Modesto, CA: Taco Trucks’ Affordable Fare Savored by Many

MJC student Zach Middleton. right, 19, of Modesto eats a regular burrito from F.K. Jessica's #1 taco truck on 8th Street in downtown Modesto. Jan. 12, 2011. (BRIAN RAMSAY / bramsay@modbee.com) -

Chad Hawkins, 35, of Empire waits for his order of four chicken tacos from El Primo #2 taco truck at the corner of Santa Fe Ave. and Yosemite Blvd. in Empire. "I've been coming here for eight years," Hawkins said. "It's kind of an acquired taste, they have the sauce I like." (BRIAN RAMSAY / bramsay@modbee.com)

By Kerry McCray | The Modesto Bee

F orget what you’ve seen on the Food Network.

In Modesto, we don’t have hipster taco trucks that tweet out where they’ll be and when. We don’t have trucks serving sushi, gyros, Korean barbecue and gourmet waffles.

No, the food truck craze spreading across the country hasn’t hit us — yet.

What we do have is old-fashioned taco trucks that dish up, uh — tacos.

Not Taco Bell tacos. We’re talking small corn tortillas, about the size of your hand, stuffed with asada (beef), pollo (chicken), carnitas (shredded pork) and — for the adventurous — lengua (tongue) and cabeza (head).

Todd Lewis, 25, of Modesto holds his lunch of five beef tacos purchased from El Primo #2 taco truck at the corner of Santa Fe Ave. and Yosemite Blvd. in Empire. "This is my favorite taco truck by far," Lewis said. "It's cheap and good, and you can't get much for a dollar these days except nasty junk like fast-food." Lewis comes to El Primo #2 three times a week. (BRIAN RAMSAY / bramsay@modbee.com)

They come with simple toppings: a sprinkle of diced onions, a pile of cilantro, a slice of lemon.

And, oh, how we love them.

“We here in the valley enjoy the authentic Mexican flavors,” said Nonie Fiskum, a Modesto caterer who frequents taco trucks with her husband, Wyatt, about twice a month.

To see just how passionate — and loyal — people are about taco trucks, The Bee recently asked readers about their favorites.

We received more than 100responses. Many people “voted” more than once, making the results impossible to tally.

But one thing was clear: People are attached to their taco trucks.

The attraction? Some say it’s tradition.

“They’ve just kind of always been here,” said Elven Mitchell of Modesto, a nursing student at Modesto Junior College.

Mitchell favors the carne asada burrito at Los Portallios, one of a cluster of taco trucks on Eighth Street in downtown Modesto.

“It’s cheap, it’s filling and it tastes sooo good,” he said.

MJC student Zach Middleton. right, 19, of Modesto eats a regular burrito from F.K. Jessica's #1 taco truck on 8th Street in downtown Modesto. Jan. 12, 2011. (BRIAN RAMSAY / bramsay@modbee.com) -

Part of the appeal, perhaps especially in this economy, is the price.

Tacos sell for $1, sometimes 50 cents depending on the meat and if the truck is in an area with a lot of competition. Burritos run about $3. Massive shrimp cocktails, sometimes with a slice or two of avocado, will set you back $6.

“You can’t beat the price,” said Todd Lewis, 25, of Modesto.

He’s loyal to El Primo No. 2, a taco truck parked outside a bar on Yosemite Avenue in Empire.

“You can’t get much for $1 these days except for nasty junk like fast food,” he said. “This is better than a Double Whopper.”

What makes a good taco truck?

According to Chad Hawkins, 35, of Empire, it’s all about the sauce. He likes his with a kick, but not too spicy.

“Taco trucks, they’re kind of an acquired taste,” said Hawkins, another El Primo No. 2 fan. “There are a lot of them, and they’re all different. You have to find the one you like.”

Hawkins urges would-be taco truck diners to “forget the old roach-coach stereotype.

“They’re really good, they’re clean,” he said. “I’ve tried a lot of them. This is the one I always come back to, hands down.”

If you’re leery, keep in mind the Stanislaus County Department of Environmental Resources inspects food vendors, including taco trucks, and mandates they display certification stickers with expiration dates, among other requirements. Look for the sticker on the front window before you order.

Still, taco trucks can cause some controversy. Some cities have sought to limit the time they can park in fixed locations.

In other places, owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants have petitioned city governments to outlaw taco trucks, citing unfair competition. The idea is that the trucks escape overhead costs other businesses must pay, such as property taxes.

In Modesto, taco trucks are restricted to industrial lots and must get the landowner’s permission. That explains the concentration of taco trucks on Eighth Street.

Some people continue to object. Take Tom Milam of Modesto, who responded to our taco truck inquiry.

“These are an eyesore on our community, have been for years,” he wrote. “I have lived here 55 years and there is no place for these permanent taco trucks. Trucks were made to roll and not stay parked … open a restaurant.

“They bring thieves, drugs, trash and promote a menace to our city. Would you want one parked in front of your home?”

Fiskum, the caterer, might not mind. Her family — she has seven children — is hooked on taco trucks, specifically Tacos Jessica on Eighth Street.

Her father-in-law, who would drive from Montana to visit the family, used to buy several burritos from the truck, pack them in an ice chest and take them home, where he’d stash them in the freezer.

“He’d say Montana didn’t have decent Mexican food,” Fiskum said. “I was raised in Modesto, and I love taco trucks. They’re so good.”