Five Questions with John Birdsall

Posted by Cyrus Farivar on February 17, 2009

So the East Bay Express John Birdsall recently went on a month-long odyssey of Fruitvale taco trucks and came back with this nearly 4,000-word piece: “La Vida Taco.”

I put five questions to him in this email interview.

1) What prompted you to write a month-long odyssey on taco trucks?

I love Fruitvale; it’s the yeastiest, sexiest part of Oakland, maybe the whole Bay. I’ve written about it for SF mag, and I used to hang out there a lot when I did weekly restaurant reviews for the Express. I’d written about the trucks before, but never taken a systematic approach.

2) Do you eat at taco trucks regularly? Are there any (in Oakland or elsewhere), that you really enjoy? I got the impression that you weren’t too impressed with Oakland’s offerings.

3) As a chef, what do you think are the advantages/disadvantages of cooking in a mobile, cramped, kitchen?

2, 3) I don’t eat at the trucks regularly, partly because I live a bit far (in Temescal, North Oakland), partly because I watch what I eat (unless I’m working). Trucks have severe cooking limitations, which gives them rather hobbled success in the taco realm. I mean, those amazing tacos al carbon in Mexico (part charcoal, meat, and onion smell in the street), or cazuela-style scrambled egg tacos in Mexico City …. that doesn’t happen in the trucks. Plus, the taco entrepreneurs here tend to be, well, entrepreneurs first, and cooks second. But that’s not to say that the trucks are failures: They’re about so much more than just what’s on the plate—kind of witnesses to the community. If Fruitvale’s tacos aren’t like Mexico’s, well, Fruitvale isn’t Mexico, either. But it’s delightful in its own way.

The best tacos I’ve had here (again, while doing a story for SF mag) were on the hood of my car in Redwood City: a pile of super-delicious takeout Michoacan-style carnitas (best I’ve had), with warm tortillas I’d bought somewhere else.

4) I love El Ojo de Agua, but usually I get burritos (pastor or chorizo). When living in Oakland, my fiancée, friends and I usually hit it once every week or two. It’s a frequent Friday night cheap dinner. I’ve yet to find a superior taco truck burrito in the Bay Area. I find that they’re well-balanced with their ingredients and don’t find them at all too “wet” as you described. I have had their tacos too, and while I don’t know that they’re the most amazing, they seem perfectly respectable. What makes a good taco for you? A good torta? Burrito?

4. I’ll revisit O de A; maybe I could join you when you return? A good taco is about texture and perfume: an honest, flavorful tortilla; meaty plushness; and a salsa that lets you taste the comal (tomatoes, onions, tomatillos, or chiles seared on the griddle). Best taco I ever had in Fruitvale was at a place that no longer exists: a granny who made goat-meat birria tacos on handmade tortillas: earthy, handmade, and snarly. My fave nontruck place in Fruitvale is the same: A mom who makes essentially three things she learned to make in Jalisco, and doesn’t take shortcuts (plus she gives you a free botana of fried pork skins with warm bean dip… awesome).

5) What advice would you give to taco truck novices?

5. Novices? Go to a truck where you see lots of neighborhood types lined up. Observe first to see if there’s a pattern to what the locals are ordering ( a whole family getting buche sopes, for instance), even if it’s something you wouldn’t normally choose. Chicken and carne asada are, in my opinion, likely to be the least successful meats a taco truck can manage.

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