It’s a pretty sight – the stainless steel is polished to within an inch of its life and one guy is hosing down the spoilers and the tires. There are several of these vehicles spilling out of a warehouse in the Mission, each with either “El Tonayense” or “San Buena” painted over the front hood.
Benjamin Santana is standing by ready to meet me. He and his brother Esquivel bought the first El Tonayense taco truck in 2000 from a friend who owns El Grullense Taqueria in Redwood City. Soon after acquiring this truck, the brothers opened the original El Tonayense restaurant on Valencia and Mission (it’s now at 24th and Van Ness).
Looking at the trucks, I feel a little like Dorothy pulling back the velvet curtain in Oz to see how the magic really works. Although mainly of Irish descent, my mother grew up in the Central Valley with many Mexican and Mexican-American friends and neighbors. Thus, my mother insists we possess cheap Irish skin but tough Mexican tongues and a taste and love for the spiciest of Mexican food. A taco truck is my Mecca.
My first wrangle with a taco truck took place almost 15 years ago, late at night, alfresco, near a major intersection on a Fruitvale corner in Oakland. This is where I tasted what I thought had to be one of the most delicious tacos ever. I was slightly tipsy, but I remember the flavor of freshly grilled carnitas tacos topped with slightly charred green onions and a side of escabeche – spicy pickled carrots and peppers. The location was scary, but the tacos were enlightening.
We step inside one of the trucks as Benjamin tells me that 10 years after buying the initial truck, he now owns five El Tonayense taco trucks and Esquivel owns a small fleet of San Buena taco trucks. The two of them share the family salsa recipe and they store their taco trucks at this same location on Folsom Street.
The Santanas are local natives of sorts – both brothers were born in San Francisco but were raised for most of their lives in the town of Tonaya in the Jalisco region of Mexico. “All people from Tonaya are considered ‘Tonayense,’” Benjamin tells me, hence the name of the trucks.
Benjamin also tells me that what makes El Tonayense’s food special is the salsa they serve. “We spent quite some time creating that salsa,” he says. The brothers initially enlisted their mother to help them figure out the food and launch the trucks. “We use mostly my mother’s recipes and we’ve altered the El Grullense salsa recipe, making it even better,” he says. Once they had things figured out, the Santana brothers’ mother taught many of their recipes to Maria Cervantes, who now runs the El Tonayense kitchen at the restaurant on 24th in the Mission.
The trucks are all custom-made in Los Angeles and tricked out to fit the business. They have nice grills for cooking the meats, cooler areas perfect for a rainbow of Jarritos, and bins for keeping all sorts of salsas and taco fillings – like cabeza (head), tripa (tripe), sesos (brain), and one of Benjamin’s favorites, lengua (tongue).
“Can I get a recipe?” I ask mischievously. “Maybe for your carnitas?”
“You can try,” he laughs, “but I don’t think Maria will give you our recipe.”
The taco trucks are heading to the 24th Street restaurant to pick up the food; I decide to follow the truck to see if I can pry a few secrets out of Maria.
Behind the counter, I question Maria via another cook who translates since my Spanish language abilities consist of “uno más, por favor,” and “para llevar.” Maria is patient with me, if a little shy. To each question I ask, she giggles and shakes her head.
“Can I have the secret ingredients of your carnitas recipe?” I ask.
She hesitates for a moment, then says, “Coca-Cola!”
Ah, I see – a little carmelizing for the carnitas. The other cook translates: “She says, ‘Garlic, an orange, an onion, and then you put in a little Coke.’”
I ask Maria where she likes to eat. “Mi casa,” she responds. I nod and ask if I can come to her house for dinner, but she looks at me like I’m loco in the cabeza – I see I’m not invited.
I clarify: “Where do you like to go when you go out to eat?”
I’m thinking she’ll know some fabulous hidden Mexican restaurant that I’ve never even heard of, but I feel like a bozo when she whispers, “McDonald’s?”
