Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
Jorge Campos spends his days in a small trailer, surrounded by refrigerators, cooktops and counters. It's cramped and hot. "Too hot," said Campos, who cooks at this taco truck that sets up in the parking lot of a discount carpet store in southwest Little Rock. As he worked, a small fan blew behind him and pushed the smell of grilling meat and onions into the parking lot and beyond, out into Geyer Springs Road, where the they mingled with bus fumes.
Taqueria Samantha II, named after Campos' niece, has been in this same parking lot for more than six years, and Campo has been here too, every day it is opened. Like many taco trucks, it's a family operation. His sister-in-law owns Samantha II and the original Taqueria Samantha, which is often parked on Asher Avenue.
The taco truck is a two-man operation. Polo Hernandez works with Campos, taking orders and prepping food. Taped to the wall behind them is a picture of the Virgin de Guadalupe, and next to her, three permits in plastic sleeves. Taco trucks must obtain special "mobile canteen" permits from the city and, like any other food establishment, must be inspected by the state Health Department.
On a recent Friday night, a family of three stepped to the window of Samantha II and ordered tacos. Hernandez scribbled their order in a small notebook, where column after column lists the day's sales.
Campos slapped six white-corn tortillas down on the cook top and scattered shredded beef. "Asada is most popular," he said of the meats the taco truck offers. "The next is pastor. And then chicken." Chicharrón, lengua, carnitas, buche and barbacoa are also on the menu. After conferring in Spanish with Hernandez, Campos estimated that they sell at least 270 tacos a day. That doesn't include the burritos, quesadillas and tortas.
After Campos plated the family's tacos, Hernandez piled on fresh cilantro. He sliced a lime and put two wedges on each plate, along with a cup of green salsa. The family perched atop three wooden stools next to the window to eat their tacos. Unlike many other taco trucks, Samantha's doesn't have a plastic table and chairs nearby. A few customers stand around the window if a stool isn't open, but most get their order to go and return to their cars.
Campos is originally from Aguascalientes, Mexico, but has lived in Little Rock for 13 years. "This area," he said, motioning from the inside of the trailer, "a lot of Mexicans." Samantha II's primary patrons, said Campos, are the area's working-class Hispanics, a demographic that has grown in Little Rock during the last decade, doubling to more than 10,000. Many settled in southwest Little Rock, and businesses sprang up to cater to them, including taco trucks.
But Taqueria Samantha II's clientele seems to be changing. "I think right now, it's more mixed," said Campos. He estimates that Hispanics now make up only 60 percent of their business; the other 40 percent is largely African American.
But people from all over the city are finding their way to the taco trucks, like Noel Mace, a taco truck convert. "About 18 months ago, a friend from southwest Little Rock was talking about taco trucks in that area," Mace said. Since then, he's visited as many trucks as he can find and counts Taquería Samantha II's as one of Little Rock's best, and a good deal. "If I want a cheap way to feed the family, I drop by the truck and pick-up a handful and bring them home."
Taco Truck Primer
Looking to make you first visit to a taco truck? Don't be intimidated when you step up to the window. Start with a couple of tacos. Two tacos make a good snack, three a light meal. First, decide which meat you want—beef, pork or chicken. Or if you're feeling more adventurous, tongue, tripe, pig skin or stomach. Place your order in your best Spanish (English will always work too) and take a seat on one of the wooden stools to watch the cook and visit with the other customers.
At most trucks, a taco will run you $1.50 and will come with onions and cilantro, a wedge of lime and, if you're lucky, a roasted pepper. And of course, salsa. Most trucks offer two kinds of homemade salsa — roja o verde, red or green. Always good, always hot. You'll have to pay a little more for the extras, like cheese, sour cream and avocado.
The fare is pretty standard across the boards. If you don't know what a word means, someone always speaks enough English to help you out (or check out our handy-dandy taco truck glossary on page TK). In addition to tacos, most trucks offer tortas, quesadillas and burritos, and a cooler full of cold water, juices and soft drinks, including "Coca Mexicana," Cokes made in Mexico using real cane sugar instead of corn syrup. Taco trucks don't sell alcohol, but there is often a service station nearby.
