The cheap and delicious world of taco trucks 

A survey of the southwest Little Rock delicacy.

Time was, if you wanted Mexican food in Little Rock, you headed to a sit-down restaurant where you filled up on chips and salsa while invisible cooks prepared your food. No longer. Now you need only find the nearest taco truck — mobile taquerias that set up shop around town.

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."

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