Food truck review: El Manantial Latino makes good grub

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From the July 3, 2014 edition

Stumbling home after the bars have closed and in need of fortification? Instead of ringing that gut-busting old fast food Bell again, get your “fourth meal” tacos and quesadillas at just-as-cheap El Manantial Latino — they’re waaaay better there. Leaving for the airport at some no-restaurants-open hour? El Manantial Latino can come to the rescue with excellent handmade empanadas.

Even if EML didn’t make good grub — and it does — it’d be worth noting because of its ridiculous commitment and stamina. Get this: It’s a pan-Latin food truck advertising 24/7 hours — and in my experience, indeed never closes. Seriously, I’ve hit it up during the dead of winter, in the dead of night.

Considering their “we don’t close” policy, I suppose it’s not surprising EML’s colorful truck looks a bit, um, lived-in. And since a lotta stuff is handmade-to-order, it sometimes arrives on the slow side. Here are two other caveats: 1) unless you specify otherwise, EML’s fare comes garnished “American style,” with cheese, sour cream, lettuce, tomatoes and onion; and 2) a chef pal of mine who likes EML calls it “No tenemos,” (“We don’t have”), because they’re often out of menu items. All that said, there are many great-tasting reasons why a line forms frequently outside EML’s picnic-tables-equipped base at the 14-0 Express Carryout on Hudson (just east of Indianola).

Probably half a dozen countries are represented on EML’s too-large menu, which can be confusing. So here are some suggestions.

First of all, EML’s best meats are its deeply flavored beef (carne asada), real-deal fat-rendered Mexican chorizo and its almost al pastor-ish chicken. Try these on tacos ($1.50), which arrive on little toast-spotted good soft corn tortillas, or try them in EML’s immense and freshly griddle-crinkled quesadillas ($5).

Even better is the Arepa con Chorizo ($6). Like a thick and toasty pancake of stiff white grits topped with crispy, salty, spicy and tangy sausage, it’s a pleasure to rip into.

Ditto for the killer, Honduran-style Baleada ($4), probably the best deal here. Basically a big ol’ dense and crispy-yet-pliable distinctive homemade flour tortilla that’s a pure delight to bite into on its own, this baleada arrives packed with that good steak-y beef, refried beans, plus fixins. Kick it up — as you would any treat here — by spilling on some hot red or tangy hot green salsa.

Photo by Meghan Ralston