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People 2012

Raul Ortega: The Truck Stops Here

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Mon, May 21, 2012 at 6:57 AM
click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON
  • Kevin Scanlon

One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2012 issue. Check out our entire People 2012 issue here.

The most remarkable clue that you have arrived at Mariscos Jalisco, a lonchera parked on Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights, is in the air. A few blocks away, the climate is not unlike other corners in East L.A. -- waterfalls of smog emanate from the 5 freeway, pooling in the intersection, as trucks arrive to deliver loads to the old Sears building complex, adding thick brown puffs to the mix.

As you near the corner of Dacotah and Olympic, though, things change. Here the undeniably succulent scent of fresh shrimp frying in envelopes of corn tortillas wafts down the busy street. Here your eyes glaze over as you surrender to what will be one of the best lunches of your life.

Mariscos Jalisco is captained by Raul Ortega, 49, who sold tacos de cabeza in his hometown, San Juan de los Lagos, Mexico, before moving to the United States 29 years ago. Food-truck regulations have become much more strict in the 11 years since Ortega started his business, which, unlike many new taco trucks, is little about Twitter and mostly about tacos. Ortega has had his share of challenges, particularly from L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina, but he managed to keep this spot where his customers expect him, across the street from his apartment.

Some of the newer food trucks don't respect the businesses around them, Ortega says. But he isn't interested in competing with restaurants, nor does he have to -- people come from San Diego, Palm Springs and Santa Maria to eat his tacos.

About those tacos: The tacos dorados de camaron are based on a secret recipe developed by the family of a friend from his hometown, which is in the northeast corner of the state of Jalisco. The friend works on the truck alongside Ortega, his daughter and nephew, and a few other friends. A panoramic photograph of San Juan de los Lagos, propped in the truck's main window, stands as a reminder of the staff's muse.

There's no formal seating at the truck, but those who have made the pilgrimage -- whether from downstate or down the block -- are unconcerned with such trivialities. On a recent Saturday, two dozen people sit on a brick ledge in front of a building materials and supplies store, clutching fried pockets of shrimp decorated with avocado and fresh salsa. Others kneel on the sidewalk or balance plates on the hoods of their cars, slurping oysters on the half shell topped with whole shrimp and lime.

Ortega is familiar with pilgrims. San Juan de los Lagos is home to one of the most visited shrines in Mexico, and it is not uncommon to see worshippers like these on their knees, with their hands near their hearts. They're paying homage to a small statue of the Virgin Mary, not tacos, though some might argue that the constructions are equally beautiful.

When you ask him what makes a great taco, Ortega will tell you the quality of the salsa is just as important as the tortilla and meat. He should know -- just one week before, Mariscos Jalisco tied with Guisados for L.A. Taco's 2012 Taco Madness tournament, a badge the truck will boast proudly on its humble windshield facing east.

One of the fascinating Angelenos featured in L.A. Weekly's People 2012 issue. Check out our entire People 2012 issue here.

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