Santa Cruz, CA: Pajaro’s Taco Trucks Serve Up the Feel & Food of Mexico

Customers enjoy Mexican cuisine outside of the La Sabrostia Catering taco coach on Saturday night off of Porter Drive in Pajaro. (Kevin Johnson/Sentinel)

By Isaiah Guzman | SantaCruzSentinel.com

 

Customers enjoy Mexican cuisine outside of the La Sabrostia Catering taco coach on Saturday night off of Porter Drive in Pajaro. (Kevin Johnson/Sentinel)

PAJARO — Drive over the Pajaro River Bridge for a bite to eat on a clear weekend night and you may think you’ve ended up 1,500 miles to the south.

Parked alongside tire shops, body shops, gas stations and, yes, even a VCR service store, are four mobile taquerias parked within two blocks serving their customers, most of whom are Mexican immigrants, a piece of the home they left behind in search of work.

It’s a scene one would see in a small Mexican town on a Friday night: Families or groups of young people eating tacos together at a roadside stand, glass bottles of Coke or Jarritos in hand, moths swimming in the yellow lights.

A gourmet food truck trend is sweeping the nation right now. Big cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and Portland are at the forefront. Their mobile eateries let people know where they’ll be each day via Twitter and Facebook. And in smaller Santa Cruz, the Cruz N Gourmet opened this year and serves items like stir fried vegetables with fried tofu and braised beef short ribs.

But trendy and gourmet these Pajaro food trucks are not. Nor are they truly mobile like most of the other 100 mobile food units in Monterey County. La Tapatia Tacos, Tacos La Sabrosita, El Centenario and the unnamed taco trailer that sits at Golden Gate Gasoline have been renting their spaces from business owners in Pajaro for years and each draws its formula from a Mexican tradition that goes back way before that.

“In Mexico, everything is free,” said Spanish-speaking Gabino Orrosco, who runs the taqueria at Golden Gate Gasoline with his three cousins. “If you want to sell potato chips in front of your house, you can. Over there, people eat in the street with the dogs and everything and it’s fine.”

Like they did in Mexico, most people stand and eat, each loyal to his stand of choice. Some eat in their parked cars. A father and mother do just that in their truck with their baby. A few college students fill up before taking in a movie. Even an 18-wheeler, dusty from a long haul, sits idling in the center turning lane while its driver orders atole a traditional masa-based hot drink and tacos for the road. People show up in pajamas, in soccer uniforms, and in creased Wranglers, gold chains and cowboy hats that sit high on the crown.

“In Mexico, you come eat outside in the open air,” 23-year-old Francisco Hernandez said, gesturing at the dusk sky. “During the weekend, you leave work, go to your house, go out to eat and it’s the same thing every week.”

Of course, these trappings of community are not the real draw. That, without a doubt, is the food.

The tacos, tortas, sopes and posole put out by these rolling restaurants are as rich with flavor as the setting is with Mexican culture. The asada and pastor are savory, the lengua tongue is as soft as butter, and the birria pork, cabeza brain and buche basically pig throat are as close to what you’d get south of the border as there is north of it.

And don’t listen to people who think you have to be brave to eat at such establishments.

Though these aren’t gourmet, they’re not roach coaches.

“We don’t use that word anymore,” said Lordes Bosquez, a supervisor for Monterey County’s Consumer Health Protection Services. “If they did have cockroaches, they would be closed.”

Like the rest of the mobile food units in Monterey County, these trucks are permitted. And they don’t drive around to construction sites and serve lamp-heated, pre-made chimichangas. Tacos La Sabrosita, for instance, has handmade tortillas and the fresh posole. The Golden Gate Gasoline taqueria gives you grilled onions and jalapenos and hot pinto beans at no extra charge.

“Here, everybody says they taste the same as in Mexico,” Orrosco said. “A lot of people come from Gilroy to here once they’ve tasted the tacos, from Seaside, Salinas.”

With the banda music, alligator skin boots and chrome wheels, the Pajaro trucks are a mestizo — that’s mixed or crossbreed — version of America’s drive-in burger joints of old, where couples would go for burgers and a shake, where they could be around people or have a bench seat of privacy.

Some of the trendier food trucks out there now are taking that nostalgic approach.

“Portland has anything from Airstreams to buses, and they keep stationary,” said Frank Klein, a San Francisco-based restaurant and hospitality consultant.

Pajaro’s version, however, Klein said, is “a little more unique than all these chefs getting together and trying to do it fancy.”

Customer Nahum Rivera, a 29-year-old culinary arts and political science student at Cabrillo College and self-proclaimed amateur foodie, said “the concept of Mexican food trucks has been around for a long time, since I was a child. Other people who do other kinds of cuisine have taken that and adapted it to their own.”

A few other qualities the Pajaro units have: At about $1.50-$2 per taco, they’re cheaper than gourmet trucks, healthier than fast food and arguably as fast, unless of course, they get packed, which they often do.

“It’s a long wait if it’s packed,” Rivera said. “But it’s worth it.”

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