The food truck craze has hit Philadelphia. It’s not yet an epidemic, and this doesn’t exactly mean Philly is on equal footing with Los Angeles, but it’s a start. In a small way, though, the city has recently resembled the West coast metropolis. Movie and television stars have been spotted more often these days, as Philly has become a stand-in for other cities on film shoots and attracted production companies with its tax incentives and lower costs. The food-on-wheels trend has also accelerated here (food fads always seem to travel West to East these days), with some fancy trucks occupying prime street space to hawk items like steamed pork buns (Tyson Bees), cupcakes (Buttercream), and handmade sausage sandwiches (Renaissance Sausage). Stainless steel corner carts are no longer the norm. Now, refurbished trucks are emblazoned with designer art by culinary-degree carrying hipster owners who embrace social media.
The popularity of vending goodies from mobile vehicles was most recently demonstrated on Food Network’s reality show The Great Food Truck Race. I am sure local icon Iron Chef Jose Garces was watching. His own truck Guapos Tacos could have easily competed with season 1 winner Grill ‘em All (specialty burgers) and runner-up Nom-Nom (Vietnamese and Banh-Mi), but in L.A., it would probably be eaten up by the plethora of vendors specializing in traditional Mexican street eats. I say this because Garces offers a refined contemporary menu rather than a gutsy, blue-collar one, and has priced his items a tad too high to allow for daily consumption. Tacos may seem so 2006 in L.A., but here, they are of-the-moment. Why not? Tacos are the perfect street fare. They are easily constructed, allow for creative variety and versatility, provide for a multitude of garnishes, don’t require utensils, and can be eaten on-the-go. In these parts, Jose Garces is the perfect chef to elevate such a deceptively simple snack.
Guapos Tacos focuses on “modern Mexican street food” and sells its grub from an eye-catching truck coated with over 45,000 beer bottle caps (ranging from Miller High Life to Corona) assembled as colorful hexagons. The menu showcases Garces’ use of high-quality ingredients and ability to deliver big flavor in “good-looking” packages that reflect his truck’s name. Main offerings include a pricey guacamole ($6.50), tamales ($4.50), esquites (shaved sweet corn, $5.50), tostadas (crispy corn tortillas with toppings; $7.50) and up to six different tacos ($4.50 - $8.50; 2 per order). Like many of today’s trucks, Guapos announces its location and serving times via Twitter (@guapostacos) and Facebook (Garces Restaurant Group), but it has primarily been available only on weekends (afternoons and evenings until midnight, or until food sells out) in the Fairmount, Northern Liberties and Washington Square West neighborhoods.
I encountered Garces’ roaming and moveable feast this past weekend across from the Whole Foods on Callowhill between 20th and 21st, parked on an unappealing block adjacent to the new Barnes Foundation construction site. For a Saturday afternoon, there was little pedestrian traffic, let alone many passers-by in cars, despite the proximity to the Ben Franklin Parkway. I imagine this spot was chosen for its apparent safe distance from Philly’s well-known Parking Authority and Department of Licenses & Inspections who strive to make life difficult for the city’s inhabitants and business owners. The posted menu is simple, listed in white lettering on a black sign without any descriptions or acknowledgement that each taco ‘entree’ has 2 per order (although paper copies of the menu are available). The tacos are best ordered with a friend to allow for sharing and tasting more than one variety. Today, only tacos were on my agenda. I yielded only half-way to temptation.
