On State Street and 800 South in Salt Lake City the empty commercial block that was home to Sears for years stands depressingly empty. But the foot traffic and cars parked along the southeast corner of the Sears block make it clear that something is still going on.
Tacos Don Rafa isn’t even a truck; it’s a street stall, bedecked with local sticker designs and a logo that proclaims that they’ve been around since 1998. “¿Aquí en el mismo lugar despues todos esos años?” I ask the women working, in what is probably not grammatically accurate Spanish. Yep, they tell me. Here in the very same spot. They were the first ones here, they say, before all the others.
I can say “all the others” because we’re literally within walking distance of three other taco options without ever needing to step indoors. Toro Tacos is just around the corner on 800 South; Tacos el Paisa is just down the street in front of Ocean Seafood Market, and El Rey del Taco, King of the taco apparently, is on the 900 South edge of that same corner.
In 1998 did the average Salt Lake City resident know that tacos could come on flat, floppy warm tortillas no bigger than a baseball? Did they know that they didn’t have to be crunchy and that there was no Ortega sauce or shredded cheese to top them with? If a white-collar white dude walked past and was brave enough to order a carne asada taco topped with onion, cilantro, radishes, and a spicy roasted red sauce, I hope he appreciated how good it was, and I hope he told his friends about it.
Someone told their friends, and those friends told their friends, because now it’s 2021 and white folks, black folks, and Latinos are all in line here tonight, or sitting on a nearby concrete berm digging into a plate of tacos al pastor. I’ll try the pastor, I tell the taquera. Two of those, two carne asada, and two with chicken fajitas.
And they’re all amazing. The pastor might not be cooked on a vertical rotating spit like the shawarma that inspired the dish; it looks like this tiny kitchen just marinates and grills the pork in the characteristically red annatto-infused sauce that usually defines the flavor. The carne asada, similarly cooked beefsteak bits, is tasty as well. And the chicken is tangy, tasty, and not as dry as you would expect of a white meat chicken. They let me choose diced tomato salsa, cilantro and onion, lime wedges, fresh radishes and my choice of thin Mexican guacamole, tomatillo salsa, or the zesty red roasted salsa option. It’s impossible to choose so I have them give me one taco with each salsa.
At Toro Tacos around the corner the offerings are similar. I try their asada, just to compare the taste, and then opt for the carnitas and the barbacoa to try something a little different.
Carnitas need a little more love and attention than they typically get among the gringos. A slow-roasted pork, it starts to pull apart like our beloved summertime pulled pork sandwiches. It lends itself well to a taco, with the slow-roasted toastiness blending nicely with the tangy toppings. The sour tomatillo salsa here is my favorite. Their barbacoa is a similar pork dish, simmered in a slightly sweeter sauce, but you still won’t get the overwhelming sugar flavor of what North Americans would call barbecue sauce. It’s fair here, but if I were to pick a favorite from the friendly folks, it would be their carnitas.
Now to visit the royalty. No room left in my stomach today, I’ll have to visit El Rey del Taco another time. I could go back downtown to Taco Central, but they’ve got a second location in the Fairpark neighborhood on the west side of town, right on the corner where 900 West meets North Temple.
It’s time for white people to put on their adventure pants because El Rey del Taco offers a good variety of the less common cuts of meat. I order tacos de cabeza (literally a beef head … it’s slow roasted and is a finely-chopped mixture of facial muscles), lengua, which is tongue, chicharron, which is not crispy like the fried pork skins you snack on, and some puerco con nopales, which is roasted pork with the paddles of the prickly pear cactus plant.
None of this food is, by definition, bizarre, and if we choose to be omnivores it’s a little bit more responsible if we don’t let the less glamorous cuts of meat like this go to waste. So see if you can steel yourself up for a cut of meat that your ancestors would have been happy to be able to get so affordably.
Tacos de cabeza are downright lovely. The meat is soft and falls apart like a really nice pot roast or brisket. There is no strong taste of organ meats; it’s roasted and soft and nicely seasoned. The tongue is a little bit more of a departure from North American fare; the taste is rich, meaty, and lovely, but the texture is, well, chewy. Top them with a nice variety of the veggies and salsas they offer and roll them up in the two dainty warm corn tortillas each taco is served on. The chicharron will be the softest and chewist texture, but its taste again is mild and satisfying. My absolute favorite from this truck, though, is the pork with nopales. Have you eaten any cactus lately? It’s a vegetable that defies the desert! It grew out of the middle of Lake Texcoco, welcomed a perching eagle, let the Aztecs know that this was the place to build their capital, and after all that hard work it’s edible and tasty too! Chopped up with the pork they have the texture of a green bean, and they make a really tasty grilled filling to round out your visit with the Taco King.
Finally I’ll have to recommend another Rose Park-area taco truck: El Jaripeo, of which one location sits in the Smith’s parking lot on 600 North at 1200 West. They have a second location just west of Bangerter highway on 4700 South, but I haven’t tried that one personally. El Jaripeo Rose Park just may be my favorite taco truck in the city.
I can heartily recommend the tacos de carne asada, suadero (brisket), and barbacoa here. The suadero is a slow-cooked brisket and has all of the tenderness and flavor of a really tasty slow-cooked homemade roast. The barbacoa is savory and full of flavor. If you love the roasted pork at Cafe Rio but can imagine it being tasty and flavorful without all of the sweetness, that’s what you get here. And the carne asada holds its own here under all of the fresh veggies and salsa they pile on top. One bit of advice: the red roasted salsa here has a BITE, so spice middleweights beware. But in case you get a little over-eager with it, order a fresh pineapple drink to cut the heat.
The world of tacos inside walls of Salt Lake City is a realm we haven’t even gotten to yet, but there is plenty of good taste to be found out on the streets. As the weather keeps warming up, and as you’re tempted to spend your daylight savings evening out of doors, make a few of your dinner nights the quick, happy, affordable outings that your friendly neighborhood taco truck can offer and your life will be all the better for it.