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Tacos on the town

The search for taste, tenderness, and thrift
By BRIAN DUFF  |  August 31, 2014


STRAIGHT FOR THE HEART The El Corazon taco truck is a summer hit.

Restaurants offer an avenue by which someone with a high school diploma and a craftsman’s sensibility can make a good living or become a huge success. This gives them extra significance now, since sociologists have recently confirmed what we all thought: social mobility barely exists in this country. Born poor? Get used to it. Born rich? Things look good for you. One dubious/leading theory for the persistence of class across generations regards the brain development that occurs among upper class children when their parents let them negotiate about meals.  The resulting interminable, emotionally charged conversations develop synapses that lead to educational success. Impoverished children usually shut up and eat what they get. Sociologist Annette Lareau estimates upper class children say and hear many millions more words than working class kids. Thanks to recent food trends, up to 16 percent of those words are “taco.”

So policymakers suggest a solution to poverty is to let kids demand their tacos. It could work, and recent developments in Portland can help. While there’s no class mobility in this town, we do have taco mobility—even taco-class mobility, in the form of Hella Good Tacos (a cart that became a restaurant), Taco Trio (a restaurant that launched a truck) and El Corazon, a truck that remains a truck. Sampling them offers a chance to understand what these kids are fighting for, and the wisdom of leaping from one class to another.

Hella Good took over the space that was Steve and Renee’s Diner. The old sign is still outside, but the inside already feels like a taqueria—with red counters, cafeteria style tables, and an easygoing vibe—the owner bantering from the grill. A large portrait of the proprietors in the Diego Rivera style is a masterwork. The tacos aren’t quite masterpieces, but darn good—and food cart cheap ($2.25). The carnitas featured pulled pork in a dense pile inside a double tortilla along with some parsley and onion. It could have been a touch more tender. A fish taco features a single mildly spiced piece of white fish and some crunchy cabbage and an unassuming white sauce. The cabeza taco, made with beef cheeks, could not be better. Filled with dark, tender, rich meat, it’s the best taco in town. And thanks to cheap beer and frequent specials, Hella Good is the best tacqueria in town—more so if they enhance their salsa choices.

Salsa variety is the best aspect of South Portland’s Taco Trio—one of several strengths gone missing on their new truck on the Western Promenade. The Taco Trio truck offers an unfortunate example of an institution’s mobile unit hurting its reputation, like a college’s online classes, or Germany’s army. Tacos cost over $4, and while they pile on a lot of meat there is little seasoning or appealing meaty juiciness to make them worthwhile—dry chicken, too chewy beef. Somewhat better was the pork adobo, with a cinnamony sauce and some tart-sweetness from pineapple. They have a $10 burrito—$12 with guacamole and sour cream! That is wrong. Foucault thought modernity truly arrived when the idea took hold that “society must be defended.” Now I know what he means. Luckily, before I could buy it the truck shuttered and drove back over the bridge.

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