There are about 15 taco trucks currently operating in Little Rock, most in the southwest part of the city, between I-430 to the west, Geyer Springs to the east, Baseline Road to the south and 65th Street to the north. (There are others outside this area, including several real winners on Colonel Glenn west of University Avenue) Taco trucks usually set up shop in front of another business — a carpet wholesaler, a tire shop, a money transferrer. It's a symbiotic relationship; each business helps the other by drawing in more customers.
The trucks set up in the mornings, usually in time for the lunch crowd, and then pull up stakes each night. Most return to the same spot everyday, but it is increasingly common for the taco trucks to cater. So if you have enough people and enough money, some taco trucks will come to you. Be prepared, though, because taco trucks are cash-only businesses.
Taco truck guide
Note that the hours listed are subject to change day to day.
It's just a trailer pulled behind a white GMC truck, but Taqueria Samantha II has some of the best tacos in Little Rock. Taqueria Samantha II parks in front of Discount Carpet on Geyer Springs, between 65th and Baseline. There's a menu in English with standard taco-truck fare — tacos, tortas, burritos, quesadillas. You can eat at one of the three wooden stools or get your order para llevar. The meat, whether you order the pork, beef or chicken, is moist and well seasoned. 7521 Geyer Springs Rd. 501-744-0680 or 501-442-9703. 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tue.-Sun.
Taqueria Samantha was last spotted in the 5200 block of Asher Avenue, just east of Fair Park. But on Friday and Saturday nights, from 8 p.m.–2 a.m., it can be found in downtown Little Rock, parked on the 300 block of Broadway Ave., next to Jose's Club Latino.
Emma's is parked in front of a tire and rims shop on Baseline Road. In addition to the standard beef and pork choices, it also offer lengua, chicharron and buche—tongue, pork skin, and stomach. There is a fresh pineapple on the counter inside the truck, which makes the torta hawaiiana — a pork sandwich with avocado, pineapple and onions—even more enticing. The chicken comes pre-sauced, which means you can't enjoy the green salsa, but the beef is perfectly seasoned. The homemade pickled cucumbers that come on the side of every order are reason enough to visit. There's a picnic table under the pine trees. 4318 Baseline Rd. 501-541-7650. 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
This may be the most colorful taco truck in Little Rock. The side is painted with sunflowers and a bridge, the name in a fancy script. Even the menu is hand-painted, blue with pictures of sandwiches. The offerings are sparser than other trucks; they don't serve any chicken, but they do have a good veggie quesadilla. And there's no seating. 7308 Baseline Rd. 9:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Thu.–Tue.
One of the later-model trucks, with Texas plates and a southwest-style cow skull painted on the hood, it is parked in front of a small strip mall on Baseline that houses Unique Styles and Fades hair studio and a catfish restaurant. The tacos are more expensive than most, but at $2 they're still cheap eats. Beyond the tacos and tortas, it's one of the few taco trucks where you can order a combination plate that comes with rice, beans and lettuce. 4720 Baseline Rd. 501-565-3108. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Mon.-Thu.; 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
Thalia's is a small trailer pulled under the roof of an old car wash on Baseline at Doyle Springs. It's unassuming, out of the way and the tacos are nothing special. It's the rest of the menu that makes this a favorite. Go on the weekends, when the dry-erase board may list anything from shrimp cocktail to menudo to tamales. Be sure to try the posole, a hearty pork and hominy soup. If you ask for it by name, Thalia will light up and ask if you like posole. If you assure her you do, you will have a new friend. Eat at the plastic table under the car wash awning or get it to go. 4500 Baseline Rd. 501-563-3679. 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Wed.-Mon.
