It’s a sunny weekend afternoon in Austin, and seven different food trucks — their focuses ranging from elote to tacos to Honduran-style fried fish — attend to a growing mass of customers gathering where they’re parked, in the lot of a convenience store and tire shop at the intersection of East Rundberg Lane and I-35.
A young couple chats excitedly in Spanish as they share a perspiring bottle of Mexican Sprite and await their order of crispy tripa tacos from Taqueria Piedra Grande. In the adjacent grassy lot, their child excitedly chases after the family’s two Labrador mixes, dropping his half-eaten, Taki-dusted elote in the process. On a street corner roughly a dozen yards away, beside the parking lot’s entrance, a woman peddles handmade pinatas in the shape of bunnies for the upcoming Easter holiday, calling out to a smartly dressed family of four making their way to the brilliant blue Honduran food truck Tacos La Bendicion y Pupuseria. That’s where a Honduran man dressed in his Sunday best sits at the truck’s matching blue picnic table, humming a jaunty tune. He pauses and folds his hands to pray loudly before digging into his order of whole mojarra — a tilapia-adjacent tropical fish that is served batter-fried to a salty golden crisp akin to KFC’s drumsticks. It’s here on East Rundberg, a gauntlet of mostly Mexican and Central American food truck offerings known colloquially as Taco Mile, where some of the best food truck fare exists in the city.
Austin’s Taco Mile is characterized by perpetually gridlocked traffic and the robust, aromatic warmth of tempered spices and charring peppers that lingers in the air, spilling out of every Chevron and Shell gas station parking lot: melty, cheese-stuffed gorditas; glistening beef tacos, and crunchy white street corn topped with so many bright and spicy accoutrements you’d swear it was plucked straight from a Mexico City vendor’s cart.
But in many ways, Rundberg Lane is set apart from the rest of the city. The three-mile stretch of residential road on the city’s north side runs counter to the popular image of Austin — a startup-friendly, white hipster paradise that usually comes to mind when visitors or transplant residents think of the Live Music Capital of the World. As far as the nation’s perception of Austin goes, the Rundberg neighborhood doesn’t exactly fit the narrative. Jose Carrasco, a community coordinator at Dobie Middle School on East Rundberg, affectionately refers to the area as “Little New York” for its diverse immigrant population.
For Austinites like Carrasco, the area surrounding Rundberg’s taco mile is best described as the sort of BIPOC-majority, blue-collared community that was prevalent in the pre-gentrified East Austin area back in the late ’90s. “[Rundberg is] a place where working families can still pay the rent, while not being isolated or alienated from their culture and their communities,” says 32-year-old Austin City Councilmember Greg Casar, who began his career as a ground-level organizer in the area. “[You] don’t just have food and culture just from Mexican Americans or Salvadorenos, or folks from South Asia, but also so many Vietnamese speakers and Arabic speakers [who] all go into the same schools [and] are living in the same neighborhood.”
It’s the sort of self-contained neighborhood where residents both live and work. Indeed, truck owners and clientele, usually of the same regional background, often live side by side in the packed fourplexes near each gas station food park along the road. Usually, half a dozen or so trucks dot the parking lots of grocery stores, night clubs, mercados, front yards, and, of course, gas stations on East Rundberg Lane. This street, more than any other, reinforces one of the city’s defining characteristics: Where there are taco trucks, life happens. And for the hardworking taqueras and cocineros who run these operations, especially in Rundberg, that life is often as filled with hardship as it is passion.
Laura Toledo’s food trailer, Taqueria Ceibas, might seem unremarkable, aside from its bright red and orange exterior. For one, hers is smaller than the full-sized food trailers found on this block. It’s also tucked so far into this Chevron’s parking lot that you’re likely to circle the block three or four times before finding it — and that’s assuming you don’t mistake it for Tacos Lyly’s, the other, more visible, red taco trailer in this same parking lot. But really, Toledo’s little spot churns out some of the most craveable Michoacan-style goat birria in Central Texas.
Having immigrated to the United States in 2010 from Michoacan, Toledo toiled as a cook in several now-shuttered food trailers until she could finally start her own in 2017. Inside Taqueria Ceibas, there’s a cramped work area with virtually every inch of counter space taken by bubbling stock pots, tortillas charring on the plancha, and steaming trays of fatty pork and beef. Within these close quarters, she and her daughter-in-law Sandra whip up hearty breakfast tacos by day and meaty street tacos by night — both accentuated by hand-pressed corn tortillas and hotter-than-hot chipotle salsa. And while some may not immediately recognize the trailer’s significance, for Toledo, it’s more than enough. “Ever since I got here, my dream was to one day say, ‘I have an operation of my own,’” she says in Spanish. “And even as things have gotten difficult in the past year with the pandemic, I thank God that he’s given me this joy.”
It’s no accident that taco trucks like Toledo’s operate in front of gas stations and tire shops within largely blue-collar neighborhoods, says Mando Rayo, co-author of Austin Breakfast Tacos: The Story of the Most Important Taco of the Day, The Tacos of Texas, and contributor to Eater Austin. “They’re mom-and-pop operations — immigrant-run, that just want to serve food for their community.”
Unassuming locations like gas stations and tire shops, in addition to their often ample parking and reliable foot traffic, offer immigrant entrepreneurs an affordable entry into the food truck business. “You don’t have to pay for a high-price retail spot, or even food courts or food truck courts,” says Rayo, noting that in recent years the prices of such operations have, in Austin especially, risen dramatically. Most business owners can start operations with just their truck, their food, and a hand-painted menu.
