Investigating New Taco Trucks in the Wild

OK, in parking lots near you.

Some people buy $1,400 Brunton binoculars to stand in a field waiting for a sighting of a Eurasian dotterel. Others fly to Los Angeles to lurk around Chateau Marmont hoping for a cell phone pic of anyone they’ve read about on TMZ. Me? I hunt taco trucks.

After years of aimless driving, Spanish-mangling, lime-squeezing, and napkin-sullying, the hunt is no longer about finding the carnitas taco to end all carnitas tacos. It’s more like the need a vinyl collector feels to make twice-weekly tours through Everyday Music to make sure no one else has gotten that 12-inch import he’s only read about: a need to catalog, to rank, to keep my blood-lard levels high. A round of new loncheras has migrated into Seattle in the past three months, and reports of sightings have been hitting my inbox.

Not surprisingly, given Seattle demographics, most of these are on the outskirts of the city. Truth be told, too, none has knocked my existing top four out of their rankings: La Pasadita in Northgate, La Fondita in White Center, El Asadero on Rainier, and a South Seattle truck I won’t recommend to strangers until it gets right with the Health Department. (I also tried and disqualified El Rey, across from the parking lot of the West Seattle Home Depot, for being nowhere as tasty as La Fondita just a mile south.) Each of these new trucks has something to recommend, whether you’re another taco obsessive or just lucky enough to live within walking distance:

El Camión

Habitat: North end of the parking lot of the Home Depot, 11616 Aurora Ave. N. NORTH SEATTLE

Distinctive markings: Black, with red-pepper lights ringing the window.

Appeal: Best place to pick up the taco-truck habit. Along with some fish tacos.

Two-month-old El Camión is perhaps the most design-conscious taco truck to ever hit the road. Not only is the name printed in sans-serif font on the side instead of painted in wavery cursive, but the truck has clean picnic tables and a photocopied menu. The newbie-friendly touches extend to black beans on the lunch plates, pico de gallo (fresh tomato-onion salsa) on the tacos instead of just onions and cilantro, and a diner’s choice of habanero, tomatillo, or chipotle salsa. El Camión’s flavors proved too clean for my tastes: The carnitas was only braised instead of being simmered and then fried in pork fat; the chicken mole came in a candy-sweet sauce; and the tortas were served on big fluffy rolls and heavily doused with sour cream, overpowering the pork inside. The tacos that set my mouth abuzz were the ones filled with moist, spice-covered adobada, tender tripe with its improbable echo of toasted almonds, or a rich, white-and-pink mess of fish griddled up with chopped red cabbage and white sauce (who am I kidding? Mayonnaise).

El CarretÓn

Habitat: Greenwood Avenue North and North 143rd Street. GREENWOOD

Distinctive markings: Paneled in red posters with photographs of the truck’s specialties.

Appeal: The mulitas, a Seattle taco-truck specialty I never got before I tasted El Carretón’s.

A few months back, El Carretón, a popular taco bus on Aurora and 150th, spawned Carretón II on Greenwood Avenue. Junior is a real taco truck with a dimly lit tent set up next to it. All the tacos cost a bargain 99 cents. Sadly, with the exception of the beautifully porky carnitas, the fillings I tasted needed less banal marinades or a bigger dollop of salsa on top. Similarly, the larger platters I tried—tostadas spread with a sweet tomato-based ceviche, a bean-heavy burrito drenched with a mysteriously unsmoky “chipotle” sauce—were standard Seattle Mexican food, that is to say, drab. But El Carretón’s specialty is the mulita: two corn tortillas sandwiched around cheese, meat, and fresh avocado, then toasted on the griddle. A masterpiece of melted cheese, it’s the kind of thing that Taco Bell always wants to do, yet does horribly.

Roasted Corn

Habitat: Corner of 15th Avenue Southwest and Southwest 98th Street. WHITE CENTER

Distinctive markings: A tent over a 4-foot-tall humming green cube.

Appeal: All vegetables taste better slathered in mayonnaise.

I know this is a taco-truck roundup, but a friend spotted this stand next to a taco truck, so it pretty much counts. According to the guy who pulls corn ears out of the green cube, it’s a propane-fueled roaster that can cook 100 ears in 15 minutes. For $2.50, the guy shucks your blackened cob and sticks a skewer into the fat end. Then he lovingly lacquers on layers and layers of flavor: First he brushes on mayonnaise and rolls the corn in a tub of powdered Parmesan cheese. Then he squirts on waves of a thick chile sauce, dusts it with cayenne pepper, spritzes on a little ReaLemon, and finishes up with a few shakes of salt. I drove back north crooning “Ring of Fire” to my scorched lips, and as soon as the redness faded I went back for seconds. This time, however, the stand was so overwhelmed by demand that the owner had run out of chile sauce. Extra mayonnaise did not make up for its absence.

Taqueria Costa Alegre

Habitat: Parking lot of Saar’s, 9000 Rainier Ave. S. RAINIER VALLEY

Distinctive markings: A city bus with red cowboy-print curtains on the windows.

Appeal: No need to choose between eating at a barely washed picnic table and getting salsa all over your car seats.

When it set up in a genius location a few months ago, just across from Rainier Beach High, Costa Alegre instantly outclassed all of Seattle’s rickety converted school buses. It has cushions on the seats, a drinks fridge, and a working space heater. Compared to the other buses, though, the menu’s a bit minimal: The $1.25 tacos only come in chicken (OK), steak (fine), tongue (good), and adobada (great). In a culinary tweak rare to Seattle, the latter are topped with pineapples in addition to the standard onions and cilantro, a spike of sweet that becomes especially welcome when you douse the pork taco with red salsa from one of the squeeze bottles on the table. The rest of the food’s pretty standard—the bare-bones enchiladas verdes are just sauced and broiled, and the sincronisada is, well, a miniature quesadilla. Costa Alegre serves one other surprise: something called alambres: onions, peppers, beef, and bacon sauteed together and smothered in melted cheese. You can order the alambres as a plate of tasty mess, to be scooped up with tortillas, or as a sandwich, which only spurts out avalanches of peppers and bacon on every third bite. If there’s one reason to dine out in a bus with stainless-steel floors and plastic tables, the alambres would be it.

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