By Jason McGahan
If you run a successful restaurant or bar in “Morgantown”—that concrete patch of factories and factory lofts where East Williamsburg meets Bushwick—you tend to keep a low profile.
Discretion is the unspoken rule among the area’s business owners.
Pine Box Rock Shop keeps no lettered sign on its storefront, only a wood cut-out coffin suspended over the entrance. Kings County has neither sign nor window. Momo Sushi Shack keeps a sign, but unless the weather’s warm its garage door is lowered like a warehouse dock. And Roberta’s, the local standard-bearer for discreet success, looks, from the outside, like the caretaker’s entrance to a junkyard.
So it’s fitting that a tube of Christmas-tree lights and a plastic sign blinking OPEN are the only ostentation announcing the taco truck on Bogart Street and Harrison Place. Smack beside the entrance to the Morgan stop on the L train, this newest addition to the neighborhood cuisine lets its food do the advertising.
I ask Sergio, the diminutive co-proprietor, if the truck even has a name. He thinks it over. “The sign on the truck says ‘Tacos Tijuana.’ But this truck’s just a rental.”
What’s in a name, anyhow? Call it the Bushwick taco truck. Its range of authentic cuisine is beyond what most Mexican restaurants in the city can provide. Forget other taco trucks.
Melanie Beaudette of Bed-Stuy agrees. “None of the taco trucks in Williamsburg come close to this place,” she told me one recent Thursday evening.
Melanie had come to the truck with a friend after drinks at nearby Kings County. She ordered the carnitas taco, made with braised shredded pork. “It was spicy!” she said with a wince of satisfaction.
Brighid Gannon, a native of the Lower East Side, came from Manhattan to savor the fare at the taco truck. She recommended the quesadilla with chorizo, saying it’s the best Mexican food in New York.
“It’s so hard to find good Mexican food in the city,” she said. “These guys are way above the cut.”
Most everyone orders a taco or quesadilla the first time. And there are plenty more familiar items to choose from, like burritos and tamales and tostadas and tortas and gorditas and chalupas. The guacamole is made fresh daily with an infusion of fresh-squeezed lime, cilantro, and plenty of jalapeno.
But who among us has savored a sope? Or how about a huarache? Clacoyos, anyone?
For toppings they offer beef, chicken, carne enchilada (fried pork with chile), cecina (salted beef), carnitas, chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage), and lengua (cow’s tongue).
My personal favorite is the tacos al pastor, pulled pork roasted with pineapple and seasoned with smoky chile ancho, and spicy chile de arbol, with a splash of vinegar and a drop of tequila.
It’s not by mistake that every Mexican busboy, stock-boy, and line-cook working in a six-block radius sooner or later will be found standing in line for a bite.
And for $10, the hardiest of appetites is satisfied here. (No item on the menu costs more than $7.)
“This is the food I remember my mother feeding us,” says Felipe, Sergio’s identical twin brother, fellow chef, and business partner.
Felipe and Sergio Gonzalez hail from Soto y Gama (pop. 500), a village in the dustbowl of the Mexican high plains, 70 long miles southeast of Mexico City. They moved to Brooklyn 25 years ago, started families, and never looked back. These days Bushwick is home.
Like many of their customers, the twins got priced out of Greenpoint and Williamsburg before picking up stakes and moving here. They started in Greenpoint, opening and closing two restaurants over a 14-year stretch. Then for 10 years they ran Taco Bite, a popular Mexican eatery on South 4th Street in Williamsburg. When that closed last year they decided to cut out the landlord and serve their signature dishes from a trailer instead of a restaurant.
“In our restaurants we kept coming back to the same problem,” Sergio said. “Working just to pay our bills. The rent, the electricity, the heat, the insurance. When you look back at all the thousands of dollars we brought in, there was hardly anything left.”
“There’s a big difference between a hundred dollars’ worth of propane for a taco truck, and an 800-dollar heating bill,” he observed.
So they rented a van, bought a generator and some propane tanks, and set out like prospectors in search of the right corner to set up camp.
It wasn’t easy. There were already four taco trucks at Bedford and Metropolitan. At Union and Metropolitan they ran into red tape about something called a parks permit. At Myrtle and Broadway the neighbors were a hassle.
After two months of seeking, Felipe and Sergio nearly threw in the towel. They resolved, however, to try one more corner: Bogart Street and Harrison Place, in Morgantown.
“We got there at 7 and said, ‘Let’s stay until 11,’” Felipe recalled. “We ended up serving food until dawn.”
Six nights a week the Bushwick taco truck does a brisk business. (They’re closed Mondays.) Felipe, Sergio, and Jose, a friend and assistant, have, in six short months, established themselves as neighborhood fixtures.
Felipe says that lately tourists from the hostel down the street have been asking to climb into the truck and pose for group photos. A woman recently brought Sergio a bouquet of flowers. Thespians come by to invite them to openings.
When you’re ready to order, expect to be interrupted in mid-sentence by some passerby shouting hello to Felipe or Sergio. Or vice-versa. Expect to have to wait an extra minute while the customer ahead of you tells them how he is from California or Texas and how he ranks their tacos as equal to or above his exacting standards.
Meanwhile, the food continues to fly out of the trailer.
“We do more business from the taco truck than we ever have in one of our restaurants,” Sergio said. “Last Sunday we served 350 customers.”
“No, more,” Felipe corrects him. “It was at least 400.”
“We never expected anything like this,” Sergio admits.
I predict aloud that they’ll open a restaurant in the neighborhood within the year. Felipe smiles, his philosopher’s gaze set tranquilly above the painter’s brush mustache, and without blinking says, “We’re thinking about it.” ?