I knew enough Spanish to understand what cabeza meant when I was handed a beef taco in a parking lot somewhere on the west side a few weeks ago.
I was taking part in Columbus Food Adventures' taco truck tour along with my street-food-phobic fiancé John and three other young couples whose names I've already forgotten. I was too focused on the cabeza.
Our guide, and the tour's owner, Bethia Woolf, was asked if "head" in Spanish perhaps meant something more refined like "beef cheeks" when it came to cooking. Nope. It means head.
But since the stop at La Popular on West Broad Street across from a White Castle was our first, I wasn't about to be an unadventurous gringa.
As it turns out, cabeza is delicious. Although all the food we ate on the sunny Sunday afternoon was tasty and unlike anything I've had before in a Mexican restaurant, the head meat (boy, that doesn't translate well) was the most succulent and flavorful of the day. No eyeballs were included-it's made by stewing the part in juices for hours, and it tastes like really good shredded beef.
Treats like this are exactly why Woolf began to organize the tours two years ago ($55 a person, which includes all the food and transportation). More than anything, the aim is to teach people that food carts don't have to be scary.
The company debunks a few misconceptions-real tacos don't include tomatoes and often come with cilantro and radishes, for instance-and feeds participants what it believes is the best each cart has to offer.
When Columbus Food Adventures started to count taco trucks in 2009, it featured 17 on its website. This summer, by Woolf's estimate, there will be more than 40 mobile food stands around Columbus. Not all will be trucks-some are trailers, some are buses, one looks suspiciously like a painted moving van. But many of them serve authentic food quickly and with a freshness of ingredients that should allay any concerns about eating at something that comes on wheels. (They're also inspected by Columbus Public Health: Green stickers are what you're looking for.)
Very quickly on a taco truck tour you learn not to judge a place based on appearances. The group favorite seemed to be Los Potosinos, located around the corner from a strip club near the site that might be home to a casino someday.
The cart's purveyor, Lidia Labra, specializes in grilled chicken and a dish called enchiladas potosinas, which involves frying, orange tortillas, melted cheese and beans. We all had seconds.
At the third stop, a more permanent-looking silver trailer called Los Gauchos off Sullivant Avenue outside a nightclub, we had tacos with pork off a spit with caramelized onions and pineapple. I felt I owed the owners an apology for all those times I'd eaten at Taco Bell.
I also was struck by how silly our vanload of white people must look to the cart's Latino patrons. We were tourists in our own city, visiting eateries that helped folks feel as if they were back home. I didn't expect eating tacos to be such a cultural experience.
We wrapped up with dessert-shaved ice with coconut milk called nieve and mango slices with chili powder, salt and lime-at Rhodes Park next to Rt. 315, watching hundreds of Latino families enjoy the sunshine, soccer games and food served out of the back of vans.
It's one thing to have the vague idea that, according to the 2010 Census, there are 56,000 Latino residents of Franklin County (5 percent of the population) and entirely another to realize the most I know about their local culture is which Mexican grocery has the hot sauce I like.
After being ferried around the west side for three hours and eating food with my hands in the company of strangers, I'm much more inclined to visit a taco truck in the future. Columbusfoodadventures.com even helpfully lists and evaluates them, so I can try to find one closer to home.
And I'm reasonably certain the Taco Bell down my street doesn't have cabeza.