By Ana Rivera
As I approach La Jacka Mobile, I could already smell the carne asada (grilled beef), al pastor (pineapple and chile marinated pork), tripas (chitterlings or fried cow intestines) and cabeza (cow cheek or head meat) cooking. The aromas seeped out of the windows of the bright yellow-and-green painted food truck.
As a Mexican-American, I am familiar with these scents, but as a vegan, I order a plate of chile verde (green chile) jackfruit tacos. The sauce is slightly sour from the green tomatillos with a hint of spiciness from the fresh chilies. The al pastor jackfruit tacos are drenched in a red sauce tinted by dried red chiles that make up the base of the sauce.
The soft warm corn tortillas sizzle as they hit the grill and the steam from the marinated jackfruit oozes out. I top off my vegan tacos with cilantro, onions, cabbage, lime and more chiles, creating a savory, crunchy, juicy and satisfying meal. The food is so delicious that I order a second round of tacos.
La Jacka Mobile serves mouth-watering Mexican street food made with meat or vegan ingredients. The business owner of this vibrantly colored food truck, Miriam Martinez, aims to provide healthy options while maintaining the rich and bold flavors she grew up with in Mexico.
This philosophy applies to everything from the tacos to the aguas frescas that are made fresh every day in a variety of unique flavors. Aguas frescas are prepared in a similar way as lemonade: Water, sweetener and your choice of fruits, vegetables, grains, cereals or seeds are blended together creating a refreshing beverage.
While many food trucks in the Central Valley offer sodas and/or aguas frescas prepared from concentrates, La Jacka, as their fans endearingly refer to them as, does not serve soda. Instead, all their aguas frescas are prepared with fresh fruits and vegetables and some are sweetened with stevia, a natural zero-calorie sweetener safe for diabetics.
“I cook for my clients with double the love,” says Martinez, smiling. Many of her customers are surprised that the vegan tacos taste so decadent.
Martinez grew up in Nayarit, a small but agriculturally bountiful state in southwest central Mexico. Fresno County is a top agricultural producer in the United States and has the third largest population of migrants from Nayarit in all of California.
During World War II, the fear of labor shortages in U.S. agriculture led to the establishment of the Bracero program. Mexican farmworkers were brought in on temporary guest worker visas to harvest crops and work in packing houses, alleviating domestic labor shortages. From 1942 to 1964, 4.6 million contracts were signed, millions of Mexican workers to came to the United States to work in agriculture.
Some of the braceros and their families settled in the communities around the farmlands they worked, and some left farm work to establish different businesses, including restaurants. Thus, Fresno’s immigrant Mexican community has a long history and has been vital to the production of food in California in more ways than one.
Agriculture is also a major economic activity in Nayarit. Tropical fruits are one of the main exports, but many people also grow fruit trees on their own land for household consumption. Martinez started working with jackfruit at age 12, when her family started to cultivate it.
Jackfruit is a tropical fruit in the breadfruit and mulberry family that is believed to have originated in India. It is the largest tree fruit in the world, weighing 10–100 pounds. Jackfruit is the main ingredient in Martinez’s vegan creations, but it can be tricky to work with. The fruit when cut releases a sticky latex substance; if you purchase a jackfruit, coat your hands and other surfaces coming in contact with the fruit with oil to avoid contact with the sticky residue.
Unripe jackfruit has rough and bright green skin and a neutral taste that can take on almost any flavor. With its stringy texture, it makes a great meat substitute resembling shredded chicken or pork. As jackfruit ripens, the skin takes on a greenish brownish color, the fruit turns yellow and sweet, and can be eaten fresh, frozen or dried; used in smoothies; or even baked into desserts.
Jackfruit seeds are edible and can be boiled, roasted and dried and ground into flour for baking. Fresh jackfruits can be found at some Asian and Latino grocery stories, as well as canned, ripe in a sweet syrup, or unripe in a salty brine. Jackfruit is also high in protein, potassium and vitamin B.
