If there is one thing I’ve always loved it’s tacos. Some people crave dirty-water hot dogs, while others pine for cupcakes. Not me. I crave the very simple, often cheap and always straight forward taco. Filled with everything from nose to tail, I knew that our trip to San Francisco would include a jaunt into Oakland’s burgeoning Mexican taco emporium. With plenty of emails, and a lot of research under my belt, I somehow managed to arrive without a sure fire plan on how this taco adventure would go down. Yet, by the time Sarah and I finally stepped from the Fruitvale BART station Thursday night, I knew we’d be in good hands.
Looking for a woman wearing a salmon coloured jacket, Sarah and I were elated to find it was mere minutes before we were welcomed by Ruth Lafler. As someone I discovered in my pre-trip research, Ruth is an active member of the San Francisco CHOW board and more than willing to show strangers some local hospitality. With Sarah and I uncovering actual concerns when I talked about conquering Oakland alone at night, it should almost go without saying we were really happy to have this local taco fan to accompany us. Maybe I should reword that last part though, as Ruth isn’t just someone who likes tacos, she has become known as the go-to person in the area, even to the point of being interviewed street side by NPR radio. Could there be a better person to walk us around…I think not.
At a random fruit cart located just outside the BART station, Ruth started our evening with elote. A different take on corn on the cob, elote is a popular street food that can also be found (for good reason) in the home. Simple in its preparation, the hot corn is jammed onto a stick, rolled in mayonnaise (or sour cream), rolled a second time in fresh crumbly cheese and finished with cayenne or chili powder. You really can’t compare this to the standard corn back home, as the mayo and cheese take it to a level that our more common butter just can’t. As well, the heat provided by the spice makes this a dish that isn’t for the timid. Not a taco by any stretch of the imagination, it’s safe to say this was a great way to start the evening while giving me some ideas for back home.
La Torta Loca, which if my Spanish is decent enough, translates to The Crazy Sandwich, was stop number two on our adventure. Located only a few feet from our elote chow down, I started to wonder how much food I’d be able to cram into my belly. Just as I was about to inquire how far we’d go along International Boulevard, Ruth informed us that many crawls finish well before they conquer anything new. People it seems, fill up early and throw in the towel. As Ruth stepped up to order, I knew with the distance we had traveled, there was no other choice but to tackled everything that was thrown at us.
Not known for their tacos, La Torta Loca, we discovered, is a great place for other less-gringo known Mexican street snacks. Ruth wanted us to sample their sope offerings, and as such, had us deep into options from the start. Looking like a thick tortilla, the circle of fried masa is known for it’s pinched sides and often comes topped with refried beans, crumbled cheese, lettuce, onions, red or green sauce, and acidified cream. Our first taste of this antojito was topped with nopales, a vegetable made from the young cladophyll segments of prickly pear cactus. Of course the pads are stripped of their sharp points; imagine the damage if they didn’t. Ouch! Soft, and quite juicy, just like I remembered, we barely had a chance to put the nopales in our stomach before Ruth was offering us our second sope, which came with tinga. Two common choices of protein (chicken or beef) can be used for tinga, and La Torta Loca simmers their shredded beef in an outstanding chipotle sauce to create the dish. This sope was amazing, and took the goodness of the previous nopales version to a whole new level.
Sope number three came topped with flor de calabaza, which in this case means squash blossoms. Far too delicate to compete with the rest of the toppings, I found this dish let the standard toppings shine. With our mouths, and bellies, asking for more tinga, Ruth came to the rescue and ordered a tinga huarache. The tortilla for this snack is made in the shape of a Mexican sandal, and is yet another less common treat. This meat slathered tortilla really hit the spot because it was finished with tinga, compared with the sopes that put the toppings on the meat. I could have continued to eat the entire menu here, so I was glad to hear that Ruth made an executive decision to move.
I would say that 90% of the taco stands we walked by, or saw in the distance, didn’t offer the diner a place to sit. And really, the fact that you are given a plate and that the food is wrapped in it’s own delivery system, why would you need a seat. However as we approached this next hole in the wall, things were different. There was in fact, quite a few seats. Mariscos la Costa (The Shellfish Coast) offers taco’s like most stand, but Ruth was quick to inform us this isn’t why we were here.
We were here for the a couple of seafood creations which showed up on the ledge mere moments after being ordered. As we grabbed a table to sit, Ruth went off in search of a drink. What we saw before us was, Agua Chile Con Camaron y Pulpo and Tostada Ceviche De Camaron. The Agua Chile dish arrived in a massive bowl and for a lack of better descriptors, ended up being a spicy soup with shrimp and octopus. The hot soup was filled with glorious pieces of seafood while the ripe avocado coated our mouths and helped alleviate any lingering heat. The fried tostada arrived with an absolutely scrumptious shrimp ceviche. The citrus base utilized to cook the seafood really showed in the soup, where we found giant shrimp with just a hint of pink. With Sarah hooked on ceviche from the moment I introduced her to it, these two dishes were beyond our wildest expectations.
Ever the chow hound, Ruth came prepared with cups and plates making it easier to split the serving. The tall glass of cold Horchata was nothing new to me, but it was a first for Sarah. This rice based version was rich with flavour, yet came very close to being overpowered by cinnamon. While a drink like this will help cool the body, I often find that a large glass is far to much for me and was more than happy to split it. On one of the nicest Oakland evenings this summer, this little spot provided a nice relaxing place to digest and chat. Wait did I say chat…time for more!
Our next stop, and one of Ruth’s favourite, was Tacos El Gordo. Eventually giving up his day job, the man behind this truck got back into the business he once knew as a child and has apparently not looked back. Ruth made it clear that from this cart, we were definitely sampling tacos al pastor, as it was their specialty. Besides the obvious, I asked if we could also order some lengua (beef tongue) for a better comparison with the days earlier meal in the Mission District.
If you are a fan of what I call, the Alberta spiced meat treat, or donair, you’ll notice the vertical spit depicted on the Tacos El Gordo truck. I think it’s fair to say you wouldn’t be far off to assume that there was a cultural influence here; with this al pastor cooking method what I consider to be the gold standard. Layers of thinly sliced and marinaded pork are intermingled with pineapple and then slowly cooked and shaved to order. To say the version here was good, wouldn’t do it justice. Compared with our lunch in the San Francisco, the al pastor here was out of this world, and could easily be the best I’ve ever encountered in or outside of Mexico. The beef tongue was nothing to scoff at either, but the al pastor was just surreal. With the sun setting, my faith in Ruth had being surpassed and I found myself looking left and right in search of our next destination…..