Taco Belle

We're stretched out under the stars. Scattered around us are the remains of our late-night feast, darkened by the swell of our full tummies. He raises his drink to mine, glasses clink, the music soars, and it occurs to me that this little life o' mine is pretty darn good.

"Is there any left?" he murmurs, nodding to our pile of plates.

I check, smile sweetly and nod. "Mas cabeza? Mas lengua?" But the Doppler effect of an unmuffled lowrider cruising by drowns out my offer. A car door slams, and our radio serenade disappears behind a Buick's steel walls. The glint of headlights bounces off a corrugated metal wall, illuminating the shadowy creep of a street citizen just a few feet away. Cheers, I say again, and lift my bottle of ice-cold Pepsi to my lips.

It's another Friday night, and my dining buddy and I are perched on the tailgate of his Ford All-Star pickup, enjoying the scenery in the parking lot of Hacienda Mexican Restaurant at 16th Street and McDowell Road. The restaurant itself is virtually empty; all the activity is contained on its asphalt fringes, where tacos by the hundreds are being served from a small cart off the eatery's delivery entrance. It's like this every night except Monday, as soon as dusk falls, and the taco-hungry masses converge until the stand shuts down at midnight. They arrive in beater cars and shiny cars, by bus, by bicycle and by foot. They grab an order to go, or hunker at their vehicles, calling tidings of good fellowship to friends old and new.

The drive-in taco scene at the Hacienda parking lot is like Happy Days for the Hispanic population -- and for others smart enough to know a good thing when they find it. Born out of a traditional Mexican appreciation for sociable nighttime nibbling at small roadside taco stands, Hacienda's enterprise is now a success of necessity. Those no-fun folks at the City of Phoenix's Board of Adjustment began cracking down on mobile food vendor violations about six months ago. It seems the powers that be have a problem with vendors who don't conform to health codes, sanitation, littering concerns and picky things like food permits. Using the excuse that they don't want us to die of food-borne diseases, city officials have been rounding up and removing many of the tiny, independently run taco sleds crowding the streets of our Latino neighborhoods.

As an extension of its sit-down, full-menu restaurant, Hacienda's taco stand complies with safety regulations while offering an authentic experience. Gringos: If you've ever been to the taco stands bleachering the streets of Rocky Point, you know what I'm talking about.

This is my first foray to the Hacienda, and I seem to be the only Anglo this evening. My Spanish-born picnic pal shepherds me through the ordering process, selecting meats and checking the condition of tonight's charro beans (wonderful, by the way, spunky with spice, bacon fat and veggies). I remind him that I used to haunt this corner not too many years ago when it housed a 24-hour Brookshires. What's more intimidating -- joining a party of friendly, Hispanic taco-swillers, or careening through a drunken crowd of nightclub rejects at 2 in the morning?

I'll take the tacos. And at a wallet-friendly $1.25 each, I'll take several. To look at the menu board, it would seem quantity is the norm -- while Taco Bell may offer a special on the purchase of three tacos, Hacienda has package deals for up to 66. We place our order and pay the young man in the makeshift storeroom/cash counter. We slide over to the happy, hair-netted man shredding onion-stabbed pork off a gyro-style rotisserie. The meat is fuchsia with spicy adobada, and it's the stand's No. 1 seller, we learn. No wonder. The delicious heat from the ground chile, vinegar and garlic rubbing is almost fluorescent in the night.

My pal and I load paper plates of mini corn tortillas with serious helpings of pork, carne asada, lengua (tongue) and cabeza (head meat), and saunter to the condiment bar. A quick splash of red or green hot sauce, a spoonful of puréed avocado and a few salted radishes finish the job.

The cabeza is fresh, the grill chef has told us, steamed just seconds ago and the best we'll find in town. If we want proof, we have but to walk a few yards north to Carneceria de Hacienda, a butcher shop and ethnic grocery store owned by Hacienda Restaurant's management. Meaty selections are proudly displayed under sparkling glass -- sirloin, ground round, chorizo, pork and chicken -- providing another bonus point for health inspectors on the prowl.

And here we are, curled up on the tail of a pickup, basking in the glow of The Lucky Cue Billiard Parlor next door, ducking under the whoosh of airplanes descending into Sky Harbor Airport. The news has just come on: We can see it on the big-screen TV showing through the storefront of Rent-A-Center across the street -- "No Credit Needed."

The headline story? Call off the taco posse -- street-side dining is safe once again.

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