Authentic Mexican Street Food
Real Tacos, Real Fast
Whip up the fast, tasty, autentica staple of L.A.’s sidewalks. No truck required
Why settle for bags of Americanized hard-shell tacos overstuffed with pebbled beef and ice berg lettuce when you can have the real deal? We’re talking soft, warm corn tortillas topped with seared flank steak, a splash of salsa roja, and a shower of sharp onion and fresh cilantro. And the good news is you don’t need to be a vet of the bodega circuit to make authentic tacos at home. Just follow the Way of the Truck.
Think of taco trucks as traveling exhibits of simple Mexican cookery. These roving restaurants-on-wheels charge a pittance and showcase endless authentic combinations of meat, tortillas, and heat. You’ll find them parked in Latino neighborhoods across the United States, but one of the biggest concentrations thrives in East Los Angeles, where competition is fierce and customers know their tacos.
Juan Torres works the night shift at Tacos El Galuzo, a white truck blazoned with a mural of his home town, Arandas, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Each evening, Torres pulls to the curb alongside a Whittier Boulevard car-stereo dealer, across from a Target, in East L.A. Most nights his high school-age son, Juan Jr., rides shotgun, ready to pinch-hit in the truck’s cramped kitchen. Torres surveys his salsas and kicks his flattop grill into high gear. He’s ready to serve textbook tacos with a minimalist’s command of detail. The line snaking down the block proves it.
But Torres is more than just a taco guru. He’s also president of the Asociacion de Loncheros L.A. Familia Unida de California, a member alliance that lobbies and organizes on behalf of the city’s taco-truck drivers. Some people (restaurant owners, maybe) still revile taco trucks as roach coaches, and the stigma affects the political scene: A couple of years back, the L.A. County supervisors wanted to enforce regulations that he says would have virtually criminalized the roving taco trucks. Torres, on behalf of vendors and consumers alike, fought the law. And he won. (He enjoyed a boost from a loose association of friends and smart-asses who printed “Carne Asada Is Not a Crime” T-shirts.)
Though carne asada (grilled meat) isn’t a crime, it’s tempting to have second thoughts about the gnarlier items on Tacos El Galuzo’s menu: The truck stocks a feedlot’s worth of variety meats. There’s lengua — cow tongue — and tripa, the lining of a pig’s stomach. And buche, the muscular part of that stomach. They’re delicious simmered El Galuzo style in a broth with whole onions, and then crisped on the flattop. But there’s no need for macho posturing, not when straightforward tacos like carne asada and chorizo are so good.
As a TV mounted over the condiment bar blares the news on Univision, Torres starts by dipping his soft corn tortillas (no bastardized flour tortillas here) in melted lard. It’s just enough fat to wet the griddle and refresh the tortilla. Then he uses a tortilla to portion his filling. The process is simple: He clasps a tortilla in one hand and reaches for a pile of freshly chopped meat with the other. What Torres grabs is what stays in the tortilla; it won’t be an overstuffed monstrosity. Then he drizzles on a homemade salsa, showers the taco with chopped onion and cilantro, and serves it openfaced, with a couple of lime wedges and a few radishes for crunch.
“For here or to go?” Torres asks. Uttered by a taco-truck cook, simple questions sound existential. Since these roving restaurants lack the space for seating and are ready to roll down the street in an instant, isn’t every taco truck order “to go”? Actually, no. Turns out, a to-go order at El Galuzo means a brace of foil-wrapped tacos, stuffed in a paper sack, with plastic bullets of salsa thrown on top.
But tacos are all about immediacy. It’s best to eat them on the stainless-steel ledge cantilevered off the truck. Even better, just make them at home and eat them, standing, right in your kitchen. Get your truck on.
For an authentic Mexican spread, pick one filling and salsa to serve four, or cook up a variety to feed a crowd.
Soft Corn Tortillas
Buy them: Most trucks, including Tacos El Galuzo, rely on commercially made soft corn tortillas. Look for them in the refrigerated section, next to the wraps. When you’re ready to eat, brush them with olive oil and warm them in a heavy skillet until they’re flexible.
Make them: Can’t find good-quality corn tortillas? Craft your own. Easily. Just add water to powdered masa mix (available in the Latin section of the supermarket), flatten the dough into disks, and cook the tortillas in a skillet for about a minute. (The instructions are on the package.) Two cups of masa yields enough dough for 12 tortillas.
Although it literally just means “grilled meat,” carne asada is usually beef. Often the beef in question is espaldilla (boneless beef clod steak) or diesmillo (boneless beef chuck steak). At home, skirt steak or flank steak works just as well.
