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Down-home cuisine at Tacos Sinaloa

Published August 16, 2010 on Oakland North

Looking up into the small ordering window of Tacos Sinaloa’s bright orange and chrome taco truck, Ernesto Vilchis asks for a serving of marinated tongue (lengua), crispy tripe (tripas) and cow’s cheek (cabeza) tacos. As he waits for his food to be grilled to order and topped with condiments such as pickled jalapenos, radishes, lime, cilantro and hot sauce, he says that it’s food like this that reminds him of his home in Mexico.

“If an American travels to another country, they might want cupcakes or waffles,” he says. “It’s the same for us.” Menu items that aren’t often found in ordinary U.S. restaurants, with ingredients like beef brains and tongue, are what Vilchis craves when he feels homesick. “It gives me memories of my place and my family,” he says. As his tacos are handed to him through the small window, he holds up his plate to admire–three little corn tortillas covered with steaming meat and topped with green and red salsas–and says, “This is really delicious.”

Tacos Sinaloa is one of the most popular taco trucks in East Oakland; and not only does it serve up traditional Mexican tacos like tripe and cow’s cheek, it also has items for the less faint-of-heart, such as barbecue pork (al pastor), grilled chicken (pollo) and steak (carne asada). Four years ago, Tacos Sinaloa doubled its menu by opening up an exclusive seafood taco truck parked right next door to the original truck, with menu items like octopus ceviche (pulpo), shrimp tostadas (camarones) and oysters (ostras), which distinguishes it from the dozens of other taco trucks in East Oakland. It serves up bowls of seafood in a spicy red salsa and crispy tortillas topped with little pink shrimp and big hunks of green avocado.

When Lupe Bueno first fired up Tacos Sinaloa in East Oakland in 1999, he had no idea how popular it would become. A thin, humble man with gray hair and a moustache, Bueno says that when he first started the business made only $50 a day. “I worked day and night,” he says, “17 or 18 hours every day during that first year.”

But, then, little by little, Sinaloa’s reputation grew. Now, his business has 12 employees, the two trucks, a big outdoor and indoor seating area where people can eat after ordering food from the trucks and a prep kitchen where prep-cooks ready some of the ingredients used in the trucks.

Unlike other food trucks in the Bay Area that rove from spot to spot being followed by Twitter and Facebook fans, Bueno has always parked in the same location—the intersection of 22nd Ave and International Blvd—renting the parcel of land where he parks, which is a former A&W drive-in. He also keeps his menu consistent with the same ingredients and recipes. “We have exclusive flavors for the food,” he says. “We have used the same recipes for years.”

Bueno moved to the U.S. in the early 1970s to work as a migrant laborer picking grapes, peaches and cherries. He is originally from Sinaloa, Mexico—a coastal state known for its seafood. Bueno first learned to cook when he moved to Oakland in the 1980s and worked at another taco truck. From there he invented his own recipes and built up a clientele that followed him when he opened Tacos Sinaloa. When he started up the seafood truck four years ago, he says that he had been thinking about it for a while.

As people line up at Bueno’s seafood truck, they rave about the quality and price of the food—tacos go for $1.25 a pop. Because there is a steady stream of people stopping by throughout the day, the ingredients stay fresh with the prep-cooks always bringing in giant tubs of freshly cut onions, cilantro and Sinaloa’s coveted spicy red salsa.

One customer, former cab driver Gavin Ames, finishes up his lunch and says that he’s had his fair share of tacos over the years. “This is by far the best taco truck in Oakland,” he says enthusiastically. “The shrimp tostada is to die for.” He calls Tacos Sinaloa a “destination taco truck” because he drives out to East Oakland for the sole purpose of eating one of Bueno’s fish burritos or shrimp tacos.

In addition to tacos, burritos, quesadillas and specialty items like the ceviche, Tacos Sinaloa also offers typical Mexican drinks like horchata—an icy drink made with rice, milk and sugar—and champurrado, a warm thick concoction made with corn flour, chocolate, cinnamon and milk.

Bueno has no plans to open a restaurant; he says he likes having the self-order trucks and spacious eating areas. But, he is looking to start another truck. “We are looking for another place, another city maybe,” he says. “I’d like to open one in Berkeley.” He plans to keep the business in the family and eventually pass it onto one of his three children.

Tacos Sinaloa takes pre-orders and host private parties. It is located on 2138 International Boulevard at 22nd Avenue and is open every day of the week.

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