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Back in the day, when I held down a 9-to-5 job in an office that wasn't close to, well, anything, I lived for the Pavlovian horn that signaled the arrival of the roach coach. The motorized meal on wheels carried absolutely nothing that I wanted to eat (or even much that was remotely edible), but that wasn't the point. Its appeal lay in its novelty, its opportunity for socializing, and its compact design -- the clever way it opened up sideways to reveal those little compartments filled with perfectly sized sandwiches and cellophane-wrapped bear claws, its bottom bin packed with ice and chilled V8s.
It was the American version of street food, which (along with hot dog carts and pretzel vendors) is pathetically our nation's only contribution to this unique vernacular. In other countries, it is street food that gives you the authentic flavor of a place, a real sense of how locals eat, and an ear for the rhythms of everyday conversation that define a culture.
Which is why, now that I'm a work-from-home shut-in, I have to get a regular street-food fix from the El Tonayense taco trailers (Harrison at 19th and 22nd streets). Around midday the awnings roll out, the grills heat up, and a stretch of industrial warehouses is suddenly transformed into a Mexican beehive: cars with out-of-state plates pull up and double-park, in-the-know office workers pour out of seemingly abandoned buildings, and the sound of rapid-fire Spanish echoes through the parking lot of John O'Connell High School.
As is the case with street stands in Mexico, there's no official menu here, just a list of available meats, which includes rare offerings such as cabeza (beef cheeks), tripe, and sesos (brains). While the fillings all come inside burritos and tortas (sandwiches), pretty much the only thing to order here is tacos. And for me, the only tacos to order are al pastor -- rotisserie-cooked pork marinated in pasilla and guajillo chili peppers, achiote (which gives the meat its reddish color), garlic, cumin, vinegar, lime, and pineapple.
Two palm-size soft corn tortillas come heaped with a mound of roasted meat topped with chopped onion, cilantro, a wedge of lime, and your choice of salsa (verde, in my case). These are not American-style tacos -- i.e., slightly scaled-down burritos slathered in sour cream, cheese, and guacamole -- so if you want to fit in with the crowd, be sure to order more than one (three is typical; they cost a buck 50 apiece). Then lean against the chain-link fence with one foot on the concrete ledge and eat them folded up between your thumb and forefinger.
Curiously, El Tonayense has a small sit-down restaurant a few blocks away, on 24th Street at Shotwell, where all the prep work is done, but I hardly ever see anyone in there -- though (ostensibly) the food should be better/fresher at the source. In fact, I tried the fixed location for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and -- call me crazy (Lord knows you wouldn't be the first) -- I thought the trailer tacos tasted better. At the truck stop the al pastor marinade was slightly less spicy but more full flavored, and the salsa verde was chunkier and tangier. Even the tortillas seemed softer and steamier -- not chewy, as if they'd been reheated in a microwave.
I can only assume that, as with most things in life, my appreciation of food is directly influenced by my surroundings. They may just be tacos on the blacktop to you, but to me they're the closest thing to an out-of-country experience I can get without buying a plane ticket.
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