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Carnitas and pollo tacos at Tacos Guadalajara. Photo: Kate Williams

Let’s get this clear off the bat: I am far from a taco connoisseur. Growing up in the Southeast, I was exposed to friendly Americanized Mexican joints on a regular basis, but these are more suitable for binging on super saucy cheese enchiladas than sampling an array of pork products wedged in a tortilla. So I’ve considered my year-plus in the East Bay as a gradual taco education, but I must also admit that my education has been stymied by my seclusion in North Berkeley.

Driving south to the Fruitvale area of Oakland (and its immediate surroundings) seemed like the best way to dive right in, but the area feels intimidating, especially to a newcomer. There are trucks on almost every block, each with their own personalities and specialties. Which are good, which are mediocre, and which are hidden gems? And perhaps the bigger question: are any of these taco trucks still relevant in this robust food truck age?

Over the course of three weeks, I visited the bustling Fruitvale district in search of the best tacos I could find.

I’ll eat just about anything wrapped in a tortilla, so I tried to taste a wide variety of fillings across the course of my visit. I tried to identify the best options before ordering, but there’s always a chance that I missed that one great taco. Let me know in the comments, because I’ll surely head back. In short, consider the following a small sample of the possibilities, written from the perspective of a total taco beginner.

The organic newcomer: Taco Grill

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Carnitas, chorizo, adovada at Taco Grill. Photo: Kate Williams

Taco Grill is admittedly not a taco truck. A clean counter-service taqueria sandwiched in between clothing stores and churros venders in the somewhat new Fruitvale Village development, Taco Grill provides a bridge between the more gringo-ized restaurants in North Oakland and Berkeley and the bare-bones trucks that surround it. The staff is friendly, they serve organic meat, and it’s easy to find just about anything—familiar or exotic—on the lengthy menu.

Loaded down with pinto beans, cabbage, salsa, and tomatoes, the $2 tacos are generously filled. Yet, despite their organic pedigree, the meats are disappointing. Chile-marinated pork adovada was dull, overcooked, and chewy. The chorizo, mealy and overwhelmed by cinnamon, was a bigger offense. A bit better are the carnitas. They’re slightly dry, but they at least have with a proper balance of salt, acid, and fat. Or, if you’re really hungry, go for the crispy potato tacos. The fried shells each get a sizeable scoop of smashed russets along with the aforementioned toppings—total comfort food.

The old hats: Tacos El Gordo, El Ojo de Agua

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El Ojo de Agua. Photo: Kate Williams

Tacos El Gordo sits at the busy intersection of 42nd and International. There’s a sunny parking lot adjacent to the truck, but there’s no hiding out from the screeching tires and honking horns. If you’re lucky, you’ll escape the stench of exhaust. Order your tacos for here, and carry your teetering plate to the trunk of your car to dine standing up, al fresco.

The time to come to El Gordo is on a Saturday afternoon. On weekends, they’ve got their pastor spit running, and rumor has it, they’re the only truck in the area with a one. This pastor taco—spicy pork marinated in pineapple, sliced thin, and stacked into a towering sculpture of salty meat atop said spit—is the best choice from the truck. Like everything else we tried, it was on the greasy side, but its spicy, smokey notes and copious crisp pork shards distinguished itself from the pack. Suadero (brisket) is the next pick, tender but unremarkable. Skip the soft and lackluster carnitas, the far-too-fatty cabeza and the shockingly mealy, oil-slicked chorizo. At least the spare toppings—onion and cilantro—were fresh.

El Ojo de Agua has been around for at least 6 years, and age has unfortunately not treated it well. The truck has an extensive menu—with smoothies, aguas frescas, and an impressively long list of tortas in addition to the standard line-up. But the suadero taco we tried was more like cold, chewy mystery meat than tender brisket and the salsas on top tasted of a plastic squeeze tube. The aguas were anything but fresca; the guava was a particularly offensive shade of pepto bismol pink.

