by SYLVIA RECTOR | Citizen-Times.com
Thousands of visitors every week come to dine at the long-established restaurants of Mexicantown or to search out the dozens of colorful eateries and tiny taquerias that dot the rest of largely Hispanic southwest Detroit.
But an increasing number of food lovers are trying a different option: taco trucks.
Roughly a dozen of the licensed kitchens-on-wheels pull into strip-mall lots or onto neighborhood streets daily to serve tacos, burritos and more to hundreds of customers — many of them regulars.
Detroit’s first taco truck appeared in the mid-’90s, brought from Los Angeles, where they’ve been part of the culture since the early 1970s. Their numbers began increasing in Detroit about three years ago, operators say. And word about them is spreading.
With their fast service, real-deal tacos for around $1.25 and some of the best salsas around, it’s easy to see why the trucks have fans such as Charles Diggs, 61, of Wayne, a supervisor for SMART, the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation.
“I don’t know how they do it so cheaply, but I love it,” Diggs said recently, picking up dinner from Tacos el Toro on Michigan Avenue. “To me, they’re better than any restaurant.”
Detroit’s meals on wheels gaining fans
Every morning, Joe Jesus Gomez pulls his silver-and-white truck into the parking lot of a corner strip mall at West Vernor and Lansing in southwest Detroit, raises the side panel and starts another workday at his restaurant on wheels.
Mouthwatering aromas drift through the open windows, and customers walk up to order plates of authentic Mexican tacos, overstuffed burritos and quesadillas thick with cheese.
Gomez used to own Taqueria Mi Tierra restaurant at Oakwood and Schaefer, he says, but he opened his El Paisa Taqueria taco truck seven months ago and likes it even better than his old place.
“The cooking is faster,” and he has a wide range of customers. “Everybody comes,” he says.
Business might be even better if more people knew about the estimated dozen trucks like his that dot the streets of southwest Detroit.
The big food-truck craze sweeping cities all over the country hasn’t hit Detroit — yet. But food lovers from Atlanta to Los Angeles, where the trend started, are lining up in droves at trucks that serve specialties ranging from Korean tacos to sushi rolls and waffles.
A few savvy metro Detroit restaurateurs say privately that they’re looking into the idea.
But until their first trucks roll out, if they ever do, adventurous foodies need look no farther than West Vernor and its environs for a taste of the Mexican street food that likely started it all in California.
Restaurant quality from a truck
You can find Pablo Lopez and his light-yellow Los Unicos truck parked beside the Secretary of State branch on Casper at Vernor every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The name means “the only ones” — which fit in 1996, when he became Detroit’s first taco-truck operator, he says.
He moved to metro Detroit from California in 1986, but it took him 10 more years to save enough to buy a used truck in Los Angeles and bring it to Michigan. New trucks these days go for $100,000 or more.
For many years, business was good. But now, he says, “everybody’s doing it. There are too many trucks — but not too many people in Detroit anymore” to buy things. The number of trucks began to grow about three years ago because they proved profitable and popular.
Lopez’s vehicle was also the first taco truck to be licensed by Wayne County as a mobile food-service establishment, he says.
Unlike trucks that sell prepackaged foods at construction sites, the taco trucks are true kitchens-on-wheels. Their owners grill meat and chop fresh vegetables in the truck throughout the day, just as they would at any other restaurant.
“We have to do everything a restaurant does” in terms of food safety, storage and handling, Lopez says.
They must complete a multistep, multiagency licensing process, undergo annual inspections by city food-sanitation officials and display a current inspection sticker on the back of the truck in the upper left corner.
When customers see that sticker, Lopez says, they know they’re visiting an inspected, legally operating truck.
Officials acknowledge that some unlicensed trucks may also be cruising the streets, and no one is vouching for them.
But “the ones that have been inspected, they’re perfectly fine because they go through the process to be a vendor,” said Michael McElrath, public affairs director for the city’s Department of Health and Wellness Promotion. He said he is unaware of any complaints about illnesses because of taco-truck products.
Some established restaurants do have concerns about how trucks are taxed and regulated, said Vittoria Katanski, marketing director for the Southwest Detroit Business Association.
“We’re lucky enough to be in a community that has restaurants of all kinds, as well as the unique taco trucks as fast-food options,” she said. “We’re working with the city to find a mutually agreeable solution … for a more equitable tax structure.”
A friendly neighborhood spot
In part to reduce complaints by brick-and-mortar restaurants, Detroit taco trucks are required to use the same city-approved parking place day after day, rather than roving as food trucks in Los Angeles and some other cities do.
Most operate near busy thoroughfares, but the friendly Los Dos Amigos Taco Truck draws a steady stream of customers to Parkinson and Waldo in a neighborhood south of Michigan Avenue.
Miguel Guardado and his family have operated the truck there for seven or eight years and never raised prices, says Guardado’s son, Eriberto Guardado, 18, a Woodhaven High School senior. Tacos and quesadillas are still $1; burritos are $3-$4.
“We’ve had the same customers for years,” Eriberto Guardado says.
Like some other long-established trucks, Dos Amigos has become a de facto neighborhood diner.
Moms drive by to get takeout for the family, teens in oversize T-shirts line up for tacos after school, and older ladies gather for lunch around the small table in back.
Wide variety of authentic foods
First-time diners will soon find that taco trucks are much like coney islands: They’re all alike — but different.
All have the same menu basics: tacos, burritos, tortas (sandwiches), quesadillas and tostadas (often topped with shrimp and avocado). Some offer seviche, Mexican shrimp cocktails and other seafood.
Meat choices are pollo (chicken), pastor (marinated, slow-roasted pork), asada (steak), carnitas (fried chopped pork) and chorizo (spicy sausage), plus less-familiar items such as lengua (tongue) and cabeza (beef head or cheek meat).
But you go for the tacos — authentic ones made on small, pillowy soft corn tortillas, topped simply with sizzling hot griddled meat, chopped white onion and fresh chopped cilantro. No tomato. No cheese. Add your own salsa from the squeeze bottles provided.
“And the prices are good,” said Juan Rivera of Detroit, stopping at his favorite, Tacos el Caballo on Springwells at Longworth. “You get a lot for what you pay.”