I didn’t know what to expect as I merged from Interstate 5 onto Highway 99, the 425-mile road that serves as the scruffy spine of California’s Central Valley. As someone who prides himself on knowing the Golden State as the former editor-in-chief of OC Weekly and a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, I had visited the region just twice before: 15 years ago, when I took my girlfriend at the time to see a rock en español show in Fresno, and a couple of years ago back in Bakersfield, when my host told me not to venture outside my downtown hotel past sunset.
To most of California, the Central Valley, a long, narrow area, ringed to the west by coastal mountain ranges and to the east by the mighty Sierra Nevadas, where about 6.5 million people live, is shorthand for misery. Stories from the Central Valley that get mainstream play tend to be about crime, or poverty, or some other societal ill. Migrant workers live and work in conditions little changed since John Steinbeck shocked the United States with descriptions of how the Joads lived in The Grapes of Wrath. The state’s punishing drought hit here the hardest. Drinking water up and down the region is contaminated. Stockton, an industrial port town on the San Joaquin River, filed one of the largest municipal bankruptcies in American history in 2014. Even the Central Valley’s most prominent figures — Republican U.S. Reps. Devin Nunes of Fresno and Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, two of Donald Trump’s most loyal lieutenants — are loathed by half the country.
The one thing Central Valley gets credit for is being the anchor of the state’s $46 billion agricultural industry, where nearly all of the country’s table grapes, almonds, walnuts, pomegranates, and many other crops are grown. But it’s also an essential, underappreciated locus of Californian identity. Waves of immigrants over the past century — Armenians, Okies, Portuguese, Sikhs, Filipinos, Japanese, Hmong, and especially Mexicans and Central Americans — have established themselves in this country in the Valley’s fertile soil, meandering roads, and affordable housing. But narratives about the Central Valley as the state’s much-maligned-yet-vital backbone and as a hub of Mexican culture are erased again and again.
All of this was on my mind as I got off Highway 99 in Bakersfield. I grabbed a jalapeno-and-cheese-stuffed bolillo from La Perla Bakery, then stopped by a branch of the Tacos La Villa chain for a Hot Cheetos breakfast burrito. At a gas station, I took satisfying, warm bites of each.
You’d figure that an area with so many Mexicans, from third-generation dining dynasties to families fresh across the border, would get some love from food critics. Nada. They instead obsess about the Mexican food in Los Angeles or San Antonio, which makes sense. Even New York’s Mexican food gets more foodie love. So does the American South. Austin. Portland.
Even I’ve ignored the Central Valley throughout my career — and I literally wrote the book about Mexican food in the United States. But after spending three days on Highway 99, eating from Bakersfield to Sacramento and back — from taco trucks to high-end restaurants, in rest stops and swap meets, from big cities to towns with barely 3,000 people — I am now a convert. And I’ll say it: Only Los Angeles and Houston — maybe — have better Mexican food scenes than the Central Valley.
If non-Californians know Bakersfield at all, it’s for its music — Buck Owens and Merle Haggard’s Bakersfield Sound, or the nü-metal thrashings of Korn. But I was there to see Matt Munoz, a former staffer and current freelance columnist for the Bakersfield Californian. He demanded I start my official Valley tour with breakfast at Arizona Cafe. It’s a beloved Cal-Mex diner with a full bar, open since 1953. I ordered a sumptuous chile verde; he got the machaca, which came with a salsa so savory you could’ve mistaken it for spicy bone broth.
Munoz, a longtime friend, was born just north of Bako — as locals call Bakersfield — in McFarland, a town of about 21,000 that “no one knew where the fuck it was until Kevin Costner,” he said, referring to the actor’s 2015 sleeper hit McFarland USA. Munoz’s Bakersfield is a place where the town’s three most prominent ethnic groups — Basque, Okie, and Mexican — have created a shared identity that the rest of the state mocks as, well, Bakersfield.
“Everyone trashes us,” the 49-year-old Munoz said, referring to terrible press the city has gotten in the past couple of years, thanks to some of the worst air pollution in the United States, and law enforcement agencies that have killed more people per capita than any other American county. “People look at you weird in the rest of California. I’d always travel to San Francisco or Los Angeles, and when I’d say where I was from, they’d just say, ‘Oh, Bakersfield.’”
