Robb Walsh, the restaurant critic for the Houston Press, is the author, most recently, of The Texas Cowboy Cookbook. Described as the "Indiana Jones of food writers" by Liane Hansen of NPR, he's written widely about food history, anthropology, and science, and founded the Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival now in its 17th year. For our story on taco trucks in this month's issue, "As the Taco Turns," he interviewed the following chefs, and this is what they had to say.
John Currence, New Orleans native and chef-owner of City Grocery and Bouré, Oxford, Mississippi
"Mexicans and Central Americans swept into town to do the dirty work after Katrina. They are responsible for 85 to 90 percent of the initial rebuilding of New Orleans. We would be nowhere without them. With this influx of Latino workers came a whole new kind of food. All of a sudden, you have taco trucks serving food that is fresher than what you get in most restaurants. It's honest, handmade food, and it's a dollar twenty-five a taco. They are making homemade pico de gallo with fresh cilantro instead of the bottled sauces served at most New Orleans Mexican restaurants.
For a good while after the hurricane, the taco trucks were the only places to eat. I was eating several meals a day from them. It's insanely refreshing that it wasn't a Lucky Dog cart. If I had eaten that much fast food, I would have gained 20 pounds. Tacos Gaby's by the Lowe's (Elysian Fields and Hope St.) is my favorite taco truck. I always go for the al pastor (marinated pork).
New Orleans is a melting pot. The addition of the Latin Americans adds another layer. From a cultural point of view, they bring a lot of passion. It's going to add to the food, but also to the music and the art and, hopefully, the work ethic of the city."
Elizabeth Montes, chocolatier-owner of Sahagún, Portland, Oregon
"I like the taco trucks because they make good food available for people who don't have a lot of money. A lot of the food on the taco trucks is made in people's home kitchens. That's because you can get a domestic kitchen license in Portland. That's how I used to make chocolates when I was selling at farmers markets.
I like the Torres de Morelos taco truck (S.E. Powell and 31st St.). The carnitas, the al pastor, and the buche (pork stomach) are all good. Ask for albondigas (meatballs), but the lengua (tongue) is my favorite."
Gabriel Rucker, chef at Le Pigeon, Portland, Oregon
"I'm from California, I love taco trucks. A lot of people are scared of them. They think they're dirty. But food lovers seek them out. I don't like to pay a lot for a crappy burrito with shredded chicken or shredded pork. If you want good Mexican food, you go where the Mexican guys go—to a taqueria. It's Mexican street food. The ingredients are more adventurous than in a burrito joint. A taco truck is a mobile taqueria—a hole-in-the-wall on wheels. My favorite truck is at S.E. Division and 33rd, in part because it's close in.
I started eating at taco trucks at an early age. My dad took me to eat beef cheeks at a taco truck in Napa when I was 12 years old. I like to get those funky meats like cabeza (beef cheeks) and lengua. Now I have a French restaurant and I have tongue and beef cheeks on my menu."
Craig Serbousek, co-chef and co-owner of Crow Restaurant & Bar and Bette Restaurant & Bar, Seattle
"I love taco trucks. I was turned onto them in L.A. We'd get carnitas by the pound and take it to the beach—it's an incredible lunch. I don't know many chefs who don't love taco trucks. We all compare notes on taco trucks in Seattle. They are the height of quality food at an affordable price. You line up with the workmen to eat. And that's a beautiful thing. People want honest food. One of my favorite things to do on my day off is go sit in the El Asadero taco bus. I always get carnitas, they are done in lard, real crisp. I like taco trucks better than Seattle Mexican restaurants. I feel like mainstream Mexican restaurants here are putting on airs. I find them to be pretty average."
Aarón Sánchez, chef-owner of Paladar and Centrico, New York City
"There are lots of taco trucks in El Paso where I grew up. Most of them are downtown where the workers are. I like the carne con chile colorado tacos in El Paso. The trucks also sell tripe, goat, stomach, and barbacoa on the weekends down there. In New York, the best taco trucks are in the outer boroughs. I like the Taco Guicho trailer at Roosevelt Avenue and 84th Street in Jackson Heights, for the sopes. I like the carnitas sopes, they are an inspiration. We serve sopes at both our restaurants.
Taco trucks are adored because they are totally unpretentious. I have always been a huge fan. I have thought about going that direction myself. I would love to do my own interpretation of a taco truck. I'd do sopes and tacos with great stewed meats and vegetables and enchiladas and aguas frescas. I would show up on one corner for a while and then switch to another corner. There would be a lot of mystery to it. In New York that's great. It's like the club you can't get into. You get everybody talking—'Where is that taco truck this weekend?'"