When I heard Doña Tomás was opening a taqueria on yupscale Fourth Street in Berkeley, I confess that I had mixed emotions. For more than four years, the Temescal restaurant has been thrilling Oakland with its mix of creative and traditional Mexican food, and I’d pay money — my own, even — to taste what they were coming up with next.
For more than four years, though, I’ve bullied everyone I know to try the taco trucks on International Boulevard. “You’ll find some of the best Mexican food you’ll taste in East Oakland,” I’ve snarled at the Caucasians with issues and the I-might-get-sick wusses. If I liked the new Tacubaya, I’d be giving people an excuse to stay away from the hardscrabble avenues.
So, with apologies to everyone, I staged a taco smackdown. Mano a mano, taco a taco, with me as the ref, the judges, and the screaming mob. I visited each place twice, eating consecutively at both places on my second visit. To make sure I was running an even fight, I picked one of the newer trucks I had never been to before: Tacos El Sol, on the corner of International Boulevard and 44th Avenue, which advertises tacos in the style of Autlan, a city in the central-western state of Jalisco.
Here’s how the bout played out:
Wedged into the back corner of the Fourth Street food mini-mall that contains Peet’s and the Pasta Shop, Tacubaya has hollowed out an attractive, functional space with high ceilings, vermilion and fuchsia walls, and an open kitchen. Order at the counter, receive a lotería card with your number on it, and sit at one of the wood tables. Five minutes’ wait, and the food is yours. And yes, the floor is clean.
Drive into one of the parking spaces in front of the Mexican market next to Taqueria Zamorano (itself a taco truck that graduated up) on 44th, and take your place in line at the tiny trailer advertising tacos “al vapor.” A long strip of windows lets you watch the duo of cooks frying tacos, and after ten minutes your number is called and you can take the bag to your car. We turned the roof of mine into a picnic table.
Advantage: Tacubaya, with a body slam.
Tacubaya sticks largely to gringo-safe meats for its taco fillings. Tongue is the only borderline choice. There’s chicken, beef, al pastor (roasted pork), fish, and veggie, which is certainly tough to find at many traditional Mexican restaurants. But Dona Savitsky and Tom Schnetz, the owners, also do something that few Mexican restaurants in the States care about — they use sustainably raised meats and organic vegetables whenever possible. The restaurant also puts its tortilla press and taco comal (griddle) in plain view, so you can see the cooks pressing out fresh masa rounds as you place your order. By contrast, Tacos El Sol pulls its tortillas out of a bag.
The thing about a taco is that you have a three-inch circle — three bites, maybe four — to make your point. There’s no room for subtlety. None of Tacubaya’s artfully composed, delicate tacos made a lasting impression. The crispy taco stuffed with shredded chicken and chopped lettuce went down with a crunch and a gulp, leaving no lingering aroma or burn. The Baja-like fish taco, fried snapper with a drizzle of aioli and chopped lettuce, did the same. And I certainly liked the fresh griddled tortillas under the tongue taco — topped just with salsa, white onions, and cilantro, it was the most traditional of the lot. But the tongue wasn’t particularly velvety, and the salsa verde on top was tart and fruity, standing out from the meat like an ascot at a monster truck rally.
Tacos El Sol, however, advertised meats from all parts of the beasts, from shredded chicken and chorizo to cabeza (beef cheeks), buche (pork stomach), and chicharron (pork rinds). The tacos, all quickly heated on the griddle and topped with a spoonful of meat, some onions and cilantro, and a small squirt of salsa — this one a blackened, fiery salsa roja — dripped greasy, delicious juices everywhere. The al pastor had been chopped fine, and glowed with the fire of a dozen chiles. Crispy-fried tripe (and intestines for good measure) had a nutty, earthy crunch. The braised, thinly sliced stomach — which I now suspect is actually pork belly, as in uncured bacon — surprised me with a mild succulence that stood up to the onslaught of the salsa. Even the chicken packed a punch.
Advantage: Tacos El Sol, connecting with an elbow to the face. Tacubaya goes down, rears up snarling.
Tortas and Other Stuff
Both El Sol and Tacubaya sell tortas, the Mexican sandwich made of fluffy rolls smeared with refried beans, sour cream, lettuce, and meat. But with all that white bread, the success of the torta depends on the impact of the filling.
Tacubaya’s pork al pastor, which turns on the spit like a Gyrokone, picked up a little smokiness but not enough oomph in the marinade to carry the big, soft bread it was encased in. There wasn’t much else — salsa or lettuce or whatever — besides a few avocados to help it out. I could say the same of El Sol’s carnitas torta, which was overloaded with shredded cheese, sour cream, and iceberg — all filler. But the chorizo sandwich, which soaked up the oil and spices from the spicy red sausage, was on fire. Figuratively.
That’s where Tacos El Sol stops swinging. I tried a couple of soggy, bland quesadillas and a couple sips of tejuino, a cornmeal-lime drink that only a Jalisqueno could love, and returned to my tacos. No interest in the burritos.
On the other hand, the showier Tacubaya’s food gets, the better it is. When you order outside of the taqueria basics, all the doubts dissipate.
The cornmeal masa in the thin tamal de calabaza has been mixed with pumpkin, spread thinly with chocolaty pureed black beans, and steamed in a banana leaf. A swirl of mole rojo, nutty and fierce, plays off its sweet nature perfectly. The small masa boat called a sope, which holds a heap of chorizo, crackles and disintegrates in the mouth, nothing like the doughy, hard cakes I’ve had elsewhere. Silky slivers of squid in the cocktel de calamar float in a bowl of tangy, fragrant tomato and lime juice, with just a bit of cilantro, avocado leaf, and onion to animate it with their sharp and herbal notes. Even the frijoles con todo, pinto beans punctuated with sharp onions and creamy avocado in a positively meaty meatless broth, throbs with integrity. And for dessert, a fluffy tamale dulce of sweet corn and raisins tastes as if it was made with a cup of heavy cream. All sophisticated, simply.
Advantage: Tacubaya. Tacos El Sol fights hard, but it’s no match for its opponent’s fancy moves.
Four men — two with dainty appetites and two shameless pigs — chowed down at the taco truck for $19.25. For one third less food, but with tables and table service, we spent $34 at Tacubaya. Each and every taco at El Sol will set you back $1.25. A first glance at Tacubaya’s menu board looks good — tacos cost $3, and the most expensive thing stops at $8. But by the time you pay up and sit down, you realize that you’ve spent $3 on a tiny spoonful of meat and masa and about $15 per person for a meal that usually sets you back $5. That can be hard to swallow.
Advantage: Tacos El Sol, with a painful headlock on Tacubaya.
You know, I don’t know enough about pro wrestling to be holding a smackdown. Can you call a draw? Because no one ends up flat on the mat. The secret to enjoying either place is to stick to the things that it does best — tacos and more tacos at Tacos El Sol, more ephemeral fare such as chiles rellenos, seafood cocktel, and tamales dulces at Tacubaya. You’ll definitely find some superb, simple food at the latter. But don’t let that stop you from driving to the other side of the tracks on occasion.