Lovers of Mexican food have long asserted that when it comes to tacos, Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood has the Mission beat, hands down. So to offer a guide for your tortilla-based explorations, we turned to Oakland dweller and taco connoisseur John Birdsall (pictured above in the silvery glow of a taco-truck exterior), who just won a James Beard Award for his recent essay in Jarry Mag. A former critic for the East Bay Express, Birdsall has now divulged his secrets for scoring the tastiest tripe, most tender tongue, and spiciest salsa, as well as Anthony Bourdain-approved tamales. The rest is up to you.Read More
The 7 Top Tacos in Fruitvale
Taco expert John Birdsall picks the trucks and taquerias worth hitting up.
El Tio Juan
“Spend the $2.50—a taco premium on the streets of Fruitvale—on the tripas (small intestines, i.e. chitterlings). They’re saggy, greasy, and dirty-tasting at some other loncheras, but here they’re perfect, delicately chambered and almost crisp, covered in a slushy guajillo-chile salsa that lets through just enough offal breath to make you think, ‘Holy shit.’”
Mi Grullense #1 and #2
“Debate raged for years on user sites whether one or the other of the Grullense trucks, which are parked 100 feet apart, was better. Far as I know, these namesakes of rural Jalisco are identical, though for no good reason I drift to the truck that parks closer to 29th Ave. This pretty much the only truck in the neighborhood I order chicken from—the soft shreds are faintly tomato-stained and deeply chickeny. I cut my neighborhood teeth on Grullense’s lengua, which is tender and amiably gray under lush green salsa.”
Mi Grullense #3
“Seafood—mariscos—has taken over Fruitvale in a way that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago, when carnitas and pastor were the dominant proteins. This bright yellow Grullense spinoff sells tostadas heaped with shrimp and fish ceviche—firm, lush, flecked with diced cucumber—that hit like cool, slushy relief from the heat of Sunday sidewalks.”
“This is the plaza grande of Fruitvale, its de facto main square, near St. Elizabeth Church and the post office. Pipirin is a trailer backed up to a corner of a parking lot, with patio-chair seating lowering under a tarp—it’s one of my favorite places in the neighborhood (last time I dropped in there was a hot debate going off in Spanish about whether the strawberries in Morelia are better than the ones in Guanajuato). Beef barbacoa (mashy and clove-scented, in Michoacano style) and pierna (delicately shredded pork leg) are the specialties. Get one of each kind of taco, smile at the señora who runs the place, and talk to your neighbors—in other words, try to be more Mexican than American.”
“Lovably scuffed, in a liquor store parking lot with a standing table rigged from Formica slabs, butted up against the store’s sign pole. Stop here for cabeza (shredded beef cheeks, mostly) so frizzled and rough-tasting you feel like it shows you something deep about the nature of non-prime cow parts. Ask for the squeeze bottle of red chile de arbol salsa, squirt liberally, and retreat to a slab to observe the street hustle.”
Tamales Mi Lupita
“The place I brought Anthony Bourdain to for No Reservations, a Salvadoran tamale truck with decent pupusas. The tamales are flabbier than I remember, but the tacos de canasta—a special scrawled on a paper plate and taped to the window—are fantastic, soft and fleshy the way the tortillas are supposed to be for canastas, soaked in an orange salsa that kicks your ass the more bites you take, filled with a mashy chorizo and potato filling as satisfying as mom-style Bolognese.”
“The pair of Sinaloa trucks face each other across a long sloping parking lot and a sheltered arcade of tables where boys with baroque tattoos smoke blunts and girls dangling hoop earrings pick at fillings and dandle babies. I always go to the truck at the top of the slope, farthest from International, and order small, perfect fish tacos, which are like a confetti dump of perfectly diced seared tilapia and pico de gallo that seems almost exuberantly rash.”Editor's note: There is now a brick-and-mortar version of Sinaloa in downtown Berkeley, on Telegraph Ave. There are few seats, but it's a shiny new version of the same favorites found in Fruitvale.