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Thursday, September 23, 2010

El Tonayense Trucks: Too Big a Fleet?

Posted By on Thu, Sep 23, 2010 at 5:13 PM

Clockwise from top left: carnitas, buche, cabeza, chicken. - SJSHARKTANK/FLICKR
  • sjsharktank/Flickr
  • Clockwise from top left: carnitas, buche, cabeza, chicken.

El Tonayense, one of the oldest taco trucks in the city, has always been one of the most reliable. The Santana family, whose origins are Jaliscan, opened their first taco truck in 1993. The success of one truck paid for another, then a 24th Street taqueria; now the Santanas have three trucks parked along Harrison. Not long ago, the trucks got a sunset-in-the-desert makeover, complete with gun-toting caballeros and "Would you like this truck at your party?" in 4800-point type above the window.

During the decade we were covering taco trucks in Oakland, El Tonayense was the only San Francisco truck that could rival the quality of International Boulevard loncheros. So it was a downer to eat two mediocre sets of tacos from the trucks this week.

At the truck on Harrison and 19th, the tacos (pictured above) were drowning in Tonayense's house roasted tomato salsa. It's a good sauce, but as welcome as a cup of mayonnaise on a basket of fries. Even when we scraped the salsa off, removing most of the cilantro and onions in the process, the meats weren't as succulent as they used to be: the chicken was insipid, the cabeza merely a pile of shredded beef, the carnitas tender but without those nutty, lardy notes that make carnitas the world's sexiest foodstuff. The best of the tacos: the buche, which was translated as "neck" on the menu but had all the slippery, offal-y characteristics of well-cooked stomach.

The tacos the 14th Street truck handed us today had a better ratio of salsa to meat to tortilla, but there were three flecks of cilantro per round and maybe a quarter-teaspoon of chopped onion. Without the fragrance of the herbs, the crunch and flash of the onions, the tacos tasted slightly anonymous, as if we had tuned the treble in our stereo way down and could only feel our body rumble along with the subwoofer. If we worked nearby, we'd still grab lunch there, but it's not the glory of the Mission it used to be.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Follow me at @JonKauffman.

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Jonathan Kauffman


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