Growing up, my mother would make tacos "'70's style" by browning some ground beef and adding a packet of Schilling's taco seasoning. After a quick turn in hot oil, corn tortillas were given a bit of crunch, but still a bit pliable to aid in filling with lettuce, tomatoes and cheese.
Upon moving down to Southern California for college, I discovered that tacos came in many different shapes and sizes. After several years and numerous trips to Mexico, I returned to the Bay Area, and have continually sought out these honest to goodness little bites of heaven. (not that Mom's "hamburger tacos" won't always hold a special place in my stomach :)
Recently, I was dismayed to miss Ruth's Fruitvale Taco Truck Crawl (part of Feldman Fest), since I live up the hill from this excellent neighborhood that I have come to think of as the perfect mix of East L.A. and the Mission District. After the temptation to retrace the group's steps subsided, things returned to normal, though I vowed to visit more than my regular Taquero, "El Gordo"
More recently, Nick's SF Lunch Chowdown series visited Maya Next Door for some down-home tacos at an upscale restaurant. Although I was initially skeptical as to ordering tacos from a "froo froo" restaurant, they proved to be a tasty and reliable find in the SoMa area.
A couple of weeks ago however, I ventured with a friend to another "nuevo Latino" restaurant/bar in the Marina. Rica's Restaurant & Bar (their slogan is "Bringing You Taco Chic") took over the space previously occupied by Charlie's on Union. Small and very trendy looking, I again felt a touch of apprehension as I looked about for any reassuring signs that the kitchen was firing on all cylinders. The menu offered several fusion dishes, such as the Ahi tuna ceviche appetizer which I ordered, combined with more traditional fare such as the chicken mole that my friend ordered. I was drawn to the tacos which were offered with a good variety of meats, although my favorite organ meats were sadly omitted. On the recommendation of the waitress, I ordered the skirt steak tacos.
I am sad to report that Rica not only failed to live up to its name, offering one of the blandest versions of chicken mole (a feat that I'd have thought impossible), but also fell short on its attempt at fusion ceviche. The appetizer consisted of four small pieces of Ahi served on four tortilla strips and topped with a vinegar heavy salsa. This was certainly a far cry from the mariscos of Veracruz or even the average mariscos taqueria on International Blvd., and at $11, it was quite the poor value.
Now on to the tacos, served in threes on small corn tortillas ("taco truck style" as my friend noted) with a Tomatillo salsa, a salsa rioja and some pico de gallo on the side, they didn't look too bad. However, while the meat was not over cooked as I had feared, it too lacked any real flavor and disappointed. If these had been a buck apiece from Salazar's Taquero in Pasadena, I wouldn't have objected to an average bite to stave off the late night hunger pangs, but at $15 just across town from any number of superior tacos in the Mission, it was downright criminal.
Which brings us to yesterday. The day after a torrential storm, I found myself at a muffler shop on East 12th in Oakland, having some repairs done after an unfortunate meeting with a rain-filled pothole. While I waited, I decided to take a stroll up the block to International to see what kind of a lunch I could put together for myself with the eight dollars in my pocket. After surveying that there were better than half a dozen restaurants within a one block radius, I decided to keep it simple and rule out the "sit down" eateries and choose from the three taco trucks within eye sight of one another.
I opted for "Tacos del Sol," a taco trailer (pulled by a truck :) at the corner of International and High St., partially because there was a steady stream of customers lined up, and partly due to the fact that it was noted as "the best taco truck" for 2002 and 2003 by East Bay Express according to their sign. Now, the price of tacos has slowly crept up over the years, so I accept that $1.50 is still a good value for a real taco. Happily, I scanned their extensive list of meat choices and selected one with tripa, another with lengua and "spicy al pastor" to finish. They also offered a home-brewed Tamarindo drink, which I was eager to try.
Now these were the real deal. Real meats (plus organs of course). Real flavor. Real cheap. Of the three, the lengua was my favorite. The meat was very tender without being mushy, and still retained excellent flavor instead of being waterlogged. The tripa was also good, but a bit chewier than I like although the crispy bits interspersed made up for it. The al pastor was good and flavorful, especially for $1.50 as opposed to $5 in the Marina. Served on a paper plate and garnished with radishes, a jalapeno, and my favorite grilled green onions, it was quite fancy compared to the tacos in wax paper that I've had at other taqueros. The Tamarindo drink was also quite good. Served as an agua fresca, it had just the right balance of sweetness and tartness that I enjoy.
With the sun shining down on my inexpensive but delicious lunch, I leisurely tucked into some very good tacos on the trailer's "patio" and before I knew it, my car was fixed and I still had a few bucks left in my pocket to help pay the mechanic.
So, what is the moral of my characteristically lengthy post? Well, I think we've all said it at one time or another, there are great food resources throughout the Bay Area, but it's sometimes easy to forget how lucky we really are. Whether you live in San Jose, Livermore, Vallejo, San Francisco, Oakland or places in between, there are wonderful tacos to be found. From crispy fried to gourmet, from simple "one-handers" to my mom's double-fisted hamburger tacos, there are sufficient variations of this delicious marriage of corn tortillas and savory fillings to keep us all far away from ever darkening the doorway of Taco Bell.