This summer, I have often braced the satanic sauna of Arkansas heat for one thing and one thing only: the El Sur food truck. Based on the line of people I see anywhere the truck is parked, it seems many others are equally hellbent on enjoying El Sur’s food.
Owner Luis Vasquez opened El Sur in April with the goal of bringing the best of Central and South American street foods to Little Rock. (He’s got some experience in the matter: Vasquez is originally from Honduras and helped craft the menu at Dos Rocas Beer and Tacos.) In the mere four months it’s been open, El Sur has already developed a devout following. The truck frequents local farmers’ markets — Me and McGee in North Little Rock and the Bernice Garden in SoMa — every weekend. You can also spot the truck at breweries and other watering holes across town, drawing in hordes of hungry late night eaters.
The menu at El Sur is streamlined and simple. It features three dishes — tacos, arepas and baleadas — which you can order with a variety of meat or veggie fillings. Options range from taqueria classics, like spit-fired al pastor, to the creative cauliflower chorizo. The tacos come wrapped in tender yellow corn tortillas, which you can watch them make fresh in the back of the truck. The arepas, a dish with ties to Venezuela, consist of a thick corn pancake cut open and stuffed to the brim with meat and guacamole. (Think of an arepa like a South American Hot Pocket, one you don’t hate yourself after eating.)
Then comes the crown gem of the El Sur menu: the baleada. Baleadas (pronounced bah-leh-ah-das) are the national dish of Vasquez’s native Honduras. “We grew up eating [them] on a daily basis,” Vasquez said. “It’s just one way to eat the basic ingredients we always have on hand.” In their simplest form, baleadas are a combination of refried beans and cheese wrapped in a thick flour tortilla. From there, you can use it as a vehicle for other fillings and toppings, like grilled meats or avocado.
At El Sur, you can get your baleada sencilla, with just beans and cheese, or con todo. This bumped-up baleada comes with your choice of protein, refried beans, crema, cotija cheese, avocado, pickled red onion, and a fried plantain all wrapped in a chewy flour tortilla.
This, my friends, is what I wait in line for. In every bite of the con todo, you get sweet, salty, smokey; creamy, crisp, chewy; briny and bright, or slow-cooked to perfection. El Sur offers bottles of house-made salsas to squirt alongside your meal, but trust me, this dish needs no addition. You are holding foil-wrapped perfection in your hand. Pay your $10 and leave a better, fuller version of yourself.
Despite this reporter’s intense love for the dish, Vasquez recognizes that baleadas might not suit every customer. In fact, El Sur is likely to be many Arkansans’ first exposure to Honduran food. “It kinda takes people out of their comfort zone,” Vasquez said. “People are like, ‘Why is there a plantain in there?’ or ‘What is a fried plantain?’” But Vasquez doesn’t take it personally. He recalled having similar reactions to American foods that were once foreign to him: “When I first came to America, I hated mac ’n’ cheese! I did not understand why you dump all that cheese onto some pasta!”
Vasquez wants El Sur to appeal to a wide variety of eaters. If the con todo intimidates some, they can opt for the more familiar taco option, or work their way up to it with the sencilla. El Sur also offers house-made popsicles or paletas in flavors like pineapple and mango, which are sure to appeal to the kiddos in the crowd. “You gotta have a little bit of everything for everyone,” Vasquez said.
In addition to the menu, Vasquez designed the El Sur truck itself with the customer experience in mind. As opposed to a traditional food truck with a single window, El Sur’s unique trailer-truck features windows down the length of one side of the vehicle and at the rear. This open layout lets you follow along with your food as it’s being made. Vasquez will take your order at the leftmost window. Behind him, you can watch as a cook (often Vasquez’s mother) presses the dough for your tortilla into a disc and tosses it onto the grill. Seconds later, Vasquez will pick the tortilla up and fill it with beans and meat at the front windows, right before your eyes. Then as you travel to the back window to pay, your finished taco or baleada appears, like magic, at your side.
The window-filled truck also helps Vasquez and his team connect with customers on a personal level. When you walk up to order, Vasquez will greet you with a huge smile. Even at Stone’s Throw Brewing’s annual Block on Rock party, where the line for El Sur was often 20 people deep, I could spot Vasquez chuckling and chatting with customers as he made their food.
This care, in addition to killer food, is undoubtedly what brings people back to El Sur. During the course of my interview with Vasquez, three separate passers-by recognized him and exclaimed, “You’re the El Sur guy!” They seemed proud and excited to know the person behind the food they love. And Vasquez is clearly proud to be that person. “I’ll be at the market this Saturday,” he’d say back to them with a smile. “¡Nos vemos!”
To follow El Sur around town, like El Sur Street Food Co. on Facebook and Instagram.