There are some places in Tucson that are simply sacred, and the corner of 22nd Street and Sixth Avenue is one of them.
What better gift could our city give tired commuters than the flash of opalescent sunset pink reflecting against the steeple of Santa Cruz Catholic Church, for us to stare at while stuck in traffic on our way to Interstate 10? What snapshot of our city is more perfect than food trucks in the foreground, “A” Mountain behind?
When you’re eating at one of those food trucks, though, the scene that we admire while driving through the intersection becomes inverted: now, we’re hearing the cars rather than being inside of them. Still, it’s a small price to pay to embody an iconic scene of Tucson’s street life.
At night, the central food truck is Ruiz Hot Dogs. Its multicolored Christmas lights mirror the scatter of stars above. But the lives of the people inside that beloved Sonoran dog cart are for another day.
Now, we’re talking about Cocteleria La Palma.
Customers aren’t wrong to feel concerned when they are brought by a friend to order fish tacos and lime-marinated shrimp from a food truck on a shadeless corner in Tucson. La Palma performs a small miracle every day they are able to keep their bounty of seafood at appropriate food-handling temperatures in a notoriously hot city. And yet, they reliably pull it off in an act of service to the pilgrims sitting in the shelter of their blue tarpaulin tent, as they have for the last eight years.
“Me and my husband started when we met, we both loved to cook and had a dream to someday have a business,” owner Esther Romero said. “We bought everything little by little, lost everything, our home and everything, bought a food truck. Said, it’s OK, we’re going to start fresh with the food truck and, with the little bit of savings we had, we opened in 2013.
“I unfortunately lost my husband in August 2022,” she said. “We stopped because I had to take care of him for a little while. Our kids helped us out. Now, it’s me and my kids working (the food truck).” She spoke to me over the phone — she was at Disneyland, taking her grandchildren on vacation.
Back in Tucson, I already know what my friend is ordering. He’s a devotee of this place, and when his order of aguachile arrives he insists that I try each part on its own.
Aguachile is a Sinaloan dish — La Palma is named after La Palma, Sinaloa — similar to ceviche in that the seafood isn’t cooked with heat, but with the acid from lime juice. Instead of a chopped salad, though, aguachile spotlights fresh, whole shrimp, with a selection of veggies on the side.
The mild, slightly sweet shrimp retains some of the texture called Q as it takes on some tanginess of its lime juice marinade. The crudite veggies each take on the marinade in their own way: the avocado is coated in the chile lime but its fattiness slips through the heat, while the tomato soaks it up. It’s my friend’s favorite food in Tucson, and I understand why.
“We make everything fresh. We have vegetables cut and everything, everything is freshly made,” Esther said.
I order more modestly, a fish and a shrimp taco. Neither were fried, unlike the stellar-but-hefty fish tacos at Taco Fish and the shrimp tacos at Ensenada Street Food. The shrimp stood out as the best, with a similar tangy marinade as the aguachile in a completely different form, supported by either a flour or corn tortilla and with the added punch of a chipotle crema (in addition to their reliably fresh produce accoutrements).
The guy at the counter gave my friend a free hibiscus lemonade that I didn’t try because it was a gift, which goes against our ethics policies. I saw that the other diners around us had also ordered them, and they looked refreshing against the backdrop of a late spring day.
It’s so bright that sunlight catches the blue of the tarp and shimmers on any reflective surface. The freshness of the seafood creates an illusion: surely, you aren’t in Tucson anymore. You’re at the beach.
Cocteleria La Palma
Location: Northeast side of 22nd Street and Sixth Avenue.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
For more information, visit Cocteleria La Palma's Instagram page.