The Guadalajara family: El Novillo, Tacos Guadalajara

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The Tacos Guadalajara truck. Photo: Kate Williams

Tacos are a family business for the Pelayo clan. In addition to the sprawling Guadalajara Restaurant, the family also operates a couple of taco trucks as auxiliaries. One, El Novillo, shares the lot with the restaurant. Like El Gordo, this truck is placed strategically close to the road and next to dozens of fast moving and loud vehicles. But unlike El Gordo, the quality of the tacos makes it easy to ignore the environment.

Start with the tripas. These frizzled and fried pork intestines exhibit that wondrous crunchy-chewy tug-of-war characteristic of the best calamari laced with rich porkiness. The cabeza tacos are also a fine choice. Soft and buttery, they are coated in enough rendered fat to be supple, but still go down surprisingly easy. The pastor lands a solid third place. It lacks the spicy character of El Gordo, but still exhibits a well-balanced mix of tender and crisp bites. Toppings on all of the tacos, like Gordo, are the simple classics: cilantro and onion.

A bit further south on International is the actual Guadalajara truck. There is a bit of crossover this menu and that at Novillo, but the shaded lot and designated waiting area lends the truck its own personality. Guests here hang out and eat their tacos by the truck—there aren’t any tables, but it’s still a pleasant place to stand and nosh. Our first pick here are the carnitas, the best we had from any truck. They’re served sans sauce, so there’s nothing to distract from the tender, citrusy shreds of pork mixed with sweet, caramelized crisp bits. We also tried the pollo, which was a safe, if a little boring option. The moist poultry was a mix of light and dark meat, shredded into a mild red chile sauce. Fans of Guadalajara ask for the meat on sopes (thick, fried disks of masa topped with additional beans, queso fresco, and lettuce), but we preferred the simplicity of the tacos.

The Sinaloa family: Taqueria Sinaloa, Mariscos Sinaloa

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Chorizo and carnitas at Sinaloa. Photo: Kate Williams

The Sinaloa family of taco trucks, painted bright orange and tagged with graffiti-esque signage, is arguably even more popular than the Guadalajara group. They’re highly visible wherever they’re parked, and almost always surrounded by groups of eager diners, many of whom have traveled in from outside of East Oakland to eat.

Taqueria Sinaloa has a typical menu with an atypically heavy hand with the salsa. There’s nothing wrong with the salsa, per se, but its intense, overpowering heat masks almost any taco filling. Be sure to order it on the side. The fillings themselves are decent but average. Carnitas are cooked like a burger on the flattop, turning the tender shreds into a pancake of crunchy shards. Shamefully, though, all those fried bits taste of little other than pork grease—they’re in desperate need of salt and acid. The chorizo, on the other hand, is excellent. Redolent of smoky chiles and warm spice, the crumbly-tender sausage has a lingering heat that holds up to the bold salsa. Sinaloa’s smoky al pastor is equally memorable for its thick, chile-laced sauce.

Across the parking lot from the Taqueria truck is Mariscos Sinaloa, the original’s seafood-slinging partner. They serve a smaller selection of meats, but specialize in fish, shrimp, and ceviche. Many of the other guests, in fact, ordered the mixed ceviche on a tostada, but the combination of a hot afternoon and an even hotter truck made us somewhat weary of raw seafood. Instead, we stuck with a shrimp and a fish taco (and threw in a pollo for good measure). All three were fairly light and enjoyable, but the shrimp was the real star. Perfectly cooked bite-sized pieces of shrimp were seasoned with mild chile powder and seared with care.

The Foothill outposts: Pipirin Taco Stand, El Centenario, Tamales Mi Lupita

International Boulevard gets most of the attention, and is the first place most folks turn for tacos when headed to Fruitvale. Yet there’s a whole world of taco trucks a few blocks east along Foothill. If anything, these trucks deserve more attention. Up here, you’ll find a greater selection of Salvadorian and other Central American cuisines, along with an even more adventurous selection of taco meats.

