Salvador, grill-master of El Charro on Fruitvale Blvd. in East Oakland alongside a combo plate of pollo al carbon. (Masha Pershay / KQED)
All across Mexico, regional dishes are as varied as the terrain, language and cultural traditions. In Oakland's Fruitvale district, the many taqueros and food vendors along the streets coalesce to map complex patterns of migration and weave a vibrant tapestry of food traditions from across the Americas.
And the dishes from these traditions are delicious, too. We recently visited five food trucks in the neighborhood to understand the regional distinctions of their offerings and hear from the people who make them. Come along with us to experience the many flavors of Fruitvale—and bring your appetite.
Aguachiles el Tamarindo
Location: 3053 International Blvd., Oakland, CA Regions: Sinaloa, Baja California and Jalisco Best time to go: Afternoons, weekends Must try: Torre de mariscos, Baja-style tacos de pescado and camaron, ceviche verde, mango and chamoy ceviche
An offshoot of Enrique Galindo and family's long-established taqueria enterprise Mi Grullense, Aguachiles el Tamarindo offers delicious taco and torta staples. But what sets them apart is their vast menu of seafood—ceviches, tostadas, cocteles and their show-stopper: the torre de mariscos.
Literally translated as a “tower of seafood,” the torre has five-plus layers of tender scallops, jaiba (imitation crab), shrimp, octopus, chiltepin, avocado, onion, tomato and cucumber, all drenched in a family recipe of Sinaloa-style salsa negra—a punchy combination of Maggi sauce and secret ingredients.
As a popular truck destination, Aguachiles el Tamarindo has creatively adapted to waves of new clientele. They've produced unique items on their menu to satisfy the cravings of locals from a variety of international traditions, including a Vietnamese and Cajun-style shrimp boil and poppin' diaspora dishes like Flamin' Hot Cheeto nachos. To their Flamin' Hot competitor Taco Bell, manager Adriana Nieto says, "Que se vaya!"
Pro tip: Keep coming back. The menu is so large that it will take a long time to try all of their offerings.
Location: 3315 Farnam St., Oakland, CA
Region: Guadalajara, Jalisco Best time to go: Afternoons, early evenings Must try:Torta ahogada, consome, barbacoa de res, guava and cream empanadas
Jorge Ayllon established El Pipirin 29 years ago to bring the tastes and costumbres of Guadalajara, Jalisco to the Bay. With pride, his family set out to offer items that couldn't be found in other restaurants in the region. That's partly what makes their barbacoa so unique. Beyond swapping borrega (sheep) for res (beef) and lengua (tongue), Ayllon and family use a special oven to duplicate the dish's traditional preparation, which involves cooking the meat in an underground oven for 20 hours.
But one dish takes center stage at El Pipirin, and that's the Torta Ahogada. They've mastered the recipe over the years to produce a torta that's identical to the one you might order in Guadalajara. Its core elements include a soft-yet-sturdy bolillo layered with beans, barbacoa and drenched with an extra spicy chile de arbol or a mild tomato salsa. The fiery sandwich wouldn't be complete without a garnish of finely-sliced white onions.
The item that stands out as a personal favorite of ours is their consome. Each cup bursts diced onions, finely stewed bits of barbacoa, and a zing of lime. Beyond its singular flavor and mouth-watering aromatics, the beefy broth is loaded with a surprise ingredient: garbanzo beans. The convergence of acid, fat, heat and salt blend into an unforgettable stew perfect for dipping or enjoyed on its own.
Pro tip: Enjoy a mini empanada made fresh daily with original ingredients including sweet cream, guava and strawberry.
La Grana Fish
Location: 865 50th Ave., Oakland, CA
Regions: Jalisco, Baja California, Michoacán and Sinaloa Best time to go: Saturdays and Sundays, while ingredients last Must try:Quesabirrias (Tijuana), papas rellenas (Mazatlán), aguachile ceviche (Jalisco), fresh ahi tuna tostada, michelada mix
If you’ve checked your Instagram feed lately, chances are you’ve caught a glimpse of quesabirria accompanied by a steaming cup of consome. Quesabirria offerings are popping up in locations across the Bay Area and are quickly gaining a cult-like fan base. What sets the Tijuana quesabirria apart from its taco counterparts is the decadent combination of melty queso quesadilla, crispy cheese edges and a heaping scoop of tangy, tender stewed birria de res—all wrapped in a chile-dipped corn tortilla. Dunk your quesabirria into a steaming cup of consome, and you’re on your way to an explosion of flavor that satisfies with every bite.