In front of El Gallo Jiro ("the champion rooster"), a Western wear store on Geyer Springs, sits a taco truck painted to match the storefront — yellow-orange with a statuesque rooster airbrushed on the side (and a small Tweety Bird painted on the window). Maybe it's out of respect for the store's namesake, but Tacos Guanajuato does not serve chicken. They do have the regular pork and beef choices, along with adobado, chicharron and cabeza. No seating. 6920 Geyer Springs Rd. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Wed.-Thu., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sun.
Less a taco truck than a snack bar that also has a few Mexican offerings. They do sell tacos, flautas, and mega-tortas, but to find them, you'll have to search the menu, past the chili dogs, cheeseburgers, frito pies, barbecue chicken sandwiches and Doritos nachos — yes, the cheesy, orange triangles come topped with yet another cheese-like substance and jalapenos. No seating. 9203 Chicot Rd. 501-772-7471. 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Mon.–Thu., 9 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Fri.-Sat.
It's easy to overlook the white 1970s-era, 26-foot Executive motor home outside a dilapidated former service station in the 7100 block of Colonel Glenn Road, about a mile west of University. It looks more like an abandoned RV than a place to eat. But there's a small hand-painted sign outside that says, "Taqueria Las Isabeles—tacos y mas." It's worth the trip just for the tacos, but they also have burritos, nachos and Hawaiian hamburguesas — burgers topped with pineapple and avocado. There's outside seating for four at a plastic table under the old station's overhang, and Norteño music is piped through a speaker hidden in the structure above. Colonel Glenn Rd. 501-563-4801. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sat.
This truck sits at the corner of Colonel Glenn and Oak Park, in the parking lot of MyWay Auto, about a mile west of University Avenue. An extension cord snakes across the parking lot and a blue awning covers a small table. A sign above the ordering window kindly asks patrons to refrain from spitting. Tacos have to be ordered at least two at a time, but that's not an impediment. These are some of the best and, at $1.25, some of the cheapest tacos in Little Rock. Enjoy with your choice of Orange Fanta, Coke or Fresca. 7101 Colonel Glenn Rd. 501-416-7002. 11 a.m. Wed.-Sun.
The Chevy Step Van in the parking lot of City Market on Colonel Glenn at 36th Street may not have a sign yet, but they have good tacos. The window is plastered with handmade announcements — a 1993 mobile home for sale, a religious revival — so it takes a minute to figure out the offerings. In addition to the usual tacos and tortas, they also offer quesadillas and nachos, coffee and hot chocolate. Definitely worth trying. Seating available. Colonel Glenn Rd. and 36th St. 501-612-2120. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.–Sat.
Jalisco San Juan is the taco truck for the not-so-adventurous crowd. The sparkling clean, late-model truck sits just west of I-430 on Markham, in the parking lot of Colonial Wine and Spirits. They claim to serve "original Mexico City tacos," but it's their chicken tamales that make it worth a visit. They also have tortas, quesadillas and fajitas. 11200 Markham St. 501-541-5533. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.–Wed., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Thu.–Sun.
The ever-elusive "Walmart taco truck." Several months back, word spread about "the best taco truck in town," rumored to be found in the parking lot of the Walmart on Bowman and Markham in West Little Rock. It took a month to finally find it, in which time its reputation only grew. Maybe not the best taco truck ever but definitely the best in West Little Rock, and definitely a better choice than the Taco Bell next door. It's a good lunch spot for your all-day West Little Rock shopping excursions. If you want to eat there, they'll pull a couple of chairs under the trees beside the taco truck. 620 S. Bowman. 501-612-1883. 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.–Sat.
Mystery Taco Truck
An old Toyota pickup with a too-large camper shell sits in the parking lot of the U-Pull-It salvage yard on Baseline Road, half a mile west of I-30. The words "hamburguers & tacos" and a brief menu are painted on the side, but no hours are listed and it never seems to be open. The front tire of the truck has been flat for weeks, at least—not a good sign. But if you ever find it open, give it a try and let us know what you think. 10312 Baseline Rd.
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