Mark Baratelli is a man of many talents. Maybe you've seen his one-man improvisational cabaret performances, which were a highlight of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival for several seasons. You might have seen his show-saving star turn as King Herod alongside Ted Neeley's geriatric Jesus in the recent national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Or maybe, like me, you're one of the readers who rely upon his indispensable arts and events website TheDailyCity.com, where he blogs and tweets on any and everything stewing in Orlando's cultural cauldron (somehow scooping us even when he's out of town — how does he do that?).
Baratelli's also working on bringing the first Mobile Art Show to Orlando; the concept, which has been tried across America from Texas to Wisconsin, involves a U-Haul truck filled with art that appears in "unexpected places" on short notice via Facebook and Twitter. Locally exhibited artists including Morgan Steele and Telethon Veginald Cheeseburger have committed to providing low-cost original works for the gas-powered gallery once it gets going later this year.
But this week I'm here to give my gut reaction to a project of Baratelli's that debuted last week: the Taco Truck Taste Test. Mark has embarked on an epic quest to eat from and write reviews of every taco truck in the Orlando area, with the end result being an exhaustively researched guide. All of you with nerves of steel and cast-iron stomachs are invited to join him. What exactly, I can hear you cry, is a taco truck? Allow me to quote from the lovingly produced full-color program that Mark provided to patrons at the inaugural outing of this epicurean experience (credit to BarryPopik.com):
"Taco trucks have become ubiquitous in Texas cities such as Houston and Austin, and in cities all throughout the United States. The taco trucks are inexpensive and mobile, providing cheap food to immigrants and natives as well. The taco trucks are also called in Spanish ‘loncheras' or ‘loncherias' — lunch wagons … They can be found, most often, in the inner city, parked in private parking lots. Taco trucks have been mentioned in the Zagat Survey and the Los Angeles Times."
You can see several of these Latino descendents of the 19th-century Old West "chuck wagons" dotting the streets of Central Florida. Like most gringos, I always drive past them in favor of familiar name-brand fast food. So by the time I parked my car behind an overflowing dumpster in the parking lot of a car-repair shop on an unfashionable block of South Semoran Boulevard, Baratelli's project had already ticked off several boxes on the performance art checklist: I had traveled outside my usual ethno-geographical comfort zone, and was re-evaluating my ingrained assumptions on class, culture and consumption, and I hadn't even eaten a bite yet.
I think I was the second participant to arrive; sketch-blogger Thomas Thorspecken was already on the scene with his paper and palette (and palate). Logan Donahoo (producer of the 2009 Fringe's sold-out Sister Mary Ignatius) was the first to line up beneath the white truck's red awning and colorful fruit photos to order dinner, followed by actor David Almeida and playwright Stephen J. Miller. The crowd of a dozen customers seemed to overwhelm the lone chef inside, who was sharing his cramped cooking quarters with an appliance repairman at the time of our visit.
After about a half-hour wait, I got to practice my awful high-school Spanish; you shouldn't expect an authentic taco truck proprietor to speak inglés. You also shouldn't expect to order an actual taco, as the term is sometimes more alliterative than accurate. The featured food: arepas, a soft cornmeal patty slit open and stuffed with a variety of fried and grilled goodies. I went for the camarones (shrimp), which were lightly seasoned and more tender than I expected; the carne I tasted from a compatriot's potato rellena was equally savory. Wrapped in the slightly sweet cornbread and drizzled with addictive creamy garlic herb sauce, it would have made for a perfect palm-sized meal, if not for the twin slices of orange faux-Velveeta oozing noxious oil over everything. I found myself trying to wash the taste away with sickly-sweet bubblegum soda, which is apparently what "kola" tastes like in Colombia.
Erika Wilhite (producer of the upcoming War of the Worlds at Orlando Shakes) may have had the right idea, opting for an experience exclusively ocular instead of alimentary; my insides were incensed all night, and I only ate half my arepa. Even so, I won't skip the next installment of Baratelli's gustatory experiment, whenever it is announced. I'll just learn how to say, "Hold the crappy queso."[email protected]