Some of the best food in this town comes right to your door. Poke your head out when you hear the honk of a horn or a tinkling bell, and you might fine homemade tamales, Mexican popsicles, or any number of other oddball delights, sold from a hand-pushed rolling cart. The popsicle vendors typically sell popular brands of Mexican and American treats, but a lot of the other vendors are offering homemade tasties. The less official-looking the vehicle, the more likely the food tastes homemade. Best of all are shopping carts, likely selling what grandma and mom make in the kitchen at their house.
For some reason, people are scared to buy food from a little lady pushing an icebox around. Do not be scared. This is somebody’s home cooking. It does not get more personal than this. Do not think, “terrifyingly unofficial.” Think “beautifully homey and unadulterated.” And they are bringing it to your door!
Offerings vary depending on the season. Winter brings tamales. Right now, there’s corn on the cob. Vendors tend to circulate most in the evenings, and around schools at lunchtime. Check around parks in the afternoon.
rworange offers a guide to the rolling vendors of San Pablo and Richmond. You can try to catch these folks, or else just be inspired by her account to find your own picks.
CART #1: the best street vendor find for potato chips ($1.50) is a guy selling potato chips, corn on the cob, fruit, and raspados. He has a grocery shopping cart with one cooler filled with ice, another filled with fruit, and another with hot ears of corn. There are little bags of chips attached to the sides of the cart. He always announces himself with six brief horn blasts.
Chips are handmade and so thin they’re nearly transparent. The oil and the chip are one. Holding up one chip is like looking through spuddy stained glass. Order them with everything–salt, a dollop of hot sauce, and a squirt of lemon. Or order them plain, to appreciate the pure beauty. Many, many vendors seem to be selling these exact same chips, so there must be a single supplier. Vendors sell them in pint-sized food storage bags.
Also good from this same vendor: pale corn on the cob, $1.50, speared on a stick, brushed with margarine, rolled in powdered cotija cheese, and sprinkled with chili pepper. It’s very good. There’s also mango ($2.50)–a big bag of dead ripe sweet juicy mango, mixed up with chili powder, salt, and a squirt of lime. It’s delicious and smoky, and better than the mango from Fonda. Raspados ($1) are pre-crushed ice doused with bottled syrups in bright colors. The green syrup is as satisfying as a lime popsicle. These are not as good, though, as the raspados from the vendor on the corner of MacDonald and 22nd.
All of the above snacks–corn on the cob, mango with chili powder, and raspados–are very common among Mexican street vendors, and can be found from rolling vendors in any neighborhood with a decent-sized Mexican population.
CART #2: A nice, grandmotherly lady with a folding grocery cart, who uses a braying type of horn. She sells corn on the cob, chicharrones, and mangos. Her corn on the cob is larger, but not as sweet as those from Cart #1. Her chicharrones de harina are awesome–big, crunchy sheets of faux-pork skin, made from flour.
CART #3: The ice cream guys. No matter what they sell, they all have the same silvery bells. Although they all have La Michoacana stamped on their carts, they sell very different varieties of ice cream and paletas (Mexican popsicles). There are lots of paleta brands, though, like American popsicles, they almost all taste the same. Average price for a paleta is $1.25.
karoline sends us to 23rd and Mission, where there’s a little cart that’s sometimes by the Walgreens and sometimes by Factory 2 U. Sometimes it’s next to La Copa Loca. They sell corn on the cob with fixings. Their specialty: chili mayonnaise.
There are many stationary fruit and Mexican corn vendors in Oakland along International, mostly between Fruitvale and 39th. Please note: for almost all these vendors, the only thing visible is the fruit. You have to ask for corn–“elote”–and they’ll produce it from a cooler hidden underneath the fruit. “It’s the street vendor ‘secret menu’: hidden corn,” notes Ruth Lafler.
Raspado Cart [East Bay]
2131 MacDonald Ave., outside La Raza Market, Richmond
Corn on the Cob Cart [Mission]
23rd St., and Mission, San Francisco
Many Vendors [Fruitvale]
International Blvd., mostly between Fruitvale Ave. and 39th St., Oakland
Board Links: The bells of San Pablo – Street Eats a la cart