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Fresno boasts rich taco culture08/30/2013 10:30 AM ET
By Benjamin Hill / MiLB.com
In the city of Fresno, tacos aren't just a quick and easy lunchtime option. Tacos are a way of life.
For ample proof of this sentiment, one only needs to pay a visit to the Fresno Grizzlies annual "Taco Truck Throwdown" promotion, which began in 2011 as a collaboration between the team and Fresno sportswriter and taco impresario Mike Oz (currently a writer for Yahoo!'s "Big League Stew" blog).
The premise behind the Throwdown is simple: vehicular taco purveyors from throughout the Fresno area set up shop at Chukchansi Park, and the team sells ticket packages that include taco vouchers and a "Throwdown" T-shirt. After ample taste-testing, both fans and a panel of experts vote for their favorite, and that year's taco champions are then crowned (2013's "People's Choice" winner, somewhat controversial in its deviation from the norm, was a gourmet duck taco offered by the Dusty Buns Bistro).
This year's iteration of the Taco Truck Throwdown took place on Aug. 1, with a crowd of 13,394 sampling 21,464 tacos from 13 trucks. One week later, with the taco buzz still lingering, I visited Fresno as part of a West Coast Minor League road trip, and my primary order of business was to get the lowdown on the Throwdown. First I spoke with Grizzlies graphic designer Sam Hansen, who plays a key role in organizing the event. Highlights from our conversation follow.
The Week That Was
And then? Then Hansen, Grizzlies media relations coordinator Chris Kutz and I paid on-site visits to three of this year's "Throwdown" competitors. As you shall soon see, it was a delicious way to spend an afternoon.
MiLB.com: The "Throwdown" is an important promotion for the Grizzlies because tacos are so important to Fresno. Can you tell me a little bit about the city's taco history?
Sam Hansen: There is a lot of evidence to prove that taco trucks were invented in the Fresno area. They were originally "lunchero" trucks, which provided food for the migrant workers who were picking the produce that is produced in this area. [California's Central Valley] is one of the largest agricultural regions in the world, and from the necessity of having Hispanic food delivered to these migrant workers, the lunchero truck was invented.
From there, the luncheros evolved into the taco trucks you see today. Some are located in the city and some are still out in the rural migrant areas like they were 50 or 60 years ago.
MiLB.com: The taco trucks are so deep-rooted here; everybody seems to have their favorite.
Hansen: All walks of life here in Central California eat Mexican food, with that being so rooted into our culture. Each little community around Fresno, be it Sanger or Selma, has that truck that is revered in their area as the truck to go to. Others will come and go, but it's survival of the fittest. Whoever has the best food usually remains, while the other ones drive off and find another location.
MiLB.com: So how did this lead to the Grizzlies staging a "Taco Truck Throwdown"?
Hansen: We wanted to bring a diverse mix of trucks here to the stadium, a taco smorgasbord. It was really popular the first year -- we had eight trucks. The second year we had 13 trucks. It blew up as part of [Fresno's] food truck craze, but that's not why we did it. We did it to pay homage to the Central California taco and the trucks that serve them.
[Aug. 1's "Taco Truck Throwdown"] was our second-biggest draw this year, we had almost 14,000 in attendance and sold 21,000 tacos. Some of that might be based on food trucks becoming trendy, but the majority of it is people from the Central California area and their love of their heritage.
MiLB.com: So what makes a particular taco stand out above the rest?
Hansen: Everyone has their opinions, and that's the beauty of it. You get to experience a wide diversity of all the different types of tacos that we have here. My personal opinion is that I like a lot of asada, a lot of lime, a lot of citrus, and a nice fresh homemade tortilla.
As mentioned, the 2013 iteration of the Taco Truck Throwdown featured 13 trucks. Here is a brief overview of my visit to three of them, and please keep in mind that the verdict in question is being delivered by an East Coast-based taco truck amateur. I did my best.
Name: La Acapulquenas
Name: Taqueria Los Toritos
Name: Tacos El Palmar