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.
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.
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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
Location: Parking lot of an industrial area located south of downtown Fresno, at intersection of Jensen Avenue and Golden State Highway
Verdict: The homemade corn tortillas won't fall apart on you, as they are remarkably firm and almost crunchy in texture. The adobado (pork) was marinated in a sweet and savory red sauce, while the asada was tender if a bit on the bland side. A layer of cabbage added crispness and contrast to both, and each order of tacos came with half a lime and one whole hot pepper. A great mix of flavors, presented with care.
Name: Taqueria Los Toritos
Location: Selma, Calif. (south of Fresno), at intersection of E. Mountain View Avenue and Highway 99
Verdict: Hansen informed me that this place is owned by a man named Jesus, who's "got the asada on lockdown. Everybody bows down to him." Jesus wasn't there when we stopped by, but his magic touch was apparent. The tacos come out of the truck simply as meat on a tortilla, which can then be customized at an adjacent fixings bar, and the meat really and truly is spectacular. I got two asada and one tripe, and both were perfectly salted, a little spicy, a little crunchy and positively addicting. Highest recommendation!
Name: Tacos El Palmar
Location: East Fresno, at intersection of Butler and Cedar
Verdict: This truck boasted a pleasing yellow and blue color scheme that recalled '80s-era Milwaukee Brewers uniforms, and the tacos -- served by those hailing from the northwestern Mexico state of Sinaloa -- were accompanied by radish, lemon and a salt packet. The presentation was impeccable, but I took a gamble and ordered my first-ever "lengua" taco (as in, beef tongue). I found it to be tough, flavorless, and hard to digest, but I'm not holding that against Tacos El Palmar. I just think that I was a little too adventurous in my taco selection. Next time, I'm holding the tongue.
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.