I ordered the pescado (mahi-mahi), short rib and carnitas (pork), but eyed the duck barbacoa and adobo chicken for future feasting (a vegetarian option with mushrooms was also available). After picking up my order following the calling of my name, I carried the foil-protected take-out in a nondescript plastic bag to my friend’s outdoor patio, a more suitable environment than the blank sidewalk along the chain-linked fence where seating was non-existent. I opened a bottle of Negro Especial, a rich Mexican pilsner that is crisp, light on the hops, and the perfect pairing with any South-of-the-border specialty. Pocketing the bottle cap as an homage to Guapos’ artwork, I proceeded to hungrily attack the fish taco first. Served atop a warm corn tortilla, the fleshy white mahi appeared like cod, with a crispy, golden exterior. Its small size was disproportionate to the soft shell, so I gently tore apart the moist fish to ensure its presence in every bite. The pickled red cabbage acted as both a colorful contrast and a refreshing briny coolant to the warm filet, while the creamy avocado added another textural element. Garnished with chopped tomato and a spectacular sauce, this was an appetizing tease to the tongue, and gone within seconds.
Next, I opted for the short rib, which was braised with chipotles and served shredded in the tortilla. Topped with crisp radishes, crema, shaved lettuce, chopped white onion and crumbled white queso fresco, the popular creamy, soft and mild Mexican cheese, the beef simply got lost. A surprise layer (as they were not listed in the menu) of beans coated the taco, hidden under the meat, unfortunately overpowering each bite. Sampled on its own, the short rib was tender and flavorful, but with the accompaniments, it was easily overshadowed. The removal of the beans, or at least limiting their amount, would have allowed the real star of this taco to shine.
Carnitas, or literally “little meats,” is my favorite taco filling. Comprised of braised or roasted pork “butt,” this is actually the heavily marbled pig shoulder that yields moist and highly seasoned pulled bits of pork after hours of low and slow cooking. When I lived in Napa Valley while working a grape harvest, I would venture to the local Mexican market and tacqueria La Luna to order their carnitas, which was superbly soft with crispy edges and played perfectly with luscious pineapple. It satisfied every time, and Guapos brought me right back to California with its own rendition. Cushioned with smokey black beans, the same chopped tropical fruit, red onion, and habanero salsa, the carnitas took center stage and acted as my dessert. The taste elements were clearly defined: the saltiness of the substantial pork, the cool sweetness of the pineapple, and the tanginess of the salsa’s acidity. This taco was synergy personified. Together, these ingredients produced the optimum gustatory sensation, and best represented Garces’ upscale, sophisticated “street” cooking.
After discarding the last wrapper, I considered my lunch experience. Service was 'serviceable,' neither overly friendly nor unnecessarily moody, but it wasn’t very special, as I may have expected, due to Garces’ pedigree. I know it’s a food truck, but at these prices, expectations linger on the 'high' side, and the customer experience should be elevated and different. Since tacos are quite easily assembled, Guapos should offer single tacos priced accordingly, so that customers, if alone, can tailor the order to his/her tastes and sample as many options at one time. More conducive hours should also be established to reach a consumer base that is hungry for something new, unique and satisfying at reasonable times every day and night, not solely weekends. Perhaps inherently cultural items traditionally found in tacos like cabeza (head) or lengua (tongue) can eventually weave themselves into the menu. Even a simple ceviche or a homemade tres leches for dessert warrant inclusion, especially since Garces can expertly produce them. After all, differentiation is the key to competitive advantage and keeping the buzz alive.
Flavor and quality are definitely the top priorities here. Items may be smaller, but they offer complexity. The idea is novel and original, a natural derivation of Distrito, the owner’s University City restaurant that serves modern yet approachable Mexican. Guapos Tacos popularizes Jose Garces as an equal-opportunist, bringing his haute-cuisine concept down to solid ground so that everyone can try his food, or at least be tempted at eye-level. It may not be an everyday meal, but it’s something for Everyman. In that sense, Garces is like a playwright scripting a work for the ordinary citizen...while serving as a culinary protagonist with whom we can all identify.
Down enough of these tacos and you will jokingly be called gordo (or gorda) by your friends. The name-calling will certainly be worth each and every bite, though. In the end, you will have the last laugh...albeit a slighty lighter wallet. Sometimes, pleasure really is worth the sacrifice.
Note: Guapos Tacos is available for private events and large groups. Contact Garces Restaurant Group for details and availability.