While every culture has its perfect portable food — from meats on a stick to meats in a handpie to the roast beef sandwich (invented, legend goes, to hold in one hand while playing cards) — our vote for the best is the humble taco, made to eat on the street. Juices dribbling under a neon glare, a brown bag beer in one hand, it almost tastes better this way. And the best, of course, are the simplest — meat, tortilla, toppings. But simplicity deceives — that perfect marriage of meat and heat, smoke and spice, is a hard target to hit. All the more reason to bow before the talented taco trucks. There must be some magic in the rhythm of the road — or is it the diesel fumes? Save for cooking in the backseat of your jeep, this is as close as you’ll get to the real thing. What to cook? We’ve handled that. How to eat it? That’s up to you — but note our crate’s conspicuous lack of fancy placesetting.
Mole Poblano // Hernán // Del Rio, Texas
The epitome of so-wrong-but-so-right flavor combinations, spicy chocolate mole sauce is rumored to have been invented centuries ago by an industrious gaggle of Mexican nuns, raiding the pantry to feed a passing archbishop paying a surprise visit to their convent. Should your own guests arrive unfashionably early, the only thing your pantry needs is this jar, and a bag of chips. Hernán’s take on the traditional sauce is a savory, spicy-sweet blend of twenty eight different chiles and spices, plus chocolate, nuts, raisins, and piloncillo, an especially rich kind of Mexican unrefined cane sugar. While your guests dip and munch away, whisk up a saucepan of water (or better, stock), add a scoop or two of mole and simmer cooked chicken or veggies for your taco filling.
Pickled Red Onions // Pernicious Pickling Co. // Costa Mesa, California
SoCal-made by a couple of transplants (one Mississippi, the other, England), Pernicious is anything but evil; the name’s ironic, the pickles are classics — veggies and vinegar, simple as that. These neon-pink slivers not only give your taco a burst of color, but a sharp spicy edge to slice through the meat. Should a platter of steaming stewed pork seem a tad indulgent, even for a midnight munchie, they’re also a repentantly tart kiss of health. Onions are a veggie, right?
Jalapeño Chips // Deano’s Jalapeños // Hardwick, VT
First tested at Doehne “Deano” Duckworth’s Cactus Café in Stowe, Vermont, these chips are like your lodge-standard apres-ski pepper-topped nachos, without those pesky tortillas (or gloopy, questionably-tinted cheeze). Simply sliced peppers, fried and dusted with all natural cheddar. Besides the obvious (right outta the bag, on the lift or in the deck chair), they make a great crunchy, kick-in-the-tongue topping for a breakfast taco of scrambled eggs and fried sweet potatoes.
Habanero Sauce // Yellowbird // Austin, TX
Some hot sauces are pure white heat, nothing but burn. Save those scoville-spiked scorchers for bar bets and paint stripping. This is a salsa worth savoring. Instead of high-octane peppers like the infamous ghost chile, this Austin-made hot sauce uses the humbler habanero, amping up its bright fruity undertones with an additional spritz of tangerine and lime juice — and its color with a blend of carrots. It’s perfect on tacos, but mellow enough for a michelada.
Mojo Jerky // Savage Jerky Co. // Lawrenceville, Georgia
When it comes to road eats, while a rare few gas stations are diamonds in the oil, so to speak (think great hole in the wall taco stands like Fuel City in Dallas or De Amigos in Pescadero), most, of course, are food deserts. Stomach rumbling, gas tank low, a fluorescent oasis beckons — while the car drinks its fill, you muse over hypnotic slushie machines and mystery tubs of no-name jerky. Their road trip grumbles unsated, the Georgia buddies behind Savage decided to make their own. Their classic, Mojo, is beefy with a slight kick of lime and cilantro. Good enough to gnaw as is, but save a slice for your end-of-the-road drink, to replace your bloody mary’s gringo celery stalk with a touch of gaucho swagger.
Mexican Hot Chocolate Walnuts // Old Dog Ranch // Bellota, California
This San Juaquin county farm has been shaking down and shelling walnuts for five generations — they know their nuts. Walnut trees can live for centuries, but times and tastes change, which means this Old Dog has some new tricks. While dad runs the farm, his daughter turns their buttery, rich, omega-3-packed nuggets into even tastier (and even more irresistible) flavor bombs like these Mexican-inspired morsels, dusted with rich cocoa, warming cinnamon, and a zesty pinch of cayenne. Trendy, but traditional: the ranch still grows, dries, and grinds the peppers themselves.