First up is Pipirin Taco Stand, in between International and Foothill on tiny block-long Farnum Street. The narrow road is a bit of an adventure to navigate to the parking lot if you’re driving. But step inside the tented dining area, and you’ll be welcomed by a couple of friendly and calm women taking orders on brightly colored post-it notes. Pipirin specializes in consommé, a spicy, brothy pork soup; unfortunately the 90+ degree temperatures made a hot soup sound like sweat-induced misery. Instead, we chose a couple of meats we rarely saw on other truck menus: shredded grilled beef barbacoa and tender braised pierna (pork leg). The somewhat watery salsa that looked disappointing ended up a boon to the rich meats; both quickly sucked up the thin, vinegary liquid, becoming a perfectly balanced and succulent whole. Unfortunately, the oversized dry and crumbly tortillas kept the tacos from reaching perfection. Next time, we’ll order the same meats inside a fluffy torta bun.

Up nearby on Foothill is Tamales Mi Lupita,which specializes in Salvadorian cuisine. Expect pupusas in addition to the namesake tamales (and, of course, tacos, burritos, and tortas). The pupusas are shaped and griddled fresh, so the clean sweetness of the masa shines through no matter the filling—but don’t pass up the stringy, salty queso option. This pupusa is simplicity at its finest. Tamales are available both Mexican and Salvadorian-style. Salvadorian tamales are large affairs that are wrapped in banana leaves instead of Mexican cornhusks. Each is cooked sans filling, broken open, and topped with your meat of choice. While masa-heavy, the fruity sweet notes contributed by the banana leaves makes eating the tamales a unique and mostly enjoyable experience.

But the best of the Foothill trucks is about a quarter mile further south. In a cramped corner of a car wash and mechanic’s parking lot stands El Centenario. Like the El Gordo, it’s a loud, bustling intersection, and not exactly a pleasant place to hang out. But hang out you should, and eat as many generously filled tacos as you can stomach. (You’ll need a fork or nimble fingers to tackle the mountain of meat stacked precariously atop the tiny tortillas.) A good place to start is with the lengua, the most tender I’ve had in Oakland. My only quibble is that the tongue could’ve been seared a bit more for some crisp contrast. Even better is the buche, or pork stomach. The copious amount of fatty pieces verges on being overwhelming, but is brought into balance with crisp cracklings and a tangy, peppery salsa. It goes down shockingly easy.

  • Taco Grill (3340 E 12th St, Oakland). $2 tacos, $6.50 for 3 crispy potato tacos. Recommended: cripsy potato tacos
  • Tacos El Gordo (4201 International Blvd, Oakland). $1.50 tacos. Recommended: al pastor (weekends only)
  • El Ojo de Agua (3132 E 12th St, Oakland). $1.25 tacos, $2 aguas frescas.
  • El Novillo (1001 Fruitvale Blvd, Oakland). $1.50 standard tacos, $1.75 for tripas. Recommended: tripas and cabeza
  • Guadalajara Taco Truck (44th Ave and International Blvd, Oakland). $1.50 tacos. Recommended: carnitas and pollo
  • Taqueria Sinaloa (2138 International Blvd, Oakland). $1.25 tacos. Recommended: chorizo and al pastor
  • Mariscos Sinaloa (2138 International Blvd, Oakland). $1.25 meat tacos, $1.50 pescado tacos, $1.75 camarones tacos. Recommended: camarones
  • Pipirin Taco Stand (34th Ave and Farnam St, Oakland). $2 (large) tacos. Recommended: barbacoa and pierna
  • Tamales Mi Lupita (3340 Foothill Blvd, Oakland). $2 tamales, $2 pupusas, $1.50 tacos. Recommended: pupusas
  • El Centenario (38th Ave and Foothill Blvd, Oakland). $1.25 standard tacos. $2 lengua. Recommended: buche and lengua

Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.

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Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...