A welcome breeze cuts through the sticky air while a queue for late-night tacos grows. A local performer plucks a guitar on a makeshift wooden stage, but the twangy tunes are overshadowed by a cell phone erupting into a Mexican ranchera ringtone. The scene recalls evenings in Mexico City, where taquerias line the streets and locals congregate. But this is Friday night at Johnny's, a Carrboro stomping ground, where every weekend the community bonds over tacos, beer and music. Mostly tacos. The same goes for other parts of Carrboro, Durham's late-night scene along Hillsborough Road and weekday "loncheras" in Raleigh. Transplants savor the familiar flavors of home, and "gringos" learn their pastor from their lengua as taco trucks serve authentic fare on the cheap. Here are a few favorites.
Mexican breakfast and salsas
100 S Merritt Mill Rd (W Franklin St and Merritt Mill Rd)
Chapel Hill • 636-1770
Mon–Fri 8 am–2 pm
Most Fri & Sat 6 pm–4 am
Captain Poncho's offers authentic Mexico City-style breakfast. Your best bet: entomatadas, your choice of meat folded loosely into two large, homemade corn tortillas, smothered in a tomato-based salsa roja, warm and rich with garlic flavor, served with rice and fresh beans that are simmered daily (not poured out of a can). I didn't find this dish at any other taco truck. Captain Poncho's also serves traditional chilaquiles, fried strips of corn tortilla topped with your choice of meat in salsa roja or mole. If you're rushed in the morning, get a breakfast burrito wrapped in a flour tortilla, and ask for cilantro and onions to add some authenticity. Snag a side of one or all four vibrant salsas: the bright orange is spiciest, made with grilled chiles de arbol; the red-orange salsa adds roasted tomatoes for a milder flavor; the darker salsa verde includes roasted serranos or jalapeños; and the lime green-colored, more mild salsa de guacamole adds avocado. Tip: if ordering meat, choose either the pastor (pork: see "On the menu" below), which includes grilled pineapple la Mexico City, or asada (grilled steak). Both are cooked to order every day. If they have it, try the cabeza de puerco, a whole pork head steamed with marinade and spices until the meat falls off the bone. (I was told this is a hugely popular request when catering non-Mexican parties. Who knew?)
Snacks on a stick
Latin Grill at Johnny's
901 W Main St • Carrboro
Thu 5:30 pm–11 pm
Fri–Sun 5:30 pm–midnight
While I'm partial to the tacos de borrego (lamb) here, summer calls for a lighter snack. Roasted or grilled corn is a typical global street food. But have you had it al estilo Mexicano? The husk is replaced with a wooden skewer, and the corn is dipped in mayonnaise and grated queso fresco, then sprinkled with chili powder. Did I say lighter? Perdname. The smudge of mayo is worth it, though, giving the grilled corn a nice tang and your face a funny chili-specked mustache. All for only $2. For a sweet treat with a kick, trade in thoughts of popsicles for a mango on a stick sprinkled with chili powder, just $1.50.
3438 Hillsborough Rd (near Blockbuster)
The Lopez name may ring a bell—Taqueria Lopez was a restaurant in a now vacant strip behind Blockbuster on Hillsborough Road. The chorizo is expertly spiced and salted, chopped into tiny red crumbles. My favorite way to get it is in a quesadilla; the chorizo bits stick to the melted cheese for a decadent bite every time, the kind that oozes cheese onto your chin. It's indulgence at its cheapest. For just a sample of the chorizo without the heaviness, go for a sope.
3148 Hillsborough Rd • Durham
Thu 8 pm–2 am
Fri 12 am–3.30 am
Sat 7 pm–3.30 am
Sun 7 pm–2 am
This late-night mobile taqueria is nicknamed "el bus rojo," or the red bus, shared by Indian Food on Wheels. Their menu is lost in translation, comically stating that "al pastor" meat is "shepherd," instead of "shepherd-style pork" (see "On the menu" below). Since pastor is a personal favorite, Taqueria Rubio wins Best From a Truck for me. The meat leaves no slimy residue or fat pieces and is chunky and succulent. A grilled jalapeño and spring onion on the side adds a nice, authentic touch.