There are good folks and more good food worth exploring in Bako, but I had to be on my way to Fresno, about a two-hour drive away. Munoz recommended that I stop in Delano along the way to eat at Taqueria Tampico; I figured there had to be great Mexican food in the city that birthed the United Farm Workers. Instead, I indulged in a plate of ... fettuccine alfredo. With carne asada. Creamy noodles paired with succulent, crispy Mexican beef. Which I doused in Tapatio. And it wasn’t bad at all. It taught me my first lesson about the Valley: Drop all expectations.
I rolled into Fresno around lunchtime to meet Mike Oz, who has documented the city’s taco scene for more than a decade. Joining us were Sam Hansen and Ray Ortiz, director of marketing and entertainment manager for the Fresno Grizzlies, the city’s AAA affiliate of the Houston Astros. The three organize the city’s Taco Truck Throwdown, an annual food event held at the Grizzlies’ Chukchansi Park that attracts loncheras (literally, “lunch trucks”) from across the Central Valley. Last year, they brought in more than 20,000 customers over two days to eat 50,000 tacos at some 32 taco trucks.
We met at La Elegante, a long, narrow former diner in the city’s Chinatown complete with old-school booths and a lunch counter. The place is so popular that the Union Bank across the street has a security guard to make sure no one parks in its lot. “You came right in time,” said Oz, a baseball reporter for Yahoo! Sports. “It’s about to get packed.”
Sure enough, a line quickly formed out the door of La Elegante: workers in overalls, nurses in smocks, men in ties. I quickly found out why. Within two minutes, I received my order: an adobada taco, northern Mexico’s take on al pastor. La Elegante’s take tasted straight out of Tijuana: spiced, saucy pork enlivened with a furious habanero salsa. I wanted to order another, but Hansen waved me off. “Don’t eat too much,” he cracked. “We’re going to go on a run.”
We piled into Oz’s Toyota Highlander and went to Selma, the self-proclaimed “Raisin Capital of the World.” He drove along back roads, through plots of almond groves and grapevines just showing fruit, as Hansen explained why the three of them think the Valley, not Los Angeles, is America’s taco truck capital. “We’re a bunch of small towns, and what people end up claiming more than anything is high school sports and taco trucks,” Oz said. “There’s a pride here to them you won’t find even in LA. I remember once hearing an argument between two guys, one from Selma, another from Madera, over which city had better taco trucks. And they were white guys!”
First stop in Selma: Taqueria Los Toritos, a general lonchera that Munoz had also recommended but only knew as the “Mountain View taco truck” because it’s right off that Highway 99 exit, next to a truck scale. A full canopy covered its front, shading the picnic benches and a table where customers helped themselves to hot pinto beans, and grilled onions and jalapenos. Ortiz ordered an off-the-menu combo: buche and carnitas, extra crispy. Pig stomach and regular pork, sizzled on the grill until just before the meats caramelized. It was one of the best taco bites I’ve had in years: crunchy, fatty, perfect. “This is the spot where memories happen for people from across the Valley,” Oz said. “It’s always open late, so everyone comes here from all around when they’re done with their night.” It’s the Mexican Mel’s Drive-In of the Central Valley.
Next, we headed to the nearby city of Fowler to meet Jovita Camacho, manager of El Mexicano. Her crew won the 2017 Taco Truck Throwdown judge’s award for their luscious carnitas tacos, a mass of stringy pork placed inside two corn tortillas. Camacho remembers wrapping burritos and tacos in foil at home as a small child so her parents and older sisters could crisscross the Valley before dawn to sell them to farm workers. Now, her family not only owns their own restaurant, but the land around it.
“My family was able to achieve the American dream by selling where the people needed food,” Camacho said.
I found more unheralded success stories like her family’s. El Premio Mayor’s carne asada, tender like rib-eye yet slightly crunchy, is the legacy of Adrian Loza, who helped his mother turn her recipes into a regional Instagram sensation before tragically dying at age 29. The hearty cauliflower tacos with a sultry cashew crema at Taste Kitchen is a testament to the drive of Chef Martin Franco, who worked in Fresno’s fancier restaurants until he opened his own spot a couple of years ago because “it was time for my training to step up.” And the spectacular jackfruit tacos at the La Jacka Mobile, grilled and spiced so the pulpy fruit tasted just like carne asada, showed how immigrants adapt the traditional with the modern.
