Patient people stand by an El Volcan food truck painted with red-hot flames on a cool Friday evening on East Alisal Street.
About 10 people – a family, a couple, some solo hungry folk – wait to place or receive their orders. A short woman in a pink polo folds her arms and taps her foot. She leans on the truck’s stainless steel counter and peers through the cashier window.
“Want some help back there?” she asks the two cooks in the trailer-sized kitchen.
The cooks multitask, grilling meats like tripa (tripe) or burgers on the flat-top grill and plopping mounds of dough into a press for fresh corn or flour tortillas.
“If you’re offering, come help,” jokes the cook, who wears a black shirt and black cap.
The wait is longer than typical fast food. On an earlier visit to their truck by El Estero park in Monterey, I discovered the quesadilla with al pastor ($9) wasn’t the quick bite I expected to squeeze in before class at nearby Monterey Peninsula College. It took 20 minutes, which is what my four visits averaged, and I ended up discreetly devouring it during anthropology. Doing it on the downlow can be challenging, as it’s a heavy meal of tender roasted pork, grilled onions and pineapple that provides a pop, and gooey and chewy Oaxacan cheese between thick flour tortillas. Slow, bold and satisfying.
But long wait times aren’t enough to ward off hungry customers. On East Alisal, at the end of a workday, waiting customers can easily walk to one of the three other food trucks within sight of El Volcan. They don’t.
Maybe they brave the wait because the types of tortas on El Volcan’s menu display creative combinations not seen at usual loncheras (lunch trucks), but seen on the side of the truck in explosive graphics – like the philly volcan ($6), with jack and cheddar oozing over carne asada. With 16 types of tortas to choose from, selecting a sandwich can be stressful, so I ask the cook to prepare their most popular one. Like the painted orange hue of volcanic heat rising to the truck’s ventilation system, the favored torta is a striking sight: The torta erupcion($6) includes carne asada, al pastor, grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, jalapeños and pineapple piled between bread pressed on the grill to create a crunchy crust while melting the jack cheese inside. It resembles some of the outrageously overstuffed foods obnoxious TV hosts like Guy Fieri stuff their faces with. But at El Volcan, it’s not for showmanship, but to pay tribute to the robust foods served by street vendors of bustling cities in foreign countries.
Case in point: the torta Cubana volcan ($6). More meaty than its little brother – the roasted-pork-based Cubano – the Cubana here is a varying combination of meat, with milanesa(breaded beef cutlet), ham, sausages in spiral shapes, tomatoes, jalapeños and onions. It’s carnivore-friendly like the erupcion, but the meats don’t mingle as well and something like the pineapple’s sweetness would help cut through all that savory.
Some loyal Volcan chasers choose more straight-forward options like the tacos ($1.60): Your choice of meat, from the melt-in-your-mouth lengua (tongue) to the crisp chorizo, on warm corn tortillas topped with diced onions, cilantro, lime, and tomatillo salsa. (You can add more from the condiment bottles too.)
El Volcan has a fleet of three trucks, serving East Alisal in Salinas, Riverside Drive in Watsonville, and, their newest venture, El Estero in Monterey, a rarity for a city new to allowing food trucks.
Monterey presents a different demographic, and the majority of them opt for the more familiar tacos. But their devotion to the them equals the devotion to El Volcan’s intense tortas elsewhere.
Sebastian Jahill hails from Los Angeles and says he misses the fleet of taco trucks there, so when he discovered El Volcan, it was like the taco gods answered his prayers.
“I come here every day and order the same thing,” Jahill says as he eats. “Five carne asada tacos, no onions. Sometimes they throw in a free mini quesadilla.”
On a windy Cinco de Mayo, I follow the crowd and order three tacos – barbacoa (aka barbecued beef), chicken, and cabeza (head) – and one quesadilla chiqa de maiz ($1). The shredded beef of the barbacoa is made moist from being braised in its own juices. The cabeza’s texture verges into too-chewy territory, but at least it wasn’t overly fatty as with other places. Without the plentiful portion of meat from the pricier quesadillas, the subtle nutty notes of the Oaxacan cheese shine in the chiqa.
There’s an abundance of other foods to try, which stretches from the end of the truck where orders are picked up to the cooler with Mexican sodas like Jarritos and grape Sangria ($2.50). Fusion-friendly palates like the bacon-wrapped, carne asada topped hot dog el panguaro ($4), which is as intense as it sounds, and the burger volcanica ($5.25) with bacon, a slice of ham, and pineapple on a thick patty. In other words, worth the wait.
EL VOLCAN 3pm-2am daily at 901 East Alisal St., Salinas. 11am-8pm daily at 848 Del Monte Ave, Monterey. 595-2191.