Tacorriendo Las Delicias
3169 Hillsborough Rd (in front of La Maraca Club)
Hours not verified
A friend from Mexico City says suadero, or brisket, is hard to find at the local trucks. A frequent taco trunk hound myself, I had never seen it before Tacorriendo Las Delicias, where "We have suadero" was scribbled on sign in Spanish, separate from the menu. The woman at the window explained that the strips of beef brisket are first boiled in a skillet, then sautéed just a bit. The result is an extremely soft, tasty cut of meat, without any spice. This truck's got a great condiment bar, too, including the standard salsas along with pico de gallo, lime wedges, extra cilantro and onions and sliced radish and cucumber.
Don Beto el Poblano
2305 Capital Blvd (in front of Capital Tires and Inspection) • Raleigh
Mon–Fri 9 am–2 pm
A true lonchera, this lunch truck sparked so much local interest that Raleigh resident Tim Flaherty asked owners Susana Pacheco and Miguel Moral to cater a party for him. They parked the truck at his house and served the partygoers, prompting Flaherty to create a Facebook page for their business. Pacheco was surprised and grateful, saying she had no idea until a customer told her they were on the social media site. Flaherty posted a picture of the torta cubana because "it's such a ridiculous sandwich," and Pacheco later told me it's their best seller. I can barely grip half a torta in my hand, let alone eat the whole thing. It's a deal for $7. The monstrous sandwich includes three types of meat: milanesa (breaded steak), ham and salchicha (frankfurter) with beans, lettuce, avocado slices, queso fresco, mayonnaise and jalapeños. Pacheco, who hails from Puebla, Mexico, points out that she and her husband want to show the public how food from their village is prepared. This includes the homemade corn tortillas (also used in the quesadillas, which is rare at local taco trucks) and a garnish that consists of sliced red onion marinated with habanero peppers (spicy!) and lime juice.
309 N Greensboro St (next to Fitch Lumber)
Thu–Sun 6 pm–midnight
Mexican jugos (sometimes called aguas frescas) are fresh fruit juices usually blended with ice. At Costa Sur, a melon juice for $1.50 is all that's needed for a quick summer refreshment. When cantaloupes are in season, you'll know as you slurp up bits of the fresh melon.
Taqueria de Jalisco
E Main St (near Cat's Cradle) • Carrboro
Tue–Sat 6 pm–1 pm
Pupusas are an El Salvadoran dish, like a thick tortilla (or Colombian arepa) usually stuffed with cheese and pork and then grilled flat, served with a cabbage slaw on top. No one at Taqueria de Jalisco is from El Salvador, but they make pupusas because they're popular. And they do a great job; the pupusas are larger in diameter than most and, when served hot, are juicy and thick. This truck makes tasty roast chicken tacos, too.
On the menu
From marinated pork to sliced cow tongue, taco trucks fold almost anything into a tortilla.
pollo – chicken, usually roasted and pulled
al pastor – marinated pork "shepherd's style," a rotissserie style of cooking brought to Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. Marinade usually includes pineapple.
chorizo – spicy sausage finely chopped
asada (azada) – grilled beef steak
cabeza – beef head; the soft meat comes from the cheek
buche – beef belly
tripa – tripe, or beef intestine
chicharron – fried pork skin that is then cooked in a sauce to become soft and chewy
lengua – beef tongue, a soft meat
barbacoa – slow-cooked beef, usually shredded
carnitas – chunks of fried pork, usually marinated first in a combination of milk and beer
suadero – beef brisket boiled, then sauteed
milanesa – thin beef steaks breaded and fried in a pan
torta – a monstrous, stacked sandwich served on thick Mexican bread
sincronizada – the ingredients of a torta, pressed instead into a flour tortilla like a huge quesadilla
huarache – a larger corn tortilla shaped like a sandal (huarache) and topped like a taco, served flat
sope – a thick, fried, white corn tortilla similar to an arepa, topped with a layer of beans, choice of meat, lettuce, tomato and queso fresco