The gas station's parking lot is where 35-year-old Jose Rios landed after leaving his Mexican restaurant El Chaparral in his hometown of Eagle Pass, Texas, to sell tacos on the streets of New Orleans. When he arrived late in 2005, the gas station, formerly a Wagner's Meat location, was only partially gutted, electricity was scarce and few businesses of any kind were open in the area.
But there were plenty of Latino men newly arrived in town working on storm repairs, and Rios was wagering they would want a taste of home. He soon upgraded from selling tacos from his pickup to a trailer humming with generators and glowing with air-brushed murals. After Discount City repaired the property and opened for business, Rios rented the booth between the gas pumps -- where one normally finds a cashier --Êand built a kitchen for what he calls Chaparral Patio. Now his customers lean against the narrow outdoor counter to eat while others fuel their cars an arm's length away.
"In February we're going to open in that old Chicken Box over there," Rios says, waving across the parking lot to a deserted fried chicken shop. "Then we'll take the trailer down to St. Bernard."
Long a phenomenon in other cities where large numbers of Latino people live and work, taco trucks came to New Orleans on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, arriving on the scene faster than most FEMA trailers. Some of their owners, like Rios, are putting down roots and opening bona fide restaurants in New Orleans.
They come as a small blessing for New Orleanians who have long complained that their city ran short on cheap street food in general and authentic Mexican cooking in particular. Their tacos are not the school cafeteria tacos or Taco Bell tacos some of us grew up eating, with hard corn shells and piles of shredded yellow cheese. Rather, the standard taco-truck taco starts with two soft corn tortillas patted down on the grill for a moment and used as a two-ply wrapper for a selection of meats, garnished immediately with chopped cilantro and raw onion and later at your discretion with salsa and a squeeze of lime. The meat selection changes from one purveyor to the next, but the mainstays are fajitas, or strips of chopped steak; carnitas, or small chunks of pork; al pastor, or pork cooked with onions and pineapple; pollo, or shredded chicken; and chorizo, a spicy pork sausage. Also common are lengua, or beef tongue, and chicharron, or fried pig skins, which in most cases are not crunchy like locally known cracklings, but rather very soft and moist.
These tacos are the food of recovery, served as cheaply and as quickly as a value meal at even the most efficiently run fast food restaurant. Two or three tacos make a hearty enough meal to get you back on a ladder to work for the rest of the afternoon without slowing you down. Best of all, the tacos are delicious and varied. Different purveyors make their own salsas, have different recipes for their pastor or carnitas and use different cuts of beef for their fajitas.
Below are highlights from a selection of local taco trucks and a few storefront taquerias with menus so basic that they function like taco trucks without wheels (i.e. don't look for waiters, appetizers or even nachos here). This is not a comprehensive listing but rather a representative guide to this new wave of food available in New Orleans since Katrina. Clip this column and stash it in your glove box to refer to the next time you want to fill your belly for $5 in less than 10 minutes.
Location: South Claiborne Avenue at Eagle Street (in the parking lot of a laundromat).
Tacos are $1.50, each and if you order the carnitas it might be the best buck and half you spend all week on food. Carnitas means "little meats" and here the small chunks of pork have been grilled extra-crispy and stained orange with seasoning. The chorizo is also good, finely ground and spicy enough on its own. Apply the smooth green sauce provided at the counter with caution -- though it looks like guacamole, it burns like fire.
Location: Edenborn and Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Metairie (in the parking lot of a Daiquiris & Cream shop).
Though the colorful exterior of this truck has ads for hamburgers and seafood cocktail, the menu currently offered has been pared down to concentrate on tacos, burritos and tortas, which are sandwiches made with taco filling. Tacos cost $1.75, and best bets are the fajitas and straightforward chicken. The chicharrones are not for the faint hearted, consisting of wet slabs of pork fat with only the slimmest edge of meat. Don't miss the agua de melon, a refreshing watermelon drink served in 32-oz. cups for $2.
Location: Elysian Fields at North Claiborne Avenue (behind the Chevron station).
A trailer rather than a truck, Taqueria Diana has nestled so firmly into its niche between a gas station and a funeral parlor that it now has its own semi-covered seating area. A plywood patio with plastic tables and chairs provides cover as patrons dig into tacos priced at just $1 each. Both red and green salsas are available in squeeze bottles and a vat of grilled, shredded jalapeno is offered as a further garnish.
Locations: 1) South Claiborne Avenue at South Carrollton Avenue (in the parking lot of an shuttered Rite-Aid); 2) next to the Lowe's Home Center on Jefferson Highway.
The crews of these two co-managed trucks are natives of Brazil who were selling Philly cheesesteaks in Sanford, Conn., before Katrina. After the storm, they high-tailed it down here and quickly changed their menu to include tacos in response to poplar demand, though you can still order fried chicken, Italian sausage and cheesesteaks. Tacos are four for $5 or $1.50 each, and the lengua is particularly good with an excellent, chewy texture.
Taqueria "El Buen Gusto"
Location: varies along Canal Street in Mid-City, but usually near the Carrollton Avenue intersection or at South Dupre Street.
Each order of tacos comes with a pile of sweet, grilled onions and a grilled jalapeno wrapped in a pouch of tin foil to keep the tacos from getting soggy before you eat them. The crew here gets started early enough that you can make a breakfast of chewy, chopped steak tacos or carnitas with your coffee, or come back for lunch and grab a Coke bottled in Mexico using a different sugar formula. Tacos are $1.75 each.
Tacos San Miguel
2120 N. Claiborne Ave., 473-3529
The steam trays here feature a particularly large variety of meats with some daily changing specials like smoked pork, chorizo with egg or the liberally seasoned beef salpicon. The tortillas are made in house, and although soft corn tortillas are the norm for such taquerias, the soft flour tortillas here are delicious, fresh and just a bit stretchy. Do not treat their salsas as you would Americanized versions, especially the wine-dark paste of peppers and seeds called bell sauce, which can easily set the eyes tearing. Tacos are $1.75 on corn or $2 on flour tortillas.
El Chaparral Patio
2013 S. Claiborne Ave., 906-6261
As noted earlier, El Chaparral will soon say adios to the gas station hut and moving into a proper storefront, the former Chicken Box shop at 2015 S. Claiborne Ave. Carnitas here have the soft consistency of pulled pork, which contrasts nicely with the crunch of raw onions and fresh cilantro, while the barbacoa flakes apart in planks like long-cooked brisket. Tacos are three for $5. On the weekends, El Chaparral serves big cups of menudo, the spicy tripe soup purported to be a hangover cure. Gentler restoration can be found in a 32-oz. jug of horchata, the smooth, cinnamon-tinged agua fresca made from rice water.
542 S. Jefferson Davis Pkwy., 512-1993
Before the storm, La Finca was a neighborhood bar called the Delta Blues Club, where Walter "Wolfman" Washington and Little Freddie King often performed on a tiny stage and greasy burgers were grilled in the back. Since reopening under its new name last fall, the place is still very much a bar but with an expanded kitchen that now serves tacos, carne asada, flautas and pollo frito. The tacos are $2 each and are larger than usual, bulging with meat, garnished with a slice of fresh avocado. Skip the bottled tomato salsa and instead ladle up a few spoonfuls of the homemade salsa verde on the counter and some of the tart, vinegar-soaked curtido of cabbage and peppers in the recycled pickle jar.