The truck shows up at Disco Rodeo each Friday and Saturday night sometime after 7. "But, 7:30 guaranteed," says co-owner Manuel Garcia Jr. "You know, the Hispanic community, they don't punch out at 5; they work till the sun goes down. So I have [customers] that just come when it gets dark, when the job sites close down. I base it on the sun, really."
Closing time is also flexible, sometimes as late as 2:45 a.m. Around 1 or 1:30 a.m., the chef from J. Betski's restaurant will send over an envoy to bring back a box full of food. Never mind that J. Betski's already has a kitchen full of food.
"They're the best tacos in town," says the chef, Todd Whitney (featured in last month's Food Chain).
Manuel and Rebecca Garcia and their four adult children own the company now known as Tacos El Corral. Manuel Garcia is from a region about three hours east of Acapulco, in the state of Guerrero. "A lot of people don't understand why people leave their countries," says his son, Manuel Jr. "They want to find a better life. That's the reason [my father] came up here, to make a better life for his mother and his brothers down there. And we have. We've opened them a big [lemon tree] farm down there and bought them some farm equipment. They take care of the crops, sell [lemons] to restaurants. The cost of living isn't much—so as long you live off the land, you'll be all right."
In 1975, Manuel Sr. moved to Florida and met his wife. "We were migrant kids," says Manuel Jr. "My parents picked tobacco here [in North Carolina], and sweet potatoes, then we'd go back to Florida and they'd pick oranges. When we got a little bit older, they realized it wouldn't be a good situation to keep moving around."
Manuel Jr. and his brother Jesus Garcia have taken on much of the responsibility for the taco business.
"My dad started up in 1989," remembers Manuel Jr. The first taco truck was parked in Fuquay-Varina off Highway 401. "He was actually the very first taco man to start in Wake County. There used to be a nightclub there called El Corral. Back then we didn't have a name; my dad did it on the weekends as a part-time thing, and the business started to grow a little more and a little more, and of course the Hispanic community has grown at the same time." The club burned down, but everybody kept calling them the El Corral truck. Now the business is officially called Tacos El Corral, complete with trademarked logo, five trucks, a commercial kitchen and seven employees, most from Mexico. "It's a family business since the day we started, it's still that way now."
Emphasis on family. "Every wagon you see, there's always one family member," says Manuel Jr. "We feel like our business is growing by itself, and we just need to take care of it."
They also do catering.
The Garcias pay rent to the landowner where the trucks park, and the Disco Rodeo site, off Wake Forest Road in Raleigh, has a built-in customer base. The club can hold more than 2,000 people; Manuel Jr. will bring out two trucks when a big band is scheduled to play. Nearby are other large venues like the Longbranch and the Ale House. "Our customers are so enthusiastic about our tacos that they leave other clubs a little before closing time to try to beat the rush here. We're very good about not letting anybody go hungry."
On this particular Saturday around 9 p.m., the scene is quiet and relaxed, and everyone's just enjoying the night air, which has dropped about 10 degrees in the last hour.
A few bartenders from Disco Rodeo drink sodas and lean over the iron railing, waiting to receive the first clubgoers of the night. Two security guards, off-duty Raleigh police officers, stand at one end of the parking lot casually talking. The security guards admit to a fondness for Tacos El Corral. One says he used to get the tostas, but now he's more in a quesadilla phase.
The bartenders watch the taco customers come and go. A family with three kids is seated on the curb outside their dented Honda Accord, all eating tacos. Another family drives up in a gleaming white, jacked-up Chevy pickup with elaborate rims. They park under a leaning street lamp that has clearly been hit at some point by a moving vehicle. Kids file out of the pickup and wait their turn in line.
The menu on each truck is simple: tacos, quesadillas and tortas. Each is available with a choice of five fillings: carne asada (beefsteak grilled with onions), lengua (beef tongue), barbacoa (beef cheek), carnitas (shredded pork, traditionally cooked with orange rind) and al pastor (pork, "shepherd's style," marinated in spices and thinly sliced). Tacos are the most affordable item at only $1.50 each, though a hungry customer probably gets the most food for his money with the huge $6 tostas. Over the course of three visits I tasted tacos lengua, tacos carne asada, tacos al pastor, quesadillas carnitas and tostas carne asada.
