Mariscos Ruben- Tijuana, Mexico

I was never a big fan of the so-called ‘gourmet’ food trucks in Los Angeles that serve anything from kalbi tacos to shrimp har gow and rainbow rolls.  It’s a whole different story though when it comes to delicious Mexican street food trucks such as the ones that Bill Esparza from Street Gourmet LA has introduced me to.  I’ve enjoyed clayudas, tacos, huaraches and vampiros that exemplify the pure essence and spirit of street food.  Even then, the excessive food truck craze has somewhat miffed me enough to create a personal aversion to all trucks in general, including U-Hauls.   I’m more comfortable eating these tasty morsels off of a table or a cart on the sidewalk.

Fortunately, I got some positive biofeedback therapy for my mobilogrubophobia through Dr. Esparza when he took me down for a weekend culinary Baja trip a few months ago.  The fresh seafood tostadas at La Guerrerense in Ensenada were so unbelievably delicious that my strong yearning for Sabina’s food causes an anginal chest pain.  Another such place that still haunts me with its succulent and tasty food is Mariscos Ruben in Tijuana.   Given the scene in LA, I was imagining that the streets of Tijuana would be flooded with food trucks, but it was quite the opposite.  Mariscos Ruben is one of the few trucks in all of Mexico- in fact, it’s a truck, stall and grill squeezed into one delicious establishment.

This Sonoran seafood truck in Tijuana that Bill called a ‘seafood love shack’ on the Baja episode of Bizarre Foods is run by husband and wife team Ruben and Mirta Elena Rodriguez.  They’ve been in this business for 20 years where they started off in Mirta’s home town in Ciudad Obregón in Sonora, and have spent the last 15 operating out of this truck on this street corner in Tijuana.  On any given day there will be a crowd of locals both young and old, who line up along the counter for the freshly shucked clams and outstanding aguachiles skillfully prepared by Mirta and staff.

When our clan arrived at Mariscos Ruben, matriarch Mirta gave us a bright smile when she saw Bill’s face, but a split second later went back to her molcajete with a serious and stern look.  She was in the middle of preparing her famous aguachile brew in the volcanic rock mortar, using ground dried chile tepin, chipotle purée and lime juice, and she wasn’t about to let a few out of towners interrupt her tight operation.  Succulent raw shrimp and firm Sinaloan scallops were briefly marinated in the ‘firewater’, and served in the molcajete with a circumferential array of sliced cucumbers and cooked shrimp.

Meanwhile, in the tent behind the truck, patriarch Ruben tended to the marlin taquitos on the mesquite grill.  The pink marlin meat was as savory and hearty as pork, surprising me with its incredibly complex flavors.  The chargrilled taquitos, topped with cabbage, tomatoes, cilantro, onions, avocado salsa and a delicious chipotle mayo, were life changing for me.  At first there was the crunchy exterior of the perfectly grilled taquitos, followed by the smokiness of the juicy and salty marlin meat, intertwined with the freshness of the shredded cabbage and texture of the diced onions, mellowed out by the creaminess of the avocado salsa only to be invigorated again by the chipotle sauce.  How could this small parcel of food be so elaborate and intricate, and one of the most delicious unions of sea and land that I’ve ever tasted, yet served on an otherwise barren street corner out of a small truck in Tijuana?

One of Mariscos Ruben’s specialties is the Caguamanta con Aleta de Atun, a classic Sonoran soup of manta ray and tuna fin that used to be made as a turtle soup, but no longer so due to the ban on consumption of the endangered species.  Axial cuts of tender tuna fins with white gelatinous flesh and dark skin looked like little sailboats floating in the rich tomato based broth that was packed with comforting flavors, while delicate chunks of white manta ray meat were contrasted by the slight crunch of the finely chopped red onions and cilantro.  Like homemade chicken soup for a bad case of the flu, this bowl of caguamanta was comforting, soulful and therapeutic.

Freshly shucked Pismo clams were wrapped in foil with queso blanco and Maggi seasoning, and cooked in its shell over the mesquite grill for the clams au gratin dish.   Once the grilled clams were re-opened, a bit of Worcestershire sauce was splashed onto the succulent flesh for a flavor boost and served hot and steaming.  We got to sample another take on the dish, the mixto gratin with octopus, shrimp, scallops and clam, with an equally sweet and smokey flavor packed full of seafood essence.

We were lucky enough to have visited Mariscos Ruben on a day that they had fresh pata de mula, small mangrove cockles from the local waters.  Freshly shucked by the skillful hands of the Mariscos staff, and flavored with a dash of Worcestershire sauce, these crunchy clams with a dense black color were perfectly and sensationally briny, teeming with the flavors of the Baja sea.  They were served alongside a generous serving of fresh Pismo clams with salsa fresca.

They were out of the house specialty, crab claws, but with the inspirational marlin tacos that rocked my world, and a virgin encounter with pata de mula cockles, I wasn’t the least bit upset.  I was fully enraptured by the workings of this food truck, where I had fresh clams being thrown at me from one side, and smokey grilled treasures being tossed from the other.  It was a tight ship that this couple ran, and with such fresh Baja treasures that were being made in this mobile joint, I was healed from my phobia of food trucks and converted into a believer.  After our meal, Ruben took me outside to the small park by the truck to show me the local vegetation and give me a botany lesson.  “In our culture, we would take these flowers and leaves…”, he would say, as he explained Baja folklore and superstition to me over the sound of local traffic.  Meanwhile, dining companions Barbara Hansen munched on the last of the Pismo clams as she listened to a street singer who broke out in a loud performance and Bill climbed into the truck kitchen to check out Mirta’s cooler full of Sinaloan scallops as Chef John Rivera Sedlar was getting his shoes shined at the front of the truck.  The true essence of street food culture…it doesn’t get any better than that.