All along, Oz, Hansen, and Ortiz regaled me with tales of their taco truck crawls, like when they encountered a tatted-up, bare-chested Mexican man riding a horse through the fields while smoking a huge blunt late at night in the town of Orange Cove. “He tells us, ‘What do you guys want?’” Hansen said with a laugh. “We told him we were looking for the best tacos around — and he sent us to some good ones!”
The Taco Truck Throwdown guys gave me homework for the next time I visited, because I needed to get to Turlock for the night, about two hours away. Before I got there, I tried different parts of the Central Valley’s Mexican-American identity. I downed a giant margarita at Sal’s, a Valley institution open since 1942. I drank pulque and nibbled on gargantuan tlayudas at the Madera outpost of Oaxaca Restaurant, a Central Valley chain that serves the Valley’s large Oaxacan community. I even found Michoacán-style enchiladas, folded over like quesadillas and filled with queso fresco, at Mi Casa es Tu Casa, a converted home just down the street from the foul-smelling Foster Farms chicken headquarters in Livingston.
I was stuffed by the time I got to my Holiday Inn Express, but made room for a crispy taco from the local post of La Taqueria, the beloved San Francisco restaurant renowned for its Mission-style burritos. But as I ate it, I remembered something Hansen said that struck me as particularly bold. We were talking about California’s High Speed Rail project, which will cut straight through the Central Valley when completed and connect San Francisco to Los Angeles. Hansen fears new residents attracted by the Central Valley’s low cost of living will irrevocably change its culture.
“With our tacos, we can be unapologetically Central Valley,” he said. “I just don’t want to get ‘colonized’ by transplants who don’t respect the culture that already exists here. I would hope that transplants come to Fresno, eat tacos, and respect the history and culture behind them.”
I didn’t plan to stay in Turlock, but a friend raved about La Mo, which she said was a great Chicano coffeehouse. It was better than that. La Mo occupies three spaces in what was a former office building in Turlock’s quaint downtown. The actual coffee shop faces the street; around the courtyard is a bar and the restaurant. It was slammed by 9 a.m. with ladies who lunch and college kids, all diving into La Mo’s Alta California cuisine — the name given to the creations of young Mexican-American chefs whose classical training evolves native cooking into higher-end Mexican food.
I ordered the crunchy, perfect chilaquiles, but didn’t finish them, because I had to save myself for El Rematito, Modesto’s legendary flea market. Every weekend, hundreds of vendors from across the Valley set up stalls to sell everything from roosters to seasonal produce to horse saddles to clothing to pirated copies of Solo: A Star Wars Story. There were at least 30 food stalls: aguas frescas and churros and menudo and regular tacos and even Chinese. But what surprised me was an emphasis on gorditas, which don’t get much love in Southern California, but they’re all over the Valley. I wound up at Gorditas La Zacatecana; gorditas are gospel in the Mexican city of Zacatecas, the birthplace of my parents, and the truck made them just like Mom: small, fat, and redolent of great masa.
Next was mulitas (think fatter, double-sided corn-tortilla quesadillas) on Eighth Street, where taco trucks line up every day next to the railroad tracks, then a guajolota (a French roll stuffed with a whole tamale) at Taqueria la Mexicana in Manteca. But the prize was in Stockton, an industrial town long used as a code word in California for blight. It also happens to be the hometown of Eater contributor and traditional Mexican food evangelist Bill Esparza. I started with a taco de adobada at El Grullense, a Stockton landmark which has inspired imitators from the unincorporated community of Gorman at the southern end of the Central Valley to the city of Chowchilla, best known nationally as the site of the largest women’s prison in the United States and for a bizarre crime in which 26 children were kidnapped and buried alive in a moving truck (they miraculously survived).
Esparza insisted I try two Cal-Mex classics I had never even heard of: Mi Ranchito Cafe (“the only restaurant where my abuelo would eat Mexican food”) and Arroyo’s Cafe. Both feature particularly distinct flour tortillas: irregularly shaped, powdery, thick like biscuits. Esparza says he’s never seen flour tortillas like that in his many travels, and neither have I — and if the two of us say that Stockton is the only place in the United States with tortillas like these, then it’s probably true.