La Grana Fish’s second show-stopper is their papas rellenas, or twice-baked potatoes, with roots in Mazatlán, Sinaloa. Each giant potato teems with cheese, bacon, pickled jalapeños, a meat of your choice and a dash of green onions.
But don't snooze on their seafood fare—particularly the ceviche aguachile. The recipe comes from owner Alvaro Ramos' hometown, Autlán de la Grana, Jalisco. The contrasting bite of serrano chile and pickled red onion against the tender shrimp dethrones offerings from local ceviche competitors. If you're looking for something wholly unique to La Grana fish, try their fresh ahi tuna tostada.
Owners Alvaro Ramos (Jalisco) and Ana Morales (Michoacán) have big dreams for La Grana Fish. What started out as a small cart launched into a popular weekend truck. Their hope is to one day open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, and if the long lines of eager customers prove anything, they're well on their way.
Pro tip: Get your stuffed baked potato mar y tierra style with carne asada and shrimp.
Location: 1502 Fruitvale Ave., Oakland, CA
Regions: Familiar across Mexico, but a specialty in the north Best time to go: Saturdays and Sundays, late morning/early lunch Must try: Pollo asado (al carbon), ribs, papaya agua fresca (pending availability)
Cooking whole chickens over charcoal is a technique shared and adapted throughout all of the Americas. In Peru, pollo a la brasa served with yucca fries is popular, while pollo al carbon (literally chicken to the coal) is popular across Mexico from Chihuahua to the Yucatán.
Fire-braised roasted chicken is often served with fresh corn tortillas, pico de gallo and a fresh salsa of your choice (most commonly a red salsa made with broiled chile and tomatoes or a green salsa of tomatillo, jalapeño, serrano and onion).
Attached to a bustling market specializing in Latin American goods, El Charro’s custom charcoal grill churns out whole chickens and dry-rub ribs street-side from their food truck or for purchase inside the store. You can count on freshly charred chicken (and dry-rub ribs!) Mondays–Sundays starting at 8am.
Pro tip: Quench your thirst with any of their aguas frescas. Papaya, pineapple, watermelon, tamarindo, jamaica are popular, depending on seasonal availability.
Tamales Acapulco Doña Tere
Location: 4559 International Blvd., Oakland, CA
Regions: Guerrero and South Central Mexico Best time to go: Weekdays and Saturdays, late morning/early afternoon Must try: Tamales de mole rojo, chicharron tacos de canasta (also known as al vapor)
Teresa Mondragon of Tamales Acapulco is a food entrepreneur fondly known as Doña Tere. As reported in Berkeleyside, she's among a cohort who helped change local laws for food vending in Fruitvale nearly 20 years ago.
That's what brought her food truck to Fruitvale, where she offers some of the most-coveted tamales in the neighborhood as well as tacos de canasta, tortas and pupusas (a Salvadorean staple).
While mole recipes from Oaxaca and Puebla have gained the greatest popularity in the United States, it's important to remember that the indigenous roots of mole span far and wide across Central and Southern Mexico. And the state of Guerrero has its own mole traditions, including the adoption of the green and nutty pipian, as well as mole rosa and mole rojo.
Doña Tere has mastered the latter. What’s special about her approach is how she folds the mole sauce into the masa of the tamal, infusing her maiz with the richness and complexity of pork-stewed red mole. Add a few tacos de canasta to your order and let the fatty, stewed chicharron and salsa verde melt on your tongue.
While this food is served and consumed quickly, it's not fast food. Rather, it's a carefully-crafted antojito (little craving) bundled in regional pride.
Pro tip: On cold days, ask for champurrado, and let the creamy combo of atole, piloncillo, canela, chocolate and milk warm you from the inside out.
Follow our eating adventures with some of our favorite dishes from these five trucks:
Hungry? Use our Google Map to find each of these spots in East Oakland.