La vida de noche

It’s 10 p.m. on a Saturday, and across the city restaurateurs are closing up shop, taking any sidewalk life with them when they leave. But along a 13-block stretch of Nacogdoches Road, the dining scene is just hitting its stride. From the H-E-B at the corner of O’Connor Road down to Erick’s Tacos at 12715 Nacogdoches, you’ll often find four or more taco trucks serving taquitos on small corn tortillas well past the witching hour. Some of these places are permanent, though they operate out of a once-mobile vehicle. Others roll off before the break of dawn. 

The bill of fare varies somewhat from trailer to trailer. Tacos El Regio, next to a Hawaiian shaved-ice place that closes before the late-night party begins, offers fresh avocado and cheese for an extra dollar, while El Bandolero in the H-E-B lot adds seafood items to the menu on weekends. Erick’s operates a fruteria for those who want an ear of corn or a cup of fresh melon and jicama. Taqueria El Buen Taco, parked across the street from a busy tattoo parlor, lists lengua and tripas among its options and serves whatever topping you choose on handmade corn tortillas.

Yet they all share a common style best characterized to those of us north of the border as Mexican street food. You won’t find it at sit-down Tex-Mex restaurants on the North Side, and not too often on the South Side, either. But it keeps customers coming back for more. 

As Arturo Rangel said while waiting for his tortas from Tacos El Regio, “Their asada is not like Taco Cabana. It’s more Mexican.” 

Rangel works for a small chain of Tex-Mex restaurants but can often be found after hours waiting for to-go food from one of the trucks along the strip. “These two places are pretty good,” he said, referring to Tacos El Regio and Erick’s. “But I like them all.”  

Another aspect of taco-truck dining that separates the scene along Nacogdoches from restaurants elsewhere in town is air conditioning. The only kind you’ll find around most of the trailers is the kind provided by Mother Nature. Erick’s is the exception in that it offers a few ceiling fans above its open dining area. Yet the natural setting didn’t deter business during the lengthy summer heat wave, when temperatures refused to drop below 90 degrees until the wee hours of the morning. Nothing was going to keep customers from a plate of tacos al pastor, a Mexican Coke and, maybe, a cup of strawberries with crema. “Hot or cold, they keep coming,” Erick’s manager, Jose Banites, said. 

Beto Dominquez has been going to Erick’s for about three years. “Sometimes we just sit around, listen to music and play dominoes or cards until 6 in the morning,” Dominquez wrote in an online comment. “You would think we have nothing better to do, but the truth is, we have so much fun and the feeling one gets of being treated like family is so great that time just passes by.” 

In the H-E-B parking lot, Rocky and Martha Soriano don’t have a place for customers to sit down and enjoy their food. If patrons want to eat it hot off the grill, they’re free to do so in their cars or at a small bar alongside the truck. Some just open the back of their flatbed trucks and have an impromptu picnic. The Sorianos set up shop in the supermarket’s parking lot next to the gasoline station every evening but Monday. They like the location because there’s “more safety” next to the 24-hour supermarket, he said.  

The Sorianos, originally from Zacatecas, arrived in San Antonio by way of California. They brought with them a monster California burrito rolled up in a 15-inch tortilla and stuffed with meat, grilled onions, cheese, guacamole, and refried onions. It costs $7.50, probably the most expensive item on any of the menus, and yet the price is justified by the size. Most customers, however, want the mini-tacos with the bistec or the birria made with pork, which are priced at five for $5 — and they want the food to go, said Rocky Soriano, adding that many call in their orders ahead of time.  

Though El Bandolero’s hours are generally 6-11 p.m., the Sorianos will stay open later on weekends as long as business is good. On a recent Friday, they were serving food at 1 a.m. with no sign of closing. Soriano estimates that only 40 percent of his patrons speak English, but he has a more reliable method of determining which of his customers are originally from Mexico: They’re the ones that “don’t ask for cheese” on their tacos. 

At El Buen Taco, operating next to a vacant lot by 13250 Nacogdoches, you’ll hear even less English spoken. There, Ezaul and Angeli Huerta set up shop each evening, also around 6 p.m. A sign painted in purple beckons passersby with the promise of $1 tacos on handmade corn tortillas, which are topped with the likes of barbacoa, chorizo, carne asada, and al pastor. Chopped onion, cilantro, and a zesty salsa made with chile de arbol are available if you want them.

A customer pulled in around 10 p.m., bringing with him traditional conjunto music on the car stereo. While he waited, puffs of steam rose from the trailer’s grill, emitting aromas of meat, onion, and corn. The trailer rocked slightly as the couple, originally from San Luis Potosí, dove into their work, preparing tacos so hot they practically scorch your fingertips at first touch. When the customer drove away, he took the music with him, leaving nothing but a welcome cool breeze and a fairly steady stream of walkups from the neighborhood.  

