THE DOWNTOWN TACO is a different experience. One could say it's almost genteel. On the outskirts, a taco truck can seem like a lonely oasis; sitting beneath a hastily constructed shade, you savor your taco while listening to the tinny oompa of norteño music emanating from the truck. Eating a taco downtown feels like you're part of a community: You feel surrounded by humanity as you eat and watch people hustle hither and yon.
For some reason, most of the tacos I ordered downtown this month came with shredded lettuce, queso fresco (white Mexican cheese), and crema (Mexican sour cream). Is it the demand of downtown customers? Is it because downtown joints can better afford to pile on extras? Is it that I've gotten used to simplicity as I've circled the Eastern borders looking for that telltale glint of a taco truck windshield in the sun?
Meat, cilantro, onion, and a slice of lime, it is not. Still, there's more to fill you in a downtown taco, and the price is just right. Here are three notable downtown taco distributors for this month.
SW 5th between Oak & Stark
Mon-Fri 7 am-6:30 pm, Sat 8 am-4:30 pm
It may not be a truck, but the bright signage of this downtown cart is certainly eye catching. At noon on a sweltering workday there were plenty of people happily standing in line or sitting in the generous covered seating area.
The Jarochita carnitas are luscious and a bit fatty. They're super tender, peppery, and stand up to all the extras when tucked into the bursting-full corn tortilla.
The al pastor is nice and spicy, offering both brightness and smoky heat with that hint of ever-lovin' marinated pork sweetness. The meat is a bit crispy, but not dry. It's a grilled crunch that adds to the texture.
The best bang for the buck is the ultra-rich chorizo taco with egg. The chorizo is quite mild, but combined with egg and other additions it's a huge taco and well worth the price.
SW 4th & Hall
Mon-Thurs 11am-4 pm, Fri-Sat 11am-2:30 am
I love a truck with a mural, and Villanueva is very pretty with its lush, colorful exterior. Unfortunately, its location at the edge of a sun-filled parking lot off SW 3rd provides little shade. Still, a large counter attached to the truck is perfect for the lazy lean 'n' eat technique taco eaters have perfected over the centuries.
Of all the decent meats I sampled at Villanueva, the al pastor was easily the best. The marinated pork had an intensity I haven't seen before, providing a wonderful depth and a mole-like cacao hue. A splash of the hot green salsa adds high notes and a necessary burn, which makes this my favorite taco of the month. A close second to the al pastor is the smoky and peppery asada.
Salsas are key to Villanueva's success. Their red has flavors of roasted chipotle and lime, which only improves everything it touches.
Location announced daily on Twitter @KOifusionpdx
$2 tacos, $3 short ribs
A cousin to LA's popular Korean taco trucks, KOi Fusion has been using the power of the micro-blogging social-networking site Twitter to announce locations and specials.
It's really not surprising when you meet the chatty social butterflies who run the cart. Their propensity to extol their own virtues can sometimes lead to spotty service, but facts are facts and KOi Fusion has a secret weapon in the Korean mother behind the scenes.
The meat for these Korean tacos is marinated daily by this taco-cart matriarch in a special blend of garlic, onions, and peppers before being grilled. Short ribs, bulgogi beef, chicken, tofu, or pork—each are wrapped in a homemade corn tortilla and garnished with onion, cilantro, shredded cabbage, and daikon. The result is one of the most dynamic tacos you'll likely ever eat.
These morsels are full of savory heat, a touch of sweetness, and the nice fresh crunch of veggies. For me, it's worth the chaos of ordering amid the ever-present foodies.