As a child, Martinez and her friends would make and sell banana bread. Her grandmother, Angela, cooked some of the most flavorful and savory Mexican dishes. But it wasn’t until Martinez got married that she started cooking regularly herself. “The first eggs I made, I made them with shell and all!” she says, laughing. In Mexico, Martinez and her family made and marketed jackfruit nectar, marmalades, bread, ice cream and candies to show people different methods to consume jackfruit.
After relocating to California’s Central Valley, Martinez initially worked in the fields, harvesting fruits and vegetables to help support her family back in Nayarit. She dreamed of one day having her own business. “I wanted to develop in other ways. People were not familiar with jackfruit. I would go to flea markets and farmers’ markets, knock on doors and offer jackfruit. It was really difficult; for three years, I went to the flea markets and farmers’ markets, and I wanted people to learn what you can do with jackfruit.”
Starting a business in California on her own was a struggle, but with support from her husband, they started their first food truck business. This gave Martinez the opportunity to experiment with traditional Mexican food and her jackfruit creations.
Martinez, her family in the United States and Mexico, and a small team of non-familial employees all work together on different aspects of the business.
The jackfruit is imported from her family’s farm in Nayarit, and other ingredients are bought from farms in the area to help support local businesses. The hand preparation of all of the ingredients is a strenuous and time-0consuming process. “We need half a day to prepare for one day of sales,” Martinez says.
During my visit, as they are prepping ingredients in the food truck, I can smell the onions and hear the knife as it finely chops through the crisp layers. Sweet mangoes and pineapples are being peeled for aguas frescas and smoothies. The ice rattles as it is scooped, followed by the smooth sound of the aguas pouring into plastic cups.
There is a variety of items on the menu that are great for people looking for healthier options. For vegans and people trying to stick to a plant-based diet, there are jackfruit-based tacos, nachos, quesadillas, pozole (a traditional Mexican soup made with a chile broth and hominy), tamales, pastas, ceviche (faux seafood salad), bread and desserts. Martinez has more than 100 creative recipes incorporating jackfruit.
For those who do not want to consume too much sugar, there are natural juices, my personal favorite being the jackfruit agua, refreshing and thirst quenching, featuring the complex flavors of the fruit and hints of pineapple, mango and melon.
Martinez’s favorite dishes are the carne asada tacos and the chile verde jackfruit tacos. A variety of fresh toppings are available so that you can fix your food to your liking. I added grilled onions and pickled chiles to my jackfruit chile verde nachos.
Even on days when it is pouring rain and gusting wind outside, there is still a line of customers waiting when La Jacka Mobile is parked at the Valero gas station on the corner of Blackstone and Ashlan avenues. People’s shoes and clothes are soaked and their umbrellas swish through the air. Customers huddle under the awning, trying to stay dry, watching eagerly through the steamy window as their food is prepared, waiting for their order to be called.
They slide by each other smiling in anticipation until they make it to the window where they can pick up their food.
Eventually, Martinez wants to open a sit-down restaurant where she will be able to create even more healthy dishes and experiment further with jackfruit. Her desire to show people how great healthy food can taste has already fostered a base of devoted customers.
In addition to serving the community delicious healthy food, Martinez is active in the Fresno-based Comunidad Unida, an organization that aims to empower the Latino community through social change, education, volunteering and service. Martinez helps immigrant groups who ask for support by providing food donations and helping to gather materials to send to people in Mexico who are in need. She sometimes provides free meals to some of the homeless people who stop by her food truck. In all these ways, she gives back to the community whenever she can.
As a food truck, La Jacka Mobile pops up at various locations regularly throughout the week, including the aforementioned Valero gas station, Fresno City College during the lunch hour on some weekdays, and Gazebo Gardens at Shields and Van Ness avenues. To find the exact location day-to-day, check out their Facebook page or Instagram.
Ana Rivera grew up in Arvin, Calif. and graduated this Spring from Fresno State University with a degree in Public Health. She has always been fascinated with sexual health. One of her life goals is to create spaces for people to have positive conversations about their sexual health and pleasure in the Central Valley.