After my visit with Maria, I head out to the Best Buy parking lot on Harrison Street to meet Benjamin. Yes, my favorite taco truck and my home away from home is parked in front of Best Buy – I strongly believe that tacos and shopping for major appliances go hand in hand.
It’s still early and I’m standing behind the griddle with Jesus Castellanas. Jesus has a sweet, jovial face and he’s manning the truck alone this morning. There’s the scent of something unrecognizable cooking on the grill.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Tripa,” Jesus says, and grins. “We cook it here since it must be very fresh.”
It smells strong. And it looks fresh off the farm, newly slaughtered fresh. He asks me if I’d like to try some. “Um, maybe later.” I was thinking I might start slow, with either an al pastor or carnitas taco…and work my way up to the offal!
Benjamin says I can make my own taco and suddenly I feel like I’ve been given the key to Oz. “Really!?!” I yelp, before he suggests I try the lengua.
“Sure,” I nod, pretending to be a pro at beef tongue. A few years ago I went on a date that involved all sorts of adventurous tacos – cabeza, tripa, sesos, and even lengua. It was all a bit of a dare really, and I liked everything, but the poor guy I was with got a little sick and I realized this probably wasn’t the best way to start a relationship.
Benjamin and Jesus point me in the direction of the cooker and I throw a few sand dollar-sized tortillas on the grill. I top each with a spoonful of lengua and a little salsa, onions, and cilantro. I fold it all together and take a bite.
The lengua is delicious. It’s tender, like stewed beef.
Benjamin needs to take off and check on a few of the other trucks; I’m in Jesus’ hands for the rest of my visit. I quickly find that Jesus is a taco truck pro – he’s been working at the Best Buy truck for over a year and he tells me he loves his job. As I finish up my taco, he describes the regulars who come almost every day for their favorite taco truck specialties.
Just then, a man approaches the truck. Jesus tells me with a twinkle in his eye that the man will order a few pollo tacos. Of course, he does. “I meet many interesting people here,” Jesus sagely observes.
I see that most people visit the truck for the tacos and Jesus is busy, even on the early side of noon. When there’s a quiet moment, Jesus tells me he’ll make me something special. “What should it be? Taco? Burrito?” I decide we need to push it further – I need the ultimate taco truck experience: the carnitas torta, a huge Mexican sandwich. I watch Jesus as he grills the bread and slathers it with cheese, a large dose of carnitas, sliced avocado, tomatoes, salsas, crema, and then wraps it all in tinfoil to go.
As Jesus hands me the torta, he looks at me slyly. “You look familiar,” he says.
“You’ve come here before?” he notes. “You’re a regular?”
“Yes,” I say. “I guess I am somewhat of a regular.”
We laugh for a moment, and I take my prized torta outside to the curb. I pull the foil back and watch the steam escape. I take a bite. The bread is so warm, the flavors are all melded together. My mouth feels alive with the flavors of spicy salsa and crisp pork. This is special. A car honks and the doors to Best Buy open and close, and I think I can actually taste the Coca-Cola.
You can find El Tonayense trucks, typically from 9 a.m.–10 p.m. (or until they run out of fixings) at Harrison and Duboce (Best Buy); Harrison and 19th Street; Mariposa and Caroline; and Spear and Folsom. Or visit the sit-down location on 24 th Street between Shotwell and Van Ness. If you’ve got any interest in trying to make a tasty taco-truck-worthy carnitas taco at home, I’d suggest stopping by a good Mexicatessen. La Palma on 24 th is a favorite and the staff offer up great green and red salsas, homemade tortillas, and tortilla chips fresh out of the fryer. With a three-to-five-pound boneless pork butt, some seasoning – including that Coca-Cola Maria mentioned – a squeezed orange, garlic, a little lime, Mexican oregano, a whole onion, cumin, salt and pepper, and a few hours of baking time (with a little time on the grill or in the broiler or fryer), you might even come up with some good homemade carnitas to rival Maria’s. Maybe.