Welcome to taco town: Mobile vendors put taco in Tacoma

Joe Barrentine/Staff photographe The three taco plate with beans and rice at Taqueria El Grande near the intersection of South 72nd Street and South Park Avenue Monday, July 18, 2011.

By SUE KIDD | TheNewsTribune.com

Joe Barrentine/Staff photographe The three taco plate with beans and rice at Taqueria El Grande near the intersection of South 72nd Street and South Park Avenue Monday, July 18, 2011.

Bus, truck, trailer. It doesn’t matter what you call a taco truck. They’re all vehicles for delivering delicious, affordable, portable Mexican food.

Tacoma’s taco truck scene burgeons. Five years ago, you might have had trouble finding one. Today, taco trucks materialize in unexpected places – from suburban Puyallup to funky Sixth Avenue. Credit a nationwide mobile food trend, television shows dedicated to the topic and the dying perception that food trucks make for unsafe eating (pfft).

You’ll find longer lines this time of year, but most taco trucks here have covered seating to extend year-round taco truck dining beyond a summer al fresco excursion (if you could even call this summer).

Take a ride into Taco town with my five favorite trucks, plus four more to try.

MY TOP TRUCKS IN TOWN

La Fondita

Location: The gravel lot at 3737 S. G St., Tacoma; 253-472-2577

The scene: Be careful driving into the gravel lot, it’s like navigating the moon. Watch for craters. Covered seating offers shelter for dining and waiting in the long lunch line.

The chef: Regulars will recognize Jaime Beltran. He’s the face of La Fondita, working there since 1998 before buying the truck from his bosses in 2009. His cooking is a mix of his own experimentation and recipes learned from family. That pollo asado recipe? It’s his mother’s.

Do try: The carnitas torta sandwich ($4.99) is the best I’ve bitten into, hands down. Crispy griddle-fried roasted pork stuffed into a sturdy grilled bun. A heavy smear of mayo, sturdy slices of avocados and finished with what every good torta needs: cilantro, onions, shredded lettuce and sliced tomatoes.

Top marks: Fish tacos ($1.50), tilapia fish in a flour shell with lettuce and sour cream. Also, some of the most delicious pickled carrots in town. Beltran readily explains his pickling method. I like a cook who shares recipes.

Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Taqueria El Grande

Location: 7202 S. Park Ave., Tacoma; 253-472-5905

The scene: One of the kitchiest-looking buses in town, it’s a school bus painted white with seating inside and a patio with shaded plastic picnic tables. A curious building next door holds extra seating, but it was empty on our visit. We ate on the patio.

Do try: Burritos heavy on meat, light on beans and rice ($4.25), and a triple tacos plate ($5.99) showed the truck yielded a deft hand with slow cooking and grilling chicken, pork and steak. Tender and delicious. Beans trended runny, the rice dayglo orange and garlicky.

Top marks: Chiles rellenos ($5.99), an unusual find on a taco truck, were two Anaheim chiles stuffed with cheese, wrapped in an eggy jacket and drenched in ranchero sauce. No battered or fried treatment here.

Hours: 10 a.m.-11 a.m. Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday

La Sinoloense/Norma’s Tacos

Location: 4002 Center St., Tacoma; 253-576-2823

The scene: A friendly woman will greet you with a smile and offer a recipe for aquas frescas if you seem curious. I called after my visits to find out who Norma is (the smiling woman at the window?), but couldn’t get an answer. Of all the trucks in this report, this one was the most welcoming.

Do try: The super torta with spicy pork ($7.99). Prices are higher here, but portions command it. Chile-fueled pork (adobada) laced with pineapple hit with a back-of-the-throat heat; the meat came tucked into a griddled bun stuffed with tomatoes, avocado, onions and cilantro. Good for two moderately hungry people, or it will quite possibly destroy your stomach should you attempt to finish it yourself. Burritos were heavy on beans and rice, lighter on meat. Don’t miss the lengua tacos ($1.25).

Top marks: Freshly made aquas frescas juices every day. It may be mango one day, and Jamaica (a steeped floral concoction) another.

Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays-Fridays, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday

Note: The only truck in this report that takes cash only. No cards.

Los Amigos

Location: 11802 E. Meridian, Puyallup; 253-405-9485

The scene: Eat inside the bus or at the covered picnic tables outside. A beer garden for the 21-and-older crowd sits adjacent to the bus. Signs direct customers to buy beer from the garden.

Do try: A carne asado torta sandwich ($4.49) brimming with chopped, grilled steak. A crunchy, grilled bun held it together nicely. The chicken taco ($1.20 each) was one of the most flavorful and juicy sampled for this report.

Top marks: A carnitas burrito loaded with meat, a hefty hand-held meal punched with cilantro and onions, wafting of garlic. Why I can’t eat this every day? Oh, yeah. That’s right. My unrequited love for Mexican food.

Hours: 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily

Taqueria El Antojo

Location: 5445 Birmingham, Tacoma; 253-985-3930, elantojo.com

The scene: The truck is almost entirely covered; an overhang and enclosed seating area will keep you dry or shaded. This is the mobile sibling of Antojo, one of my favorite brick-and-mortar taquerias (with locations in McKinley and Lakewood).

Do try: The taco trio plate ($3.96) with a soda proves one of the best truck deals. Do order the carnitas and spicy pork; don’t miss the carne asada. Burritos ($4.49) should always be huge and weighty like they are here; get yours with adobada, the spicy pork.

Top marks: A shrimp tostado ($5.29) came with a puckery lime-tomato sauce that tasted kicky and citrusy bright. What’s that? A whole avocado sliced on top of a generous mound of sauce-splashed bay shrimp? I can’t stop thinking about the smooth creamy bite, the citrusy blast and the crunch of the tostado at the end. Perfect.

Hours: 10:30 a.m.. – 10 p.m. daily

The rest of the roundup

Not top five material but also worth a try.

Mis Chiquititas

Location: 12413 E. Meridian Ave., Puyallup; 253-375-1224

The scene: The recent addition of a covered eating area provides shelter from sun or rain.

Do try: Pupusas are an unusual find at any taco truck. The Salvadoran cousin of the taco, a pupusa is a thick corn disc stuffed and grilled. Here, it came filled with roasted pork and gooey mild queso fresco. A side of puckery sour cabbage curtido salad, the traditional pupusa condiment, made the pupusa an uber deal at $2.50. Also try the carnitas burrito ($4.49).

Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday

Taqueria El Rancho/Jacalito

Location: In the parking lot of Thrift City, 904 72nd St. E., Tacoma

The scene: The bus said El Rancho on one side, Jacalito on the other, so you get to decide what to call it. The bus appears to have seating inside, but the doors were uninvitingly closed on our visit. Try politely knocking?

Do try: The menu is short and sweet with spendy prices, but portions seemed appropriate. The steak ranchero ($7.99) is a plate of grilled steak with green peppers and onions in a peppery tomato sauce. Rice and beans and tortillas made it a scoopable meal.

Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Taqueria Las Torres

Location: 2515 Sixth Ave., Tacoma (next to Gateway to India)

The scene: One of the largest indoor seating configurations for a taco truck. A half dozen tables and 20-something chairs in a bare-bones environment of an old check-cashing storefront. Colorful people from Sixth make interesting dining companions.

Do try: Bargain eats with some of the best truck prices in town. A carnitas burrito ($2.99) was light on fried pork, but heavy on flavor from garlicky refried beans and fluffy, toothsome rice. A five taco plate ($5.49) with rice, beans and a soda made for bargain eating.

Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays and 10:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays

Los 3 Hermanos

Location: Parking lot of the E-Z Food Store at 2728 S. 12th St., Tacoma

The scene: A few picnic benches makes for a smallish, but functional, lunch area.

Do try: A torta sandwich. I appreciated that the kitchen added a smear of beans to give the sandwich an extra helping of creamy. A carnitas ($4.99) torta sandwich came on a squishy grilled bun with mayo, shredded lettuce, sliced tomatoes and griddled roasted pork. Cilantro and onions were heavy, but jalapenos absent unless you request them.

Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. daily