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Orange County Tacos: We Are Big Fans of Alebrije's Grill Taco Truck

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[Photographs: Paul Bartunek]

You've got to be bold to make any real headway in the saturated Southern California taco truck market. String up the bright lights, advertise your $1 tacos with scrolling LED signs, and make your food so delicious that a line forms. Nothing turns a taco hunter's head faster than a bunch of people in front of a lonchero. Or, if you're the Alebrije's Grill Taco Truck in Orange County, you just paint your ride bright pink.

Don't worry, this truck is more than just a paint job. Alebrije's Grill still does everything else right too, including their tacos. The light pink (and fading fast) truck parks near the intersection at McFadden Ave. and Main St. in Santa Ana, and it's not hard to spot them as you cruise by. Over the years, they've also developed their own ever-present line of eaters, hungry for homemade tortillas and the famed Taco Acorazado (more on that in a moment).

As for online marketing, you can find them on Facebook and Twitter, which generally rankles taco purists but is surely a sign of modern times. Or, if you're clicking around the internet looking for the good word on Alebrije's Grill, you could just head to the O.C. Weekly. Those folks can't stop putting Alebrije's on the top of just about every taco list they've got.

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For the most part, the O.C. Weekly is right - Alebrije's Grill deserves a large amount of praise. Their tacos are large, steaming affairs that come absolutely stuffed with your meat of choice. More than simple salted flap meat, the carne asada is deep and satisfying, with a lightly smoky undertone. You'll get little salt packets on the side with your order, but heaven knows why. This meat is perfectly salted to really bring out the best in beefy flavors, and the toss on the plancha allows for a few choice bites of well-griddled goodness.

The cabeza taco is another winner, tasting fresh and light, without a lot of the gristle than can overtake a competitor's cut of the fatty meat. There is still plenty of chew here, but pairing the taco up with a bite or two of soft, grilled nopales (cactus) makes for a perfect balance. The al pastor are carnitas are both serviceable options, although the pastor isn't afforded the crisp edges from a traditional trompo and can get a little overpowering with the pineapple marinade. The carnitas, for its part, is stewed up softly but is too mild an unassuming. Unlike most things at Alebrije's Grill, it isn't bold enough.

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That is, until you toss on some salsa. The roasted verde is a nice, subtle complement to the truck's taco arsenal, with decent enough heat. But if you're standing outside of a pink taco truck known for its battleship taco (seriously, more in a moment), you didn't come here for 'decent enough'. Head straight for the verde and prepare to pay for another Jarritos: this salsa doesn't mess around. It's a sneaky heat, the sort of building pressure that makes you sympathize with cartoon characters who get so red in the face that steam comes out of their ears. Splash some on your underwhelming carnitas and let your tongue dance.

Those willing to take the Highway to the Danger Zone should consider saving the salsa verde for the famed Taco Acorazado. You'll have to wait a few minutes for the preparation, but seriously, this thing makes you understand why it's referred to as the battleship taco - it is fortified and iron-sided. First, a thick single layer of hand-patted tortilla, warm and pliant from the griddle. Then a pile of Spanish rice, because two carbs are better than none. Slap down some pounded, breaded fried beef milanesa that's been cut into inch-wide strips. Sprinkle on wide ribbons of pickled and grilled nopales, slices of fresh avocado and tomato, and a splash of warm onions from the griddle. Oh, and a dash of cojita cheese plus half of a jalapeño because... why not?

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Don't be a hero. This thing requires a fork, and everyone knows it. But once you've managed to chisel out a forkful, you immediately understand why Orange County goes so bonkers for the Taco Acorazado from the Alebrije's Grill truck. Each bold bite is a study of contrasts; warm, starchy tortilla and rice meets cool, creamy avocado. Light cojita cheese and zippy nopales meets grilled, fried strips of salty beef. Sweet onions run full-on into spicy jalapeño. There is so much to enjoy about the Taco Acorazado in all of these little flavor battles, but the whole thing pulls together seamlessly in a way that is satisfying on primal level. This is a full meal on a plate, bold yet balanced, and expertly prepared.

For a pink taco truck that serves a plate as massive as the Taco Acorazado, Alebrije's Grill hasn't lost sight of the most basic tenet of cooking for others: make it taste good. There's no better way to stand out than that.

Alebrije's Grill Taco Truck

E. McFadden Ave. / S. Main St., Santa Ana, CA (map)

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