Food & Drink Devil in a red taco truck

The women of La Diabla are deft dealers in late-night traffic

Suzette Suarez serves a plate of tacos to Cande Montante from the La Diabla taco truck across the street from club Ritmo Latino on a Saturday night. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Their evening starts late. Around 10:30 p.m., the first customer of the night, a fiery, crimson-red, tricked-out sports car, pulls up to the taco truck, orders a to-go plate, and speeds off. The matte-red truck, emblazoned with a white ice cream cone, the words "Tacos La Diabla," and a tiny devil girl, is parked at the intersection of Nassau and West Avenue, across the street from Ritmo Latino, a spacious club popular with fans of norteño and cumbia music.

Inside La Diabla, Camino Rodriguez and Suzette Gonzalez compete for space in the cramped kitchen area, chopping onions, cutting carne, and cracking jokes. "Sometimes they're lining up by the time we get here," Rodriguez says. "It just depends." Things really pick up once the bars and clubs start letting out around 2 a.m. When a big-name group such as Los Invasores del Norte plays at Ritmo, Rodriguez can expect a long, busy evening, but Sundays typically are slow.

Once Rodriguez and Gonzalez finish food prep, they step outside their converted UPS truck and take a break to chat with a vegetarian reporter. In the distance, a group of guys mull over their options, choosing between two other mobile taquerias adjacent to the club's parking lot and La Diabla. Rodriguez calls out "Tacooooos!" as she dances to a popular cumbia from Chicos de Barrio playing on her stereo. "How else is she going to sell tacos?" Gonzalez asks.

It's true: Their cautious yet friendly attitude belies a savvy awareness, underscored by economic necessity, of how men act and react late at night. Rodriguez knows her strategy works: Like a siren's song beckoning hungry sailors to bay, her anuncio convinces the group to come over and eat. She says, half serious, half in jest, that she's seen accidents caused by passing motorists with wandering eyes.

As an indication of a predominantly Mexican immigrant community's vitality and growth, and the acceptance, at least commercially, of its food, taco trucks, raspa stands, and paleta vendors are an important bridge between the city's diverse economies. And taco trucks, like Meals On Wheels, or even pizza delivery, provide direct, convenient service to a segment of the population, including day laborers and club patrons, not always reached by conventional dining establishments. While their clientele may fly under the radar - after all, we remember the owners and architects, not the bricklayers and builders, of the city's hotels and homes - the taco trucks must pass health inspections and be licensed in order to operate legally in the city. Phillip Mayhill, acting sanitarian services manager for the City of San Antonio, estimates that there are several hundred trucks like Tacos La Diabla, open at all hours of the day and night.

Here, under the glow of a fluorescent light and the ever-changing traffic signals, scores of men and a few women line up for tacos: tacos de bistec, tacos al pastor, tacos la diabla, beef and pork, alone or in combination, done up like in Mexico. Tacos, tacos, tacos - and more tacos. Except for one chavo who just has a soda, everyone wolfs down two, three tacos apiece. "They sell onions with some meat, I sell meat with some onions," Rodriguez jokes about the competition. She says that over the course of a typical evening they will use as much as 20 pounds of meat, easy. They start with thinly sliced carne, chopped and marinated in pineapple-orange juice, salt, pepper, and chile, then grilled with onions and served with slivers of aguacate and serranos atop the mighty tortilla. For more of a picoso kick, patrons can pour on the habañero-based salsa, just how they like it.

"Son pintores?" Rodriguez asks a group of men. They nod in agreement, hungry after a long day of painting. She and Gonzalez have day jobs in addition to the taco truck. "I work with air conditioning," Rodriguez reveals.

Later, Rodriguez calls a young man over to La Diabla. He shies away, but she's persistent, calling until he finally, reluctantly lumbers over. She recognizes his bright orange hat as being from Real Madrid, the Spanish soccer team, rather than the Texas Longhorns. She inquires - no, demands - to know where he picked it up. They're her favorite team, she says, the best. Maybe he bought the cap overseas, or had someone send it over? As it turns out, he found it at Wal-Mart.

The guys pile into their ride, waving as they leave. Does she think that she intimidates men? "Yes," she says, smiling, "but they'll be back."

By Alejandro Pérez

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