A few of use got together this afternoon for another pass through Oakland's Fruitvale district. Windy is going to post on why she thinks Fruitvale is better than they Mission, but here's a short (okay, really long) run-down of where we went and what we ate:
El Novillo taco truck (parking lot of the Guadalajara Restaurant, opposite the BART station on Fruitvale). On the recent Redwood City taco crawl Jen Maiser and I discovered a mutual affection for the carnitas at this truck. For six of us (plus Arlene, who was dieting, silly girl!) we ordered three carnitas tacos, which they kindly cut in half for us, and a tripas taco (because Windy and Chowfun are all about the tripas). Jen's and my opinions were vindicated when a chorus of "yum" burst out spontaneously at the first bite of carnitas. The tripas was also declared to be excellent: crisp and carmelized on the outside but still slightly chewy. Even the non-innard eaters in the group agreed they were good.
We walked up Fruitvale, turned right onto International, and stopped at the first fruit cart we ran into. We bought an ear of corn on a stick, slathered with mayo, rolled in finely grated cheese and dusted with chile. At the peak of corn season, the ear was large and the kernels so plump and juicy that I got spurted on more than once when the person next to me took a bite. We also bought a bag of wagon wheel chicarrones with lime and hot sauce and a bag of mixed fresh "fruit" (which also included some slices of jicama and fresh coconut), into which the vendor squeezed fresh lime juice and sprinkled more chile powder. I think we all had different favorites: I liked the watermelon/lime/chile, Lee liked the pineapple/lime/chile, Windy liked the mango/lime/chile and Celery later bought a bag of coconut/lime/chile to take home.
We sauntered down International, pausing to look wistfully at La Torta Loca, until we got to Mariscos La Costa (corner of 37th and International). We shared three tostadas: ceviche de cameron (shrimp), ceviche de pescado (fish) and "mixto" (shrimp, fake crab and octopus), and two al pastor tacos, washed down with a horchata. The mixto was an ordering blunder on my part, since it was mostly fake crab, but the other two were big hits. I think the ceviche de cameron tostada here is one of the biggest bargains around, at $2.50 -- especially if you get it to go, when they give you a large cup of topping, several tostada shells, a handful of hot sauce and ketchup packages and a handful of saltines for the same $2.50. The al pastor tacos were good but didn't meet Windy's strict al pastor standards. Although it was faulted for a BBQ sauce quality, I liked that the sauce wasn't too sweet and had a distinct cumin note.
We pressed on to the next block and the famed El Ojo de Agua truck (parking lot of the International Market, 3900 block of International). This was mostly a break for liquid refreshment: we shared a mango agua fresca and strawberry and nut liquados (sort of like milkshakes), all of which were outstanding as usual. Arlene also suggested we get a chorizo torta -- which had been noted on the SF Mag 125 Best list. It was good, although the roll was faulted for being too soft. Not sure it was among the 125 best, but hey, I'm impressed that SF Mag even knows there are taco trucks in Oakland.
We continued down International hoping the El Gordo truck with the al pastor Windy was craving would be there, but no luck. I get the impression they are only there in off-hours for the business whose parking lot they use, i.e. after 6 pm and weekends.
Having walked a whole five blocks, we turned back. Our original plan was to stop in Neza, a Mexico City style restaurant featuring rotisserie chicken, but we got side tracked into Otaez Mexicatessen (corner of 40th and International) by a discussion of chiliquiles and machaca. By this point we had lost Arlene and Jen, and our party of five fit perfectly into one of their diner style booths. I love this restaurant (and I'm thrilled that they're planning on opening a branch in Alameda). We started off with a plate of crisp chunks of chicharrones, and chuckled over the fact that four Jewish chowhounds were happily eating pure pork fat (there's no Yiddish word for pork rinds, I pointed out to Lee). By the time our machaca and chiliquiles verde con pollo arrived we were fading, but they were good so we forced ourselves to eat them (washed down with horchata and an excellent strawberry agua fresca). The waitress brought us complimentary dessert of chunks of true sweet potato in a carmelized syrup that was also good. I seem to remember the waitress brought us complimentary dessert last time a chowhound taco crawl ended up there (note: according to the report it was "delicious rice pudding with raisins and cinnamon"), but I don't know why, as I've never had this happen when I've been in there alone. Some kind of gringo outreach program? Maybe they assume we're celebrating a birthday or something. It's not as if we're ordering a lot of food -- in fact we shared only three food items and two drinks, but kept them busy asking for water, extra plates, etc.
We debated whether the Aztec warrior in the mural opposite was rescuing the unconscious maiden in his arms or carrying her off to be sacrificed. Great art makes you think and ask questions, right? Finally, we waddled out. We were so stuffed, in fact, that even though as we passed through the attached tacqueria we noted fantastic-looking al pastor on a spit with pineapple top and bottom we couldn't muster the will to buy a taco to sample. I guess we'll just have to go back!
Finally we headed back toward the BART Station -- stopping along the way to check out Neza in the 3700 block (Celery bought a chicken for later). I also stopped to chat with a woman sketching out a design to paint one of the square trash boxes, which are being painted all up and down International as part of a "improvement project" which will also include a landscaped median strip (palm trees, I assume) and other upgrades. I presume this is all connected with the Fruitvale BART transit village project, which is nearing completion. I just hope the area doesn't gentrify so much that the current residents -- many of whom moved to Fruitvale after being forced out of the Mission by gentrification -- are priced out of the area.
Somehow, we felt compelled to make one last stop: Cinco de Mayo, in the 3400 block, for rasposados. They have about nine (or was it a dozen?) different flavors in the forms of sauces about the consistency of ice cream topping. We settled on pineapple and nut toppings; the sauces were ladled between the scoops of ice and over the top. Excellent, although more syrupy and not as refreshing as the ones we had in Redwood City -- besides, we were sooooo not hungry. Then we waddled back to BART, Windy and Chowfun off to Berkeley Bowl and Crixa and me vowing to hit the gym tonight before all that pork fat (carnitas, chorizo AND chicarrones!) congeals in my arteries.
Elapsed time: three hours. Cost: $12/person.
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