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.
Corner of 8th & Quintana Roo
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.