Opinion Columns & Blogs - INACTIVE

Joe Mathews: Is Fresno California’s taco capital?

How the Taco Truck Throwdown came to be

Nearly 17,000 people came to downtown Fresno's Chukchansi Park, where Taco Truck Throwdown 5 was held Thursday, Aug. 7, 2015, during the Fresno Grizzlies' game against the Sacramento River Cats. The Grizzlies renamed themselves the Fresno Tacos fo
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Nearly 17,000 people came to downtown Fresno's Chukchansi Park, where Taco Truck Throwdown 5 was held Thursday, Aug. 7, 2015, during the Fresno Grizzlies' game against the Sacramento River Cats. The Grizzlies renamed themselves the Fresno Tacos fo

Can tacos save Fresno?

Greater Fresno, with 1.1 million people, is growing into California’s next big metropolitan area. But it retains the infrastructure and civic self-esteem of a smaller town. And Fresno hasn’t conjured a defining, unifying narrative that could galvanize it to build the institutions its population needs.

Good news: Such a narrative may be emerging. In recent visits, I hear Fresnans talking with new pride about their city – and their tacos.

California is a state of great tacos, but it has long been hard to beat Fresno when it comes to both quantity and quality of tacos. Taquerías – brick-and-mortar shops, trucks, pop-up stands – are as ubiquitous as gas stations in Los Angeles.

The competition and the proximity of farms keep the quality of the food high, and the diversity of taco styles reflects how agriculture attracted people from all over California and Mexico.

What’s new is how Fresno is now celebrating its taco riches, in ways that blur traditional divides within the city.

This mainstreaming of the taco culture has been pushed by taco truck owners with the assistance of journalist Mike Oz of Yahoo Sports and marketing whiz Sam Hansen, who works for the Fresno Grizzlies, the city’s minor league baseball team.

In 2011, Oz and Hansen, after a still-ongoing search for taquerías across Fresno County, launched an annual Taco Truck Throwdown at the Grizzlies ballpark. Last year’s throwdown became a citywide sensation, with a crowd of nearly 17,000 fitting into a stadium with 12,500 reserved seats and eating 38,000 tacos from 24 trucks.

This year, the Grizzlies will change their name every Tuesday to the Tacos, and introduce a taco mascot. During each Taco Tuesday, the Grizzlies will use the stadium entertainment system to tell the story of a different Fresno-area taco truck and its owners.

“It’s inspiring Fresno to open its eyes to a huge part of what Fresno really is,” Hansen said. “People thought Fresno needs to be like L.A. or the Bay Area. We’re starting to look inward and see everything we need is here already.”

The taco is not merely tasty. It feels like the right metaphor. Tacos are a poor man’s food just as Fresno is a poor man’s city. And what is Fresno if not a loose, overstuffed tortilla full of diverse ingredients?

Taco obsession seems to be binding the city together. On recent trips, I’ve heard everyone from hotel maids to elected officials to entrepreneurs rhapsodize about local tacos. (Memo to future opponents of Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, who has statewide political ambitions: The fastest way to get her off-message is to bring up tacos.)

Tacos connect increasingly urban Fresno with the towns outside it. And tacos may be erasing the city’s longstanding dividing line: Shaw Avenue. White and middle-class Fresnans have traditionally lived north of Shaw, but now they trek south of Shaw, where 90 percent of the taco stands are. Also south of Shaw is the city’s downtown, which shows signs of revival.

On a recent weeknight, Mike Oz offered me a taco tour. Our first stop, Taquería El Premio Mayor, was closed after the tragic death of the son of the owning family.

(The death received significant local media coverage, a sign of how taquería owners have become Fresno celebrities.) Oz then took me south to Selma (pop. 24,000) and its Highway 43 Taco Corridor, with several trucks parked in open fields. The third we visited – Taquería Los Toritos, wedged between Highway 99 and a truck scale – offered the freshest-tasting carne asada taco I can ever remember eating.

Oz, who grew up in Fremont, came to Fresno to write for The Fresno Bee. He was a music writer with the byline Mike Osegueda, then a columnist who looked for ways to celebrate the city.

“I was always surprised how Fresno has so many people who hate Fresno,” he said, especially since it’s now a big city with a lot to offer. “Fresno is like the kid who has his favorite clothes, grew out of them, but refuses to take them off.”

The next day, at Oz’s suggestion, I ate at La Elegante, a taquería in Fresno’s old Chinatown. From the outside, the place almost looked abandoned. Inside, it was wonderful.

The tacos were so good I wondered if La Elegante could alter the state’s geography all by itself. The high-speed rail station in Fresno will be two blocks away, and the rail authority’s ridership projections might be realized once Californians elsewhere get a taste.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.