stay open to at least 3am, probably later. And they were open at the crack of dawn when I once stopped by on my way to a very early flight at the Oakland airport. I would reckon this truck is probably the most popular truck in town, due its location across the street from the BART, or possibly because it stays open so late. There were easily a dozen people waiting when I got up to the window. While I waited, I eavesdropped on a group of English-speaking Mexican evangelicals in deep discussion. One of the guys may have been some sort of preacher. He was carrying a bible and wore a metal crucifix the size of Flava Flav’s clock. He had hair slicked back like Antonio Banderas, circa 1995, a shiny black suit and shirt, but no tie. And he reeked of Paco Rabane, Canoe, or Hai-Karate. Looking and smelling like he did, he couldn’t convince me to bring dip to a potato chip convention, yet he had his 3 minions hanging on his every word like he was J.C. himself. One of them spoke up, “If the Jews are God’s chosen people, how come people hate them?” My ears perked up. I had to hear the learned man’s response. “They hate them because they killed Jesus.” That’s all I heard, I had food to order. Had I not been carrying around a mass the size and weight of the pope’s hat in my lower intestine, I might have engaged these fellows in ecumenical discourse. While I ordered my food, they got their order and drove off in an enormous pick up truck. When my order came, I smelled the plate. The smell made the swelling below hurt even more. I suddenly decided that I couldn’t continue. I felt a simultaneous sense of relief and disappointment. I got into the car with my food and drove home in agony and shame. I ate the food in front of the TV, bite after excruciating bite. The cabeza wasn’t good. It had all sorts of extraneous fat and gristle on it and had a really gamey flavor. Luckily, the final taco fared better. The al pastor was a little salty, but the seasoning was right with plenty of crispy edges. It was probably in the upper half of the entries that day. When the tacos were gone, I leaned back on the couch and I stared at the empty paper plate on the foot locker that doubles as our coffee table. It wasn’t even 1am and I was at home with my pants and belt undone. There are at least 4 more trucks open later than 1am. The 40 taco milestone was in my sights and I let it slip away. Why? How could I let myself down like that. I might’ve been able to have made room for just 4 more tacos. The pain might’ve been agonizing, but it wouldn’t have lasted. Sure it hurt after 36 tacos, but the pain subsided with every passing minute. The effects did not linger as they did with the fish and chips. I’m sure 40 tacos wouldn’t have been much worse. I went to sleep a broken man. I didn’t live up to my high standards or to the even higher standards of the 12 dorks on the internet. I apologize, 12 dorks.

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