Tried and True: Tacos Degollado

The burrito at Tacos Degollado packs a punch with beef, veggies, cheese and hot sauce. (Photo: Seeta Lee)

Writer: Seeta Lee

As a kid, I was warned to stay away from taco trucks and I heeded those warnings. But looking back, I’m not sure if those warnings were borne out of bad personal experiences, unproductive prejudices or unfounded rumors. Des Moines has never been especially friendly to food trucks, and that compounded my fears. I’m ashamed to admit I never visited a taco truck until August of 2021. That truck was Tacos Degollado.

I’d long resolved that once I was brave enough to try a taco truck, Tacos Degollado would be the first. For a long time, I didn’t even know it had a name. It was simply known as the one at 19th and University, by Advance Auto Parts. If the location didn’t give it away, the descriptors did. It’s white, with picnic tables under tents in the lot. It’s always there. And there’s almost always a line.

That last detail was a good sign. A food truck that busy had to be not only safe but good. After all, it had been there for at least 15 years.

I first stopped by when I was jonesing to dine out during the pandemic, when food trucks were a relatively safe option. That was as good a time as any to finally pull into the pocked lot with no obvious parking rules. I don’t remember ordering during that first visit, but I figured it would be a given. It’s a taco truck, after all. But when I was handed a white paper plate full of steak, cilantro, white and grilled onions, radishes and a lime, I kicked myself right in my prejudices. How did I ever believe that old nonsense? How dare I neglect a truck like Tacos Degollado, which turns out such stunning food?

I wish I were alone in this uneducated thinking, but I’d obviously learned it. There’s a sort of less-than mentality toward Mexican and Latinx restaurants. Some say they’re all the same, serving up boring variations on refried beans, rice, meat and cheese on Fiestaware knock-offs. Others suggest the food can’t be elevated, that tacos are for cheap and easy meals out, that trucks are for late-shift workers. Still others argue the eateries aren’t sanitary, but Anthony Bourdain knew that wasn’t true. He once noted that it wasn’t the “little taco stand” that ever made him ill; it was the “damn breakfast buffet at the major chain hotel.”

When people get swept up in this perfect storm of problematic views, they assume taco trucks have nothing to offer, that they’re somehow a threat to communities, a symbol of economic failure.

 

Locally, Arturo Mora proved that those taco trucks aren’t serving up the same fare I had at Chi-Chi’s as a teenager. Mora started his taco empire with Flame Taco Truck, expanded to Flame Taqueria and Flame Cantina, and recently opened Roots 95, an elevated, globally influenced restaurant in Johnston. If you’ve ever been to Flame Cantina, you know it shouldn’t be ignored.

While Tacos Degollado is different from Flame, it deserves attention, too, and helps demonstrate how varied Mexican or Latinx food can be.

Farther afield, the food world is finally noticing how outstanding taco trucks and stands can really be. Earlier this year, a Mexico City taco stand called Taquería El Califa de León earned a Michelin star, the first taco stand to receive such an honor. Mind you, its been at it for 20 years.

Tacos Degollado isn’t far behind. And as soon as you try the food there, you’ll understand how taco truck food can be revered as a dignified, worthy cuisine.

The front of the truck is what chefs on cooking shows might call “rustic.” More than a dozen handwritten signs, menus and pictures are taped around the ordering window, offering tacos, burritos, quesadillas and tortas along with the meat choices like chicken, tripe and cabeza (beef head). One sign promotes “hay ceviche” with two cute, hand-drawn fish, next to an English translation with ingredients.

The truck’s exterior isn’t dirty, but it’s not exactly pristine, either. The picnic tables are plastic and metal. There are coolers full of ice, cans and bottled drinks. It is not fancy. It’s not even homey. It’s utilitarian and that’s enough.

Putting aside any expectation of an aesthetic, what actually gives you pause are the prices. Tacos for $2? In this economy?

But it’s true. Tacos Degollado lists steak, pork and chicken tacos at two bucks each. The most expensive tacos are the rarer cuts of beef like lengua (tongue) and tripa (tripe). You’ll pay more for combos like the $11 platter with meat, rice, beans and a salad, but it’s easy to walk away full for just $6. On our latest visit, we ordered a chicken burrito, a steak quesadilla and two bottles of Jarritos for just $25 — and it was almost too much food. We don’t get full for that much at McDonald’s.

During our half-hour visit on a Wednesday night, Tacos Degollado did a steady business. Most people pulled up, ordered to-go and left within five minutes. The food comes out surprisingly fast.

Every single person who pulled up that evening represented a different demographic. People getting off work, heading to work or on break. Black folks, white folks, Latino folks. A few couples, a police officer, and maybe a stoner or two. Folks knew what they wanted, knew it’d be quick and knew it’d be cheap.

I’m usually not a fan of hot sauce, but I had to try it when they handed it to us in a girthy squeeze bottle along with salsa verde. It was gorgeous and smoky with what I assume is a chipotle base. It built a slow burn on my lips, but I liked it so much that I kept squirting it on my steak quesadilla. My stomach let me know later that was a mistake, but I told my stomach that I’d do it again in a heart-burned heartbeat.

My quesadilla had me initially perplexed because I expected it to be cut up like a pizza; apparently, I’m used to being fed like a child. Instead, this came cut in half down the middle, and that was it. I moved my confused hands around it a few times to find an angle, then gave in and ate it like a sandwich. If the folks in the truck could see me, I’m sure they were laughing. It was a mess. I was a mess. And I loved it. Partway through, I lifted the tortilla and stuffed the radishes and onions inside, then sprinkled it with lime juice and more hot sauce.

As I write this, I realize I already want another one.

My husband, a man of few words, loves a good burrito. With every first bite he takes, I make sure to watch his face. I knew he was in on that first bite. With his mouth full, he nodded emphatically and looked content. Paired with the Jarritos, every bit of Tacos Degollado unadulterated experience is a steal. My only regret: I didn’t get the horchata.

Even though my initial intolerance kept me away from taco trucks for so long, maybe they can help bring our divided country back together. I’m Black, Caucasian and Indian — and all too familiar with the complexities of race relations, especially with law enforcement. My father, an immigrant, was with the Des Moines Police Department for 30 years. So when I saw the officer roll up for his dinner at Tacos Degollado, I had a moment of appreciation. No matter how anyone feels about tensions between law enforcement and the community, Tacos Degollado offers common ground, a place to meet in the middle, in the middle of the inner city.

I repeated to my husband something I’ve said and heard many times: Food brings people together. If you put me across the table from someone whose social or political values are opposite from mine, I’ll probably bristle. But if you put us at a picnic table in front of a bustling taco truck, I’ll let my guard down enough to at least appreciate the shared moment with another human being, especially if that other person enjoys the meal as much as I do.

Find Tacos Degollado at 1815 University Ave., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call 515-559-7509.

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