"Lengua and barbacoa really go a lot. It's just more authentic, a lot of people get that," says Jesus Garcia. Their biggest business is repeat customers. "Most people know exactly what they want." Each taco comes wrapped in two handmade corn tortillas with meat, raw onions and cilantro inside, and a slice of lime. The lengua is quite fatty and a bit gristly but has a savory taste, contrasting well with the sweet corn tortilla. It's Manuel Jr.'s favorite item on the menu. I can't vouch for the authenticity, but the meat is compellingly rich, almost like venison or rabbit, the very essence of meatiness, brightened with a liberal squirt of the lime. The al pastor style is nicely spiced and slightly redolent of nutmeg. The carne asada is clearly the taste many non-Latinos will most identify with; it's like a steak fajita.
The $5 quesadillas carnitas are heavy on the cheese, which is wonderfully salty, with a subtle sweetness in the meat. You can decorate it yourself with the garnishes provided: lettuce, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and sour cream. The tomatoes are beautiful. Manuel Jr. explains that they buy all their produce from the farmers' market in Raleigh. "We try to support local people, everything from the barbershop man to the vegetables to buying our tires, everything."
The torta is exceptionally satisfying. Basically a meat sandwich, like a flattened hero or Po' Boy, it is dressed with raw onions, lettuce, mayo and tomatoes, with lime, jalapeños and carrots on the side. The bread is the secret. A Burlington bakery delivers the rolls daily. "We cut them in half and butter [them] before putting them on the grill. They are made with milk instead of water, and cost a little more than other bread, but they're worth it," says Jesus.
And then there's the hot sauce. "The hot sauce is really what makes it," says Manuel Jr. Jesus agrees. "My dad brought the recipe up from Mexico. We built our whole business on our hot sauce."
Their secret recipe sauce is unlike any other I've had, and it's addictive. Though not fiery, it has a depth charge of spice that hits at the very end. In texture, it's more like a thin gravy, very brown, the color of Worcestershire sauce, and extremely salty.
Tacos El Corral has a commercial kitchen in Benson. "That's where I report to, and report back to every night," explains Manuel Jr. "After the night's over, the guys will unload and clean the grill and get all the dishes put up, and I'm in there doing the paperwork. That's where my inspector goes and grades me and sees my wagons."
All the vegetables are prepped and the meat grilled in Benson, too.
"I take the food course once a year," says Manuel Jr. "We try to follow everything by the book. I understand a lot of people try to undercut the system, but it's not fair. We spend so much money on paperwork and upgrading the equipment, but you want everybody to follow by the same rules, you know?"
Manuel Jr. guesses that Tacos El Corral has about 10 competitors in the Triangle. His trucks have east Wake County covered, and the family's stomping grounds are Johnston, Harnett and Sampson counties. They live in Dunn, and Jesus is currently enrolled in Sampson County Community College working toward a nursing degree. ("It's something different from tacos," he says.)
Manuel Jr. finished up high school and started in the taco trucks right off.
"I work hard for my daddy," he says. Though he hasn't taken any courses in business, he's a born marketer: "We haven't raised our prices in 10 years. Everything in the economy has. But we've tried to keep it low and fair for everybody." And he's careful to thank those who have been most loyal: "There in Fuquay on 401, every Christmas we have a big party and we invite all of our customers—and everything's free. We have a raffle every 10 minutes, it's a big shindig and we have a good time."
On weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and weekends from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tacos El Corral can also be found on Fayetteville Road (Highway 401) in Fuquay-Varina about eight miles south of Raleigh; the truck is parked across from Hilltop Baptist Church/School. Each day they set up tents and tables so customers can enjoy a comfortable sit-down lunch.
On weekends, flea markets provide a stream of customers. Tacos El Corral goes to the Watson's Flea Market off Rock Quarry Road each Saturday and Sunday, and at the Fuquay Flea Market, they operate out of a freestanding building on the market grounds. "At Watson's [they don't] go through much hot sauce—there are more Central Americans—whereas in Fuquay-Varina, you have more of a Hispanic community, and they're tearing that hot sauce up," says Manuel Jr.
Jesus is now preparing to attend the second annual Raleigh Wide Open festival, which will be held July 21 on Fayetteville Street, downtown. He says the planners asked him to bring all of his five trucks to park in different spots, but he can only spare two that day. That sounds just fine: You can finish your tosta carne asada while strolling down the mall toward the other truck, where you can pick up some tacos al pastor. I'm sure they could wrap up a quesadilla, too, for the ride home.
Though brother Manuel calls him a "picky eater," Jesus is enthusiastic about food. He and the staff frequent a favorite Chinese restaurant south of Raleigh, and he speaks in nearly poetic terms about the fragrance of the wood-burning grill at his favorite steak house. But within the Triangle, he is most enthused about one particular tropical spot. Coming from a young man whose roots lie near leafy Acapulco, this means something. Join us next month for a piña colada, won't you?