2 medium lemons, juiced
6 Tbsp water
1 tsp garlic powder
1 scant tsp salt
1 lb skirt steak or flank steak Vegetable oil for grilling
1 In a large resealable plastic bag, combine the first four ingredients and add the beef, massaging the marinade into the meat. Refrigerate for 1 to 3 hours.
2 Heat a grill or grill pan on medium high. (You should be able to hold your hand over it for no longer than 3 seconds.) Remove the meat from the marinade and pat it dry with paper towels. Lightly oil the hot grill and add the beef. Cook until the meat is nicely charred and the interior is just cooked through, about 3 minutes a side. Let rest a few minutes. Slice the beef into 1/2-inch strips and then hack it into nubs. Makes enough for 12 tacos
A fresh and sweetly aromatic pork sausage that’s colored and perfumed with paprika and other spices, chorizo is a nearly instant taco filling. Find it alongside other sausages in the meat case or at the butcher’s. (Don’t confuse it with Spanish chorizo, which is a firm slicing sausage.)
1 Remove the casings from 1 pound of Mexican chorizo links by cutting a slit along the length of each link with a small, sharp knife. Then fry the chorizo over medium-high heat, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until it’s cooked through and lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Makes enough for 12 tacos
Usually made with pork, these “little meats” use a tough cut that turns amazingly tender as it simmers and then crisps up in its own fat. Although they aren’t in the El Galuzo repertoire, carnitas are a fixture on the tacotruck circuit. To play off the natural sweetness of the pork, pair with salsa verde.
2 lb fatty pork butt (shoulder), cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
1 Tbsp lard or vegetable oil
1 1/2 cups water
1/2 orange, cut into 2 pieces (skin on)
1/2 medium white onion, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp table salt (or 2 tsp coarse salt)
2 bay leaves
1 Combine all ingredients in a 4-to 5-quart heavy pot; don’t worry if the pork isn’t completely covered. Bring everything to a boil, skimming as necessary. Then simmer rapidly over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the pork is tender and the liquid has evaporated, about 1 1/2 hours. Discard the orange and the bay leaves.
2 Continue to cook the pork in the fat left in the pan, stirring frequently, until it’s golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes more. Makes enough for 12 tacos, plus leftovers
Recipe courtesy of Chef Roberto Santibanez, a partner of The Taco Truck, in New Jersey.
No matter which meat you choose, all tacos need a sprinkle of finely diced white onion and chopped cilantro, plus a drizzle of salsa.
Tomatillos, which look like green tomatoes with papery husks, give a sour edge to this salsa, while jalapenos add a dose of heat. Use this salsa to cut the richness of carnitas or chorizo tacos. It’s also great with eggs and black beans.
10 tomatillos, husks removed
1 1/2 jalapenos, stemmed and seeded
1/2 cup cilantro (leaves and stems)
1/2 small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves
Salt to taste
1 In a medium pot of boiling water, combine all ingredients. Reduce to a simmer and cook until softened, about 10 minutes. Let cool. Reserve 1 cup liquid; next, drain the mixture and puree in a blender until mostly smooth. Season with salt and, if needed, thin with some reserved liquid. Makes about 2 cups
The key to this salsa’s intense, smoky flavor is char-roasted tomatoes and onions. It’s especially good with carne asada. Make extra for tortilla chips — it’ll keep in the fridge for a week.
6 medium tomatoes, halved
1 medium onion, quartered
2 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 whole dried red chili, stem removed, or 1 tsp red-pepper flakes
Salt to taste
1 Heat the oven to 400?F. Roast the tomatoes and onions on a foil-lined sheet pan for 20 minutes. Then add the garlic and roast until the tomatoes collapse and begin to char, about 10 minutes more. (Watch the garlic; if it goes past blond, pull it.) Let cool.
2 In a dry skillet over medium heat, toast the oregano, cumin, and chili, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Then puree all the ingredients in a blender until mostly smooth. Season with salt. Makes about 2 cups
No need to grab the same old six-pack of Dos Equis, says Joe Tucker, owner of ratebeer.com. These beers also have the cojones to work with authentic Mexican.
Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye Ale
Match this citrusy, hoppy beer with carne asada. The robustness of the rye can handle the hearty complexity of marinated steak.
Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont
Wash down your carnitas with this creamy ale. The brew’s fruity aromas meld well with the sweetness of the pork.
Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biere
This barrel aged beer with lemony and light barnyard aromas pairs well with fresh salsas and roasted red chilies, says Tucker.
Stone Pale Ale
This California ale has an aggressively hoppy flavor balanced by lightly toasted malts, which bring out the caramelized flavors of grilled meats.
Hoegaarden Belgian White
This Belgian brew has a sweet undertone of orange and coriander, which enhances the spices in chorizo.