With apologies to T.S. Eliot, I’d heard the stories all before. In short, I was afraid. Tales of a mass of humanity that could have been lifted from Dante or Blake, a crush of people waiting in line for their appointed moment at the ordering window of the Guapos Tacos truck, writhing as if a single possessed organism, hungry like a gaggle of besotted ’tweens rushing the autograph table at a Robert Pattinson appearance at their local mall.
In truth, it’s not all that bad if you plan well. And while the wait can stretch on for a while if you arrive at the wrong time—say, after noon, when the offices forming the canyons at the bottom of which the truck typically sits disgorge their workers for the mid-day feeding, a gulp of fresh air and some natural sunlight—it’s nothing like the Miltonian scenes you occasionally hear about.
Regardless, it’s worth the wait, however long it is. Guapos Tacos is the latest entry into what has become an unexpectedly robust food-truck scene in our fair city, and, with its pedigree—Jose Garces does street food in a truck!—the popular hit everyone predicted.
He’s kept it all familiar and grounded in solid technique without losing the sense of whimsy that’s carried him to national heights. Smoky black beans anchoring the carnitas are a stroke of genius set against the chili-spiked pineapple salsa. As for the pork itself, it’s voluptuously tender, and kissed with a perfume of warm orange that ties together its accompanying elements.
The short rib, I expect, will cause a fair bit of friction the next time I’m at my mother’s house for the holidays. How will I be able to go back to the standard after having had this one punched up with chipotles and the bright hit of cilantro and white onions? Even the way it glistened in the Love Park sun, against the off-white backdrop of its to-go container, became a stand-in for a carnivore’s dirty dream.
Even the chicken tacos were exciting, despite being familiar. Like the food of so many great chefs, careful technique has the potential to raise the bar of enjoyment for even the dishes we’re all accustomed to. So while there’s nothing revolutionary about perfectly moist chicken, thin-sliced radish, onion, romaine and the rest, the balance and context of each made it a hell of a lot more interesting than what most of us grew up on.
That, really, is the key to Guapos’ success—the sense of comfort it mines. The truck itself is decorated in a repeating pattern of hexagons done up in beer-bottle caps, and the result is both festive and sneakily witty: Heineken green, Pacifico yellow, Yuengling bronze, Bud red, and so on. Its charm is amplified when seen through the tangle of dark pleated pants and business suits of the office workers standing in line for their turn, typically next to everyone from bike messengers to tourists from the fly-over states. This is egalitarian dining, as food trucks always should be.
To that end, the few less-than-stellar noshes here were generally the most highfalutin’ ones. Duck barbacoa was just too rich for me, the combination of heady fat and togarashi aioli a step too savory-sweet to enjoy without a beer. (Oh, if only you could BYO to Love Park!) The marquis component in the pescado taco—a perfectly fried brick of fish—needed the lubrication of the pico de gallo and slick of guacamole it rested on. Still, the acid of the brilliant pickled red cabbage helped raise the ante.
But perhaps nothing embodies what works so well at Guapos as the esquites and the tamales. The former is a play on one of Mexico’s greatest street snacks. And while the corn kernels were a bit wet, they proved to be a spectacular base for the spicy Russian-ish dressing and shredded queso. As for the tamale, it’s built on a base of masa-dough that resembles a roasted sweet potato’s meat, and features a mole poblano of remarkable restraint and posture-straightening deliciousness.
This kind of food, in this setting, is exactly why food-trucks have gained the ground they have. It’s honest, straightforward and grounded in the heartening idea that everyone, no matter who they are or what they do or how much cash they have in their pocket, deserves good food at a fair price. In these times of economic stress, the seemingly interminable expansion of chains, and the grotesque march of ever more easily accessible processed faux-food, you can get a killer lunch outta the Guapos Taco truck for $10, Jarritos soda included. That’s worth waiting in line for, no matter how long it takes.
Usually parked in Love Park, but check twitter.com/guapostacos for daily location.
Cuisine type: Tacos!
Hours: Usually Mon.-Fri., 11am-3pm.
Price range: Everything is less than $9.
Atmosphere: Anticipation mingled with al fresco gluttony.
Food: Jose Garces does delicious tacos!
Service: Preternaturally patient, despite the occasional crush of humanity waiting in line.
My time at the Village Whiskey bar at Atlantic City's Revel was a most unexpected sort of enjoyable.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014