Periodically, in magazines like “Gourmet,” or “Bon Appetit,” I read about the food vending trucks that spring up around major metropolitan areas. These are the sophisticated cousins of the wagons that issue elephant ears and slushies at county fairs; selling everything from curry to crepes, they provide city dwellers (and some lucky ex-urbanites) with a variety of new culinary experiences on the cheap, and in a deconstructed, almost illicit setting. They are Un Restaurants, found on a street corner, parking lot, or construction site. These mobile vendors of culture are so popular that there is an annual “Vendy” award given in New York City to honor the city’s “best street food.” I have always yearned, here in my Midwestern suburbitude, for the appearance of a truck selling anything, even deep fried hog jowls or smoked eels, and my dream has come true.
It is called “El Oasis,” and it sprung up in a parking lot on the main drag in Lansing, which leads to the Capitol building, the Big Hospital, and the baseball stadium. It is kitty corner from a Quality Dairy convenience store populated by raggedy children with sweaty singles for ice cream cones, and exhausted city employees picking up an overpriced bottle of Merlot and a box of Cheez-Its for post-cubicle decompression. Nearby is what is ostensibly a barber shop, from which we have noticed that all patrons emerge their with hair unchanged in any visible manner, after approximately 3-5 minutes. (I’m just saying). El Oasis is not a garden spot, but the cart itself is beautiful, and clean with its red stripes and immaculate counter, standing like a beacon of light (or an oasis, actually) on a tired strip of badly patched road and “For Lease” signs.
We heard of the truck’s existence nearly a year ago, an apocryphal vendor of tacos, burritos and the freshest of tamales that was somewhere within a 10 mile radius of our house. We doubted, tried to keep the faith, and finally came upon it by accident running a rare, downtown errand. It was closed, of course, and our next several months involved remembering that we wanted to try the taco truck, forgetting that we wanted to try the taco truck, getting to the taco truck five minutes after closing, and finally getting ourselves there in time to join the line of fellow seekers inhaling the mingled scents of grilled meat, cumin, cilantro and corn.
The menu at El Oasis is the real deal, with everything from tacos and burritos Al Pastor, (my personal favorite) to freshly made tamales, lengua tacos, and sopes. At breakfast time, there are breakfast burritos. The Al Pastor (I have mine in burrito form) is full of well-seasoned pork, onions, rice and crumbles of fresh, tangy white cheese. I have not yet managed to stick my head far enough inside the window to allow me to see whether the pork is cooked on the traditional vertical rotisserie, but no matter how its cooked, it is leagues ahead of the chewy gristle I have had in the guise of Al Pastor at other local restaurants.
The tamales and sopes are sublime, with perfectly soft masa providing (am I really writing this?) a gentle, toothsome counterpart to the seasoned beef and fresh vegetables. The re-fried beans are silky with lard, the rice is perfectly cooked and free from funky seasonings, and they provide little plastic cups of hot sauce that I suspect to be a combination of hot pepper sauce and a little crema. There is also a large plastic tub of spicy, pickled carrots and jalapenos which have created such a preternatural yearning that I have taken to buying cans of them at the grocery store to eat alongside everything from scrambled eggs to rice and beans. I am actually hoping to produce some of my own, if I can ever get over my canning-o-phobia.
So now I have my very own truck, and I can stop envying denizens of Manhattan and Chicago. Of course I wouldn’t object to a falafel truck, a truck with fabulous dosas and aloo gobi, or someone selling really fresh African or Caribbean food, but for now I am happy to set off once a week for El Oasis which has no margaritas, no brightly painted furniture and no Corona posters. It simply has the best Mexican food I have ever eaten outside of Mexico.
2501 E Michigan Ave
Lansing, MI 48933