The Original Street Food: Oakland’s Taco Trucks
The best place to eat Mexican street food is, well, on the street. And some of the best streets in the Bay Area to eat tacos on are in the Fruitvale section of Oakland, where licensing laws and Latino culture merge to create the ideal local feeding grounds.
The number of brightly decorated taco trucks in the area changes, but Oakland has issued permits for 120 loncherias (catering trucks and push carts), half of which are in the Fruitvale area — one of only two neighborhoods in Oakland where they are allowed. This concentration makes it easy to go from truck to truck and sample a taco with carnitas here, or a tostada with ceviche there, as you weed your way through the neighborhood. They are generally open from morning to after dinner hours, but be flexible: hours, location, and menus do change.
My Oakland taco truck crawls have all been by car, but it could also be done by bicycle or even AC Transit. One veteran taco crawler has put together a tour with all stops convenient walking distance to the Fruitvale BART station.
To devise your own crawl, here’s an overview of some typical menu items and a sampling of some of my favorite taco trucks. Menus are usually colorful signs mounted on the side of the truck in both English and Spanish.
While many taco trucks offer similar fare, the style of cooking, seasoning, regional differences, and whims of the chef can make for interesting and tasty variations. These trucks specialize in stacked soft corn tortillas topped with a few tablespoons of filling with chopped onions, fresh cilantro, and salsa with a slice of lime. Squeeze the lime on top, fold the taco and eat in a few quick bites over your car hood, the taco truck’s thin ledge of a counter, or perhaps a weathered picnic table. The accompanying chunks of cucumber, radish, or pickled carrots and jalapeno peppers help cut through the rich meat taste. Tacos generally cost $1.25 to $2.
Besides the tacos, most trucks offer burritos and some also have quesadillas and tortas (sandwiches). Fillings can include shredded, crispy pork carnitas, lengua (beef tongue, my favorite), suadero (beef rib meat), cabeza (beef head or cheeks), al pastor (roast pork), chorizo (spicy pork sausage), tripa (chitlins), birria (goat), carne asada (steak), or stewed or shredded chicken.
Trucks specializing in seafood also offer ceviche (raw, marinated fish salad) tostadas and tacos de pescado or tacos de dorado (griddled fish tacos).
Wash it all down with a refresco (soft drink). Or try an agua fresca or atole fresh fruit drink in flavors ranging for horchata (an almondy-cinnamon flavor) to jamaica (hibiscus) to pina (pineapple).
Below are just a few of my favorite Oakland taco trucks. One fan of the area’s loncherias created this Google map to help enthusiasts plan their own taco truck crawls.
Tacos El Novilla, 1001 Fruitvale Ave. (near E. 12th St.)
This truck offers tacos made with chicarrones (deep fried strips of pork skin). The chicarrones are delicious, but I liked them better mixed with the al pastor tacos. Get one of each and make your own combination plate.
El Ojo de Agua, 3132 E. 12th Street (at Fruitvale Ave.)
The tacos are great, the tortas are excellent, but they are also known for their drinks, especially their licuados (Mexican milk shakes).
Tacos los Michocanos, 3524 International Blvd. (near 35th St.)
The difference here is the hearty and earthy style of Michoacan style cooking. My last taco there had some of the best lengua I’ve ever eaten. Plus I love the killer salsa. On weekends Los Michocanos offers a homemade tortilla option.
Tacos Sinola (two trucks), 2138 International Blvd. (at 22ndAve.)
This is more of a two-truck “surf and turf” complex. The truck closest to International Boulevard offers an array of tasty meat-based tacos. The truck further back specializes in seafood, particularly fish and shrimp tacos. In between there’s parking, covered seating, and a colorful shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe.
For more on taco trucks in Oakland and elsewhere in the Bay area, check out the California Taco Truck blog.