Esparza also suggested that I try what I had already discovered was the quintessential Valley dish: steak ranchero, a strip of steak covered in sauteed onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers, then drenched in a mild ranchero sauce. Menus up and down Highway 99, from Cal-Mex spots to taquerías run by recent immigrants, carry that and steak a la Chicana, which the rest of the Mexican-American world calls steak picado — a mestizo beef stir-fry.
Esparza said that his dad would take him to Arroyo’s old location whenever he did well in school and treat him to a rib-eye ranchero. “It had everything I love about Mexican cuisine on a plate,” he said. “Whether it be Xalapa, Veracruz; Acaponeta, Nayarit; or Stockton, California, small-town Mexican food has the biggest flavors.”
Esparza hasn’t lived in Stockton for years, but his pride in the Valley was something I encountered again and again. I found it in the tacos de canasta (a Mexico City street classic that sees tacos placed in a steamer until the insides turn to jelly) at Tacos El Guapo in the city of Lodi, run by a 20-something Mexican-American who had stenciled his name and “Modesto” on his lonchera. Even better were the beer-battered fish tacos at Streetzlan in Galt. I was shocked to find an Alta California taquería in the tiny city, but it speaks to the Valley’s expanding possibilities. The batter used River Rock Brewery suds; the tortilla, blue corn. Hip-hop and ranchera blasted in the tiny room, decked out like a sneaker shop.
I wanted to save room for Sacramento, the state capital, and the only city in the Central Valley whose Mexican food scene I was somewhat familiar with. Roughly every other year, I speak at the Sacramento Leadership Conference, which has brought high schoolers from across Cali to Sacramento State for a one-week retreat for nearly 40 years. My payment every visit: al pastor tacos from Chando’s Tacos. Owner Lisandro Madrigal is a second-generation restaurateur who left his six-figure Apple job to open a taquería in 2011. He now has four of them (with another on the way in Citrus Heights), and a buzzworthy Chando’s Cantina near the capitol building, where young Mexican-Americans downed craft cocktails one after the other as I sipped on a mezcal.
I got my al pastor, followed by the off-the-menu chicken barbacoa tacos at Tacos Santos Laguna near Sacramento State. I ended my night with more steak ranchero at El Novillero, another Cal-Mex classic. Letters, newspaper clippings, and mementos left over the decades by fans covered its walls, all appreciative of yet another local legend I had never heard of — the biggest crime of this trip, and one I have shamefully committed again and again.
“This isn’t the Sacramento that was depicted in Lady Bird,” Marcos Bretón said with a massive laugh as I ate a birria quesadilla for breakfast at Lalo’s Restaurant, a cramped place in the city’s Southside barrios that draws lines even at 8 in the morning. Bretón, a Sacramento Bee news columnist, has covered the city for nearly 30 years. He’s the son of Mexican immigrants who worked in canneries in San Jose, so he appreciates the Central Valley’s working class. But he wants young people like Chando’s Madrigal to get their due.
“They’re starting to ascend,” he said, dousing his chilaquiles with one of Lalo’s three tableside salsas. “But unless it’s me writing about them, people really don’t know. For the rest of the media, the Valley is just murders and mayhem. That’s B.S. There are areas of poverty, but there are a lot of thriving, strong communities. And no one wants to talk about that.”
It was those young hustlers Bretón hailed that I kept running into again and again on my mad dash back down Highway 99: A trio of millennial Chicanas who talked to each other in English while slinging great breakfast burritos at La Mexicana de Ripon in its namesake city; the generation X lady who gave me buttery flour tortillas at La Casita, a low-slung tortillería next to Highway 99 in the college town of Merced that has been open since the 1960s; the young immigrant mujeres who set up a stove outside La Michoacana in the unincorporated down of Delhi, the better to whip up their beautiful Sunday birria special.
With dozens of cities, towns, and random communities sprawled across the Valley, my Highway 99 tour could have lasted for months. At its end, I stopped in Bakersfield one more time, to enjoy a gringa (a triple-decker quesadilla) at Los Tacos de Huicho, which introduced Bako to Mexico City-style food in the mid-1990s. It was great, but not quite what I needed, so I wound up at a food trailer on the city’s outskirts called El Pollo Tapatio.
