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 come up with a defining, unifying narrative that could galvanize it to build the institutions its population needs.
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. Taquerías – brick-and-mortar shops, trucks, pop-up stands – are as ubiquitous as gas stations in Los Angeles. The competition among nearby farms keeps the quality of the food high, and the diversity of taco styles reflects how agriculture drew 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 and marketing whiz Sam Hansen, who works for the Fresno Grizzlies, the minor-league baseball team.
In 2011, Oz and Hansen, launched an annual Taco Truck Throwdown at the Grizzlies’ ballpark. Last year’s event became a sensation, with a crowd of nearly 17,000 eating 38,000 tacos from 24 trucks.
This season, the Grizzlies will change their name for every Tuesday game to the Tacos, introduce a taco mascot and 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,” said Hansen.
The taco is not merely tasty. It’s the right metaphor – a poor man’s food for 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 rhapsodize about local tacos. (Memo to political opponents of Mayor Ashley Swearengin: The fastest way to get her off-message is to bring up tacos.)
Tacos connect increasingly urban Fresno with the towns outside it, and may be erasing the city’s longstanding dividing line: Shaw Avenue. White Fresnans have generally lived north of Shaw, but now have incentive to learn the city south of Shaw, where 90 percent of the taco stands are.
One 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 media coverage, as some taquería owners have become Fresno celebrities.) Oz then took me south to Selma (population 24,000) and its Highway 43 taco corridor. The third truck we visited – Taquería Los Toritos, wedged between Highway 99 and a truck scale – offered the freshest-tasting carne asada taco I’ve ever had.
Oz, who grew up in Fremont, came to Fresno to write for The Fresno Bee. “I was always surprised how Fresno has so many people who hate Fresno,” he says, since it’s a big city with much 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. 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 infamously high ridership projections might come true once Californians elsewhere get a taste.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at email@example.com.