Mariscos Ruben
Corner of 8th & Quintana Roo
Tijuana, Mexico

Open 7 days a week, 8am-8pm

Random trivia:  A molcajete is a Mexican mortar and pestle, a 3 legged bowl carved out of basalt volcanic rock.  Since the porous basalt absorbs flavors, molcajetes are known to ‘season’ with time and use much like a cast iron skillet, and are passed down through generations.

Los Angeles Food Trucks

Let's Be Frank food truck at the Helm's Bakery

Let's Be Frank food truck at the Helm's Bakery

Los Angeles is in the midst of a food truck craze.  Although there have been numerous breakfast and taco trucks in all parts of LA for decades, it’s only recently that ‘gourmet food trucks’ have become almost a cult phenomenon.  First there was Cafe Nagomi, an organic Japanese food truck frequently found in the Sony studios area in Culver City that sells delicious bento boxes and green tea lattes.   Let’s Be Frank, a lovely hot dog truck that you can find in the parking lot of Helm’s Bakery in Culver City, is one of my favorites.  I first discovered them at a Santa Monica Pier twilight concert event in the summer of 2008.  Their uncured beef franks topped with generous heaps of Indian spiced pepper sauce hits the spot.  Then there was Kogi BBQ, probably one of the most popular trucks today that people follow religiously on Twitter.

Let's Be Frank's brat dog

Let's Be Frank's brat dog

Since then there’s been an explosion of others, such as Baby’s Badass Burger serving gourmet burgers, Get Shaved serving Hawaiian style shaved ice,  Fishlips Sushi serving sushi rolls, Lomo Arigato serving Japanese style Peruvian food, and most recently Nom Nom Truck known for Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches just to name a few.

Why the craze and why all this mania?  First of all, in these tough economic times, who doesn’t like cheap, quick and delicious eats?   Secondly, easily bored Angelenos are always looking for something innovative to tweak their interest and please their appetite.  IMG_1154Now these mobile trucks are easily accessible in major LA neighborhoods well into the late hours of the evening to provide good old comfort food.  And now that the majority of the population not only have iPhones, but play with it incessantly and obsessively every other minute to update their Facebook status or follow others on Twitter, one will always know where to track these trucks down.  And who can deny the thrill of the chase?  It’s so much more exciting to hunt down a roving venue that is hard to catch.  The pursuit is just as appealing as the triumph of finding it and enduring the long lines to actually eat the food.

So does the food live up to its hype?  Is it really worth Twittering Kogi BBQ and waiting in line for 2 hours for $5 tacos?  I wasn’t about to waste my precious time, so I tried some Kogi BBQ food at The Alibi Room in Culver City.  We started off with the vegan sesame leaf/perilla tacos with kimchi slaw and a side of taro and lotus root chips.  The tacos had a nice crisp texture to the slaw and a refreshing citrus flavor.  A nice, simple starter.

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The chips were greasy and tasteless.  None of the lotus root chips were crispy, in fact they were all a soggy sad-looking mess.

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The tofu and citrus salad looked like everything else we just had plus tofu, all thrown into a plate.  Same flavors, same ingredients,  just a different container.

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The thing to get for sure is the Kogi 3 taco combo where you can sample the kalbi short rib, bbq chicken and spicy pork.  They all came with the same cabbage, cilantro, lime and onion slaw as the previous dishes.  At least the meats were different.  The tacos were good, but not great.  They were good enough for me to enjoy them with my beer as I sat at the lively bar on a Saturday night hanging out with friends.  But they weren’t good enough for me to have to drive around LA hunting down the trucks, only to sacrifice another couple of hours waiting in line and eating it on the sidewalk.  It doesn’t seem worth it.  I go to Let’s Be Frank and Cafe Nagomi because there is never a line, it’s always at the same place and I know I can get my food within minutes.  But the other food trucks just don’t excite me right now.  Too much work for too little return.

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Don’t get me wrong, I am the first one to drive for miles in pursuit of outstanding eats.  I will frequently drive out to San Gabriel Valley by myself just to have some shrimp dumplings or pickled pigs ears, and if that urge hits me during rush hour, then so be it.  I am also always willing to patiently wait in line for good food.  Recently at the 1 day-only public wholesale event at Gourmet Imports in SGV, I waited in line for 2.5 hours to buy whole Rougie foie gras lobes, white truffle honey, argan oil and Piment D’Espelette.  But for now, if I get that craving for burgers or fancy tacos, I’ll round up my friends and head to a sit-down dive where we can sit comfortably and talk over a bottle of wine.

Steve sizing up the dog

Steve sizing up the dog

On a recent quick stop to Let’s Be Frank to satiate my hot dog craving, I met Steve Plotnicki from Opinionated About Dining.  He’s an experienced and refined foodblogger/gourmand from New York who has eaten the world!

http://kogibbq.com

http://twitter.com/kogibbq/

Random trivia:   Did you know that purple sesame leaves, or red perilla, is toxic to some cattle and horses?  When they consume these leaves while grazing in the fields, they can get a lung condition called perilla mint toxicosis.