Though the corn tacos are the biggest seller, largely because of the price, you can get flour tortillas for a little extra, masa gorditas, and tortas made on a traditional bolillo. If you miss the purple sign in the dark, a flashing light on the roof is there to draw you in. The Huertas have only been at this location for a few days, but the quality of the food has already generated good word-of-mouth, and a few repeat customers have stopped to ask for the phone number so they can call in orders.  

If there’s ever a lull in the evening, Ezaul Huerta might read a book or just wait for someone to show up. It usually isn’t too long, thanks to the demand for tortillas that are, as the sign says, “hechas a mano.”  The couple closes early, usually by 11 p.m. Sure enough, a drive by the spot at 1 a.m. confirmed that the Huertas had packed up their purple sign and driven the taco truck home. 

There’s a stoplight in front of Tacos El Regio at 12735 Nacogdoches. If that doesn’t make you pause for a snack, then a sign promising “the best tacos in town” should, right? Both proved an irresistible attraction to Joel and Noemi Martinez of Live Oak. They were spending a rare free night together — “Grandma was willing to babysit for a little while,” she said — and wanted a snack on the way home. They had no idea they would be able to get the mini-tacos they loved so much and remembered from their youth. “You just don’t find these too many other places,” she said. “They just have a different flavor, a different flair.” 

Lulu Rodriguez and Chanelita Lopez sell food from the trailer every day from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m. In that 10-hour period, you can find them using any downtime to make the two fiery salsas that go on the tables in front of the neighboring Snow Flurries stand, which is closed late in the evening. The women rattled off a long list of chiles used in making both, from serranos to chipotles, but the secret scorcher is habaneros, which Lopez was cleaning that night with her bare fingers, something the rest of us are often warned not to try at home because of the way the capsaicin stays on the skin.  In addition to beef, pork, and chicken tacos, the women serve tortas on flat telera bread, spread with refrieds and filled with meat, avocado, crema, and more.

At times in the evening, you’ll find a line in front of Tacos El Regio and cars filling the parking lot. But the customers don’t seem to linger quite as long after eating as they do at Erick’s, just a few doors away at 12715 Nacogdoches. The combination taqueria and frutería has a dining area in what was once a garage but now has no door. There you’ll find casually dressed families, well-heeled bar hoppers finishing off their evening, walkers from the neighborhood, just about anyone of any age. The clock may have read 12:30 a.m., but four children filled one table. Plates heaped high with tacos whizzed out of the trailer on the arms of three cooks who seemed barely able to keep up with the orders. Every once in a while, the woman inside the frutería on the other side of the dining area would emerge with a cup of corn doused with mayonnaise and chile or a packed cup of fresh fruit.  

Erick’s dresses up its tacos a little fancier than its neighbors. A plate features four tacos for $5, and you’ll find them topped with a generous crumbling of cotija cheese and a grilled serrano or jalapeño. Fresh limes and a habanero-based salsa, available on every table, complete the meal, perfect with a  Mexican Fresca, which is made with sugar, not some artificial sweetener. (Erick’s also takes credit cards.)   

Saturdays and Sundays are Erick’s busiest nights, manager Banites says. “Saturday is date night,” he said. Sunday, meanwhile, is filled with people wanting to squeeze a few more minutes of freedom out of the weekend before returning to work.  

Amid the bustle of business, was a scene as surreal as anything Luis Buñuel ever filmed: A hopelessly flat singer had cornered the karaoke machine, singing tune after tune. When a Spanish version of “Achy Breaky Heart” came up, she lit into it with a rap-like rhythm that was almost militaristic. The infectious melody sent the nearby table of kids into motion, and they beat out the time on top of the table with glee. But their joy was short-lived. The machine apparently decided it had had enough of the song, or perhaps the singer, and the track started skipping before it reached its end. She went on to the next tune, the kids returned to talking with each other, and the scene drifted back to normal.  

Erick’s opens at 11 a.m. every day but Tuesday, and lunch does bring its regulars. But it’s the late-night hours that attract the most customers. Justin Simpson is one of Erick’s repeat patrons. Whether he drops in for a while or for a to-go order depends on when he arrives. “If I close the bar down, I stay,” he said. But if it’s still early, he gets his food to go and heads home.  That night, the clock hadn’t struck 1 yet, so it was a to-go order for Simpson. Just as well. The tables at Erick’s were packed, the night was young, and another heaping plate of steaming tacos was within arm’s reach.

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