El Asadero: The grandfather of Seattle food trucks

Long before food trucks were cool, there was El Asadero, the Othello-based taco-slinging school bus.
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Seattle's original food truck (or bus): El Asadero, based in Othello.

Long before food trucks were cool, there was El Asadero, the Othello-based taco-slinging school bus.

Before the words “food truck” meant anything special; before Marination Mobile, Maximus Minimus, and Skillet; long before food-truck reality shows and Seattle Met devoted the cover of its most recent magazine to the subject ...

There was El Asadero.

Which is not to say El Asadero is anything special, or that it was the first of its kind. It was one of many like it, quietly filling needs at inconvenient times in inconvenient places.

El Asadero is really a food bus, not a food truck. The popular eatery sells Mexican food from a white, converted school bus near the Othello light rail station, a familiar and steady presence here for eight years, parked in the same spot in the same parking lot seven days a week. It stays open late, 10 p.m., in a neighborhood not exactly dense with restaurants, serving burritos, tacos, tortas, and other typical dishes, none more than $8.

The once mostly vacant lot has grown considerably in the past year. A few strides away, the Othello Public Market has been filled in. The warehouse has been converted into a maze of stalls selling housewares, clothes, books, phones, and anything else you can think of. More than any neighborhood in Seattle, this is one of immigrants. They come from various countries in central America, southeast Asia, and east Africa. On weekends, merchants set up in covered booths outside the market and sell Mexican tamales, Salvadoran pupusas (stuffed corncakes), and Somali sambusas (meat stuffed pastries).

The area around El Asadero has also changed recently. The market, the light rail station, and a six-story apartment building all materialized long after the bus started serving food. On the ground floor of the Station at Othello Park, as the apartment complex is called, a sleek café called Deo Valente opened a few months ago. It serves espresso, pastries, gelato, sandwiches, salads, as well as wine and beer, the only establishment like it for miles. The place is seldom crowded, perhaps a gamble on demographics that have yet to ripen.

Customers board El Asadero through the same door school kids once did. Steel counters have been built into the front half of the bus. The bus windows still open and close. The driver’s seat is still there, occupied instead by a satellite TV box hooked up to a dish outside the bus, beaming Spanish-language programs to a television mounted by the dashboard.

The kitchen is built into the back of the bus, where the Lepe brothers, Adan and Armando, work most days cooking and serving food —mostly to people who live or work nearby. Tacos are $1.20 each, $1.65 for those with special fillings like tongue and tripe, or for mulitas, which are grilled, closed-face tacos. Burritos, tortas, and quesadillas are $5. Platters of grilled beef or sautéed shrimp are $8, both served with rice, beans, and tortillas.

The dish that sets El Asadero apart is probably its birria ($8), a rich meat stew, in this case made with slow-cooked beef, served with rice, beans, and tortillas. Traditionally made with goat or mutton, birria is very deep red in color, its broth spiked with oregano and formed with various dried and roasted peppers, the magic ingredient of the dish. The birria is finished with a generous sprinkling of chopped onions, cilantro, and the juice from several lime wedges, all served on the side.

Many regular customers call in orders ahead of time; take-out accounts for much of the business. No more than 10 people could eat in the bus at one time, and none of them all too comfortably. It is not exactly a place that encourages lingering. Just eating. Customers serve themselves coffee from a carafe, sodas and juice from a cooler. Condiments like limes, radishes, and jalapenos are left in a tray by the drinks.

Before food trucks became sexy, they were destinations much like El Asadero: simple and inconspicuous, a compromise for both merchant and customer, neither of whom could afford to own or eat in a real restaurant. Food trucks parked in parts of a city that lacked restaurants; in other words, poor neighborhoods. Those who could afford not to eat in them didn’t, thinking of them as unclean or, perhaps, beneath them.

For better and worse, the stakes have changed. The new generation of food trucks connotes cleanliness and excellence. The paint job alone on a new truck might equal the cost of an entire truck in the old days. Food trucks now are almost as expensive to open as restaurants. Only a few companies are in the business of converting trucks (often former UPS delivery trucks) for food service and demand is currently high. So are expectations. Foodies – to this day, I do not know what this word really means – fawn over food trucks, and the expectation is that they deliver something extraordinary.The 

Food trucks in Seattle are not truly mobile, restricted by city ordinances that confine them to a few, certain streets, and require them to have access to a land-bound restroom. They are also required to keep a certain distance from stationary restaurants. To this day, most food trucks in the city stick to private parking lots, moving between a few regular spots.

El Asadero never moves, although its motor vehicle registration is current, and its tires fully inflated – it is one of only a few places in town where you can eat inside a street-legal vehicle, a novelty in itself. Mostly undiscovered, there is not a hipster in sight. No sock hats, thick glasses, or skinny jeans. Just a mix of construction workers, moms with kids, a teenager or two.

Not so long ago, in the fall of 2008, lunch trucks were not cause for excitement. They were little more than glorified vending machines. Fusion cooking was a tired idea. That November, a single truck named Kogi started selling Korean tacos, catching on outside of nightclubs and eventually becoming a sensation all over Los Angeles as it leveraged a relatively new concept called social media. Within a few years, food trucks were super cool and Korean tacos had migrated north and east to all corners of the country.

Twitter followers will quickly figure out that El Asadero does not tweet, nor does it Facebook (if the noun can be used as a verb) or even have a website. You cannot “Like” them or “Follow” them, even if your life depends on it. You can, however, like them in the old-fashioned sense.

Any day of the week. Always in the same spot.

If you go: El Asadero, at the intersection of South Othello Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. Open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Order ahead at (206) 760-9903

  

About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at hugo.kugiya@gmail.com.