The cart was parked next to an abandoned dance hall, where Okies used to hold weekend square dances for decades. It was now surrounded by Mexican businesses. Here was the Central Valley, in a dirt lot. Where others dismiss the region, Latinos embrace it and are making it their own.
And I tasted this reality at El Pollo Tapatio: Not only did they serve a great pollo al carbón, but they paired it with a fine brisket.
I texted Munoz to ask if he had tried this chicken-brisket combo. “Never heard of it,” he responded. “But that’s SO Bakersfield!”
That’s so Central Valley.
Gustavo Arellano’s Central Valley Eating List (also, mapped):
La Perla 2401 White Lane, # G, Bakersfield, CA (661) 834-2911
Tacos La Villa 1801 Union Avenue Bakersfield, CA (661) 633-1395
Arizona Café 809 Baker Street, Bakersfield, CA (661) 324-3866
Taqueria Tampico 725 Main Street, Delano, CA (661) 725-9474
La Elegante 1423 Kern Street, Fresno, CA (559) 497-5844
Los Toritos 11065-11099 E. Mountain View Avenue, Selma, CA (559) 381-3073
El Mexicano 2833 E. Manning Avenue, Fowler, CA (559) 834-1477, elmexicanorestaurant.net
El Premio Mayor 3247 E McKinley Avenue, Fresno, CA (559) 498-9925, @elpremiomayor
Taste Kitchen 6105 E. Kings Canyon Road, Ste. #102, Fresno, CA (559) 724-9948; Instagram: @tastekitchen
Oaxaca Restaurant 131 E. Yosemite Avenue, Madera, (559) 377-5077; oaxacamexicanrestaurant.com
Mi Casa es Su Casa 1236 Crowell Street, Livingston, CA (209) 394-7763
La Taqueria 2151 W. Main Street, Turlock, CA (209) 664-9719; lataqueria-turlock.com
La Mo 310 E Main Street, Turlock, CA (209) 632-6655
El Rematito 3113 Crows Landing Road, Modesto, CA (209) 538-3363
Eighth Street Taco Trucks 898 8th Street, Modesto, CA
Taqueria La Mexicana Y Paleteria 502 Yosemite Avenue, Manteca, CA (209) 239-6461
Arroyo’s Café 2381 W. March Lane, Stockton, CA, (209) 472-1661; arroyoscafe.com
Mi Ranchito 425 S. Center Street, Stockton, CA (209) 946-9257
El Grullense 212 E. Charter Way, Stockton, CA
Tacos El Guapo E. Harney Lane & S. Hutchins Street, Lodi, CA
Streetzlan 415 1/2 C Street Galt, CA (209) 251-7241. Instagram: @streetzlanrestaurant
Taqueria Los Compadre, 9117 E. Stockton Boulevard, #150, Elk Grove, CA (916) 714-1889
Tacos Santos Laguna 6727 Folsom Boulevard, Sacramento, CA (916) 452-1500
Chando’s Tacos Locations at chandostacos.com
El Novillero 4216 Franklin Boulevard, Sacramento, CA (916) 456-4287, elnov.com
Lalo’s 5063 24th Street, Sacramento, CA (916) 736-2389
La Mexicana de Ripon 1201 W. Main Street, #17, Ripon, CA (209) 599-6820
La Casita 770 W. 14th Street, Merced, CA (209) 722-2187
La Michoacana 9810 Stephens Street, Delhi, CA (209) 664-9247
El Burrito House 1067 Sierra Street, Kingsburg, CA (559) 897-7335, @el_burrito_house
Birrieria Apatzingan 1066 Rankin Road, Tulare, CA (559) 685-1740
La Pasadita 847 N. Front Street, Earlimart, CA (520) 251-8908
Tacos Cazador 206 W. Kern Avenue, McFarland, CA (661) 633-1395
Los Tacos de Huicho 123 E. 18th Street, Bakersfield, CA (661) 328-9490
El Pollo Tapatio 4 Fairfax, Bakersfield, CA (661) 378-6474, @elpollotapatiofoodtruck_
Gustavo Arellano is the California columnist for the Los Angeles Times opinion section and author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.
Fact checked by Pearly Huang
Copy edited by Rachel P. Kreiter