Toledo’s story may be similar to many of the Austin cooks and taco truck owners, but her cooking is exceptional: North Austin residents begin queuing as early as 7 a.m. on weekends at Taqueria Ceibas. Like many other business owners in the neighborhood, Toledo immigrated relatively recently, speaks little English, and operates a cash-only business model, a necessity due to the cost and complexity of setting up credit card terminals. That reliance on a cash model also opens operators up to additional risk. At the nearby La Chilanguita food truck, where co-owner Miriam Mercado and her team of four female family members (“I prefer working with women,” she says, “they’re so much more reliable”) masterfully combine smoky, achiote-rubbed pork cuts with Oaxacan jack cheese, a friend of Mercado’s from the nearby gas station recently fought off a would-be burglar. That friend scalded the burglar with hot oil before striking him with a frying pan as he ran off.
Such robberies are nothing new in this neighborhood; Rundberg’s widespread untenable living conditions, lackadaisical code enforcement, and out-of-state landlords result from an “imbalance of power, where the city and property owners tend to just negotiate without really having tenants at the table.” Food truck operations have learned to adapt to those realities. But within a community like Rundberg — one defined by its residents’ ability to share comforts from their previous lives in their adopted home — an assault on a food truck, common though they may be, can feel like an attack on the whole community.
Crime is only one of the struggles facing Rundberg. The 78753 area code that encompasses the neighborhood, also known as District 4, is one of the most food-insecure in the city — a problem that’s been only compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “[This lack of resources] is telling of two tales of [Rundberg],” says Carrasco, who also serves as the director of the Family Resource Center at Dobie Middle School. “[There are] restaurants and tacos and all this food from different cultures, yet one of the most basic necessities at home is food, and some of the same people that are probably working at those trailers are the ones that are just trying to make a living, and may not have that kind of food at home.”
For this reason, the taco trucks found in this area are usually untrendy (the lion’s share lack a dedicated social media presence). But they’re nothing if not also cheap and reliable.
“It’s where you’ll see lots of frontline city workers. I run into lots of folks that fix electric lines or are plumbers for the city … All sorts of folks in the community are there, but it’s definitely a landing place for a lot of our public employees,” says Councilmember Casar, pointing to Ken’s Subs, Tacos, and More, with its gargantuan $2.45 burrito-sized sausage, egg, and cheese breakfast tacos.
In Rundberg, Rayo explains, where the tacos still reliably sell for $1 to $3 each, construction workers and service industry employees alike can fill up their tanks, shop for groceries at a convenience store, and score an affordable meal — all before or after work. That same convenience-first concept applies to tire shops, according to Rayo. Here, he says, the clientele who are opting for the local used tire shop — as opposed to a Goodyear — have a budget to keep in mind. They’ll opt for what’s affordable. For some, that might mean a hearty, saucy plate of pollo guisado con papas (and enough to feed the entire family for $10) from Salvadoran truck La Perlita de San Miguel Pupuseria; the food is affordable enough that you can spread a meal among three or more food trucks, sampling each concinera’s tendency to favor one particular spice — cumin, allspice, or achiote — over another.
Front and center on many of these menus is the pupusa, the cheese-stuffed masa pocket. At Comida Hondureña El Buen Sabor, a truck parked a literal stone’s throw from Taqueria Ceibas’s Chevron lot, the dish comes stuffed with fresh, melty mozzarella and a variety of available fillings including loroco, a vine flower bud with a flavor that strikes a pungent balance of spinach, collard greens, and kale. It’s the sort of indulgent snack that, like most options available up and down Rundberg, offers customers a moment of comfort, and — for those who live and work in the area — familiarity during a trying time.
Even with 2021 already off to a rocky start due to the pandemic and Winter Storm Uri, there seems to be a better future ahead for the Rundberg community. In the weeks following the brutal winter storm, countless Austinites from across the city connected with groups like the local tenant’s rights organization BASTA, the disaster-focused food relief nonprofit World Central Kitchen, and the Workers Defense Project, a local nonprofit with which Casar worked as a young organizer, to deliver aid and sorely needed relief to Rundberg. It was an eye opening experience for many Austinites, who gained a new awareness of the deep structural issues affecting areas like Rundberg.
But, Casar explains, it’s not just the Rundberg outsiders who are working toward the area’s future. “Through all of that struggle, and especially in the last year, it has been those same District 4 residents that have been so generous and on the forefront of dealing with problems … It’s people from District 4 that have organized food drive after food drive for people that are struggling during the pandemic. The people in D4 know how to survive.” Casar says. “You can still go pick up tacos at El Chilango. [People are] still talking about that new salsa they’re trying.”
To get the full Rundberg effect, one need only drive down the street at night. Speakers at various food trucks and trailers blast the thumping bass and soaring high notes of huapangos, corridos, banda, and even a bit of Spanish rock as young families patiently wait for their pupusas and enchiladas. Groups of friends laugh while working through cases of Modelos, and — at one taco trailer, Tacos El Charly at the North Lamar and Rundberg intersection — an aspiring singer croons out Norteño tunes with the aid of his portable karaoke machine. “On the one hand, we’ve seen so much,” says Casar, “but we also have such a strong community of families that make incredible food and know how to throw a party.”
Trey Gutierrez is an Austin-based food, art, and culture writer, and a producer for the El Rey Network program United Tacos of America.
Fact checked by Hanna Merzbach