In the beginning, there were cold trucks – pickup trucks with coolers stocked with burritos. They were okay for hungry workers during the Reagan Administration. When the Berlin Wall fell, the hot truck rose like a fast-food Phoenix, warming the hearts and stomachs of San Diego County’s citizens on the move.
Before that, however, there was Jose Godinez, the Godfather of taco trucks.
Since 1974, Godinez and his family have been serving up tacos under the name El Ranchero (the rancher). Their flagship taco truck is usually parked on Telegraph Canyon Road near Interstate 805. The Godinez family also owns three taco shops in San Diego County.
Originally from Atotonilco de Alto, Jalisco, Mexico, Godinez developed his devotion for food at an early age in his parents’ restaurants.
“They always dedicated themselves to food,” he said.
Godinez said he taught himself to cook his family’s classics like carnitas, chicharrones and birria when he was 12.
In most traditional Mexican cooking, nothing is wasted, especially when it comes to pork.
Greasy carnitas, essentially whole hog, is cooked in lard until tender yet crisp. To make chicharrones, the skin of the pork is fried until it is crunchy and golden brown.
Birria is a goat stew, braised until the meat falls apart.
Godinez said he has a deep love for the traditional foods of his youth, but he is a businessman at his core. With a trio of taco shops and a truck to run, he is diligent but unorthodox.
“If a business is slow, you have to open another one that will give you a bit more money so you can keep open the other place,” he said. “If not, then you become bankrupt.”
This double-down approach seems to be working for Godinez, who has combined his passion for quality with an athlete’s love for competition.
Most food sold at Godinez’s truck is prepped off-site in one of his taco shops under his watchful eye. His adobada, the spiced pork meat stacked on a large spit in hot-air balloon shape with thick pineapple slices at the ends, gets the home treatment before traveling in the truck. Same with his tripe and soft lengua tacos. He also cooks carne asada over coals.
He is hyper-vigilant with his line cooks, his talented taqueros.
A skilled taquero has mastered the traditional techniques of taco making. They work with efficiency, speed and skill to construct tacos with an enviable obliviousness to the sizzling hot food in their seasoned hands.
“This way it is easier and you always maintain the same line,” Godinez said. “That’s important in a business.”
Mexicans call the gift sazón, an intuitive cooking skill. Even if a decent cook is taught exactly how to make something and follows directions explicitly, the finished product may not be as good as the original, he said. Sazón creates magia every time. This is especially true for Godinez’s classic barbacoa, which he takes great pride in.
Dedication to quality has paid off. His tacos are tiny packets of Mexican flavors, bursting out of their tortillas with salsa, tradition and tantalizing taste.
Almost right next to El Ranchero is Mariscos Rolex, a food truck that sells seafood. This might rattle other restaurateurs, but it is a welcome sight for Godinez. He loves competition, he said. He likes customers to compare, fueling his drive to find ways to do things better.
Although his sons own the taco truck now, Godinez said his zeal for this business makes it impossible to stay away. He still wakes before dawn and is busy checking in on his taco empire until after dark because, he said, that’s just the way it is with restaurants.
A Shakespearian bard de birria would have said, “The food’s the thing.” Godinez would agree.
“What people care about is to eat, right?”