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Taco Trucks Put Aspiring Immigrants On Wheels

November 16, 1987|JESUS SANCHEZ | Times Staff Writer

There is no mistaking what Francisco Galvez sells. Painted across the front of his catering truck, in big red letters, is the word TACOS , and that says it all .

Every weekend evening, Friday through Monday, Galvez and his wife Elvia serve up steaming soft tacos to the mostly Latino patrons of a neighborhood nightclub on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. On a good night, Galvez's Tacos don Paco rings up $300 in sales. It's the couple's only source of income--a disability prevents Galvez from holding a full-time job.

"You're not going to get rich," said Galvez, 58, a Mexican immigrant who has been selling tacos out of the truck for the past year. "But you can maintain a comfortable life." And besides, he said, "There's always food around."

They are known as taco trucks, taco wagons and taco taxis. They are catering trucks, typically secondhand, whose owners work late into the night selling Mexican food primarily to the Los Angeles area's growing Latino population. The taco trucks have managed to survive and even grow in the highly competitive catering truck business, but owners worry that the future may not be as bright.

Unheard of in Mexico and other Latin American countries, taco trucks are a Los Angeles phenomenon--an example of how the area's immigrant groups have adapted to a society that prizes the automobile and mobility. There are also catering trucks that sell to other Los Angeles immigrant groups--from Armenians to Vietnamese--but taco trucks are by far the predominant variety.

Of course, one need not seek out a taco truck to buy Mexican food. Tacos and burritos often share top billing with hamburgers and hot dogs on the menus of the estimated 4,300 catering trucks registered in Los Angeles County.

But "when you're serving a crowd that is sometimes 95% Latino, you can't expect to get by on cheeseburgers and lasagna," said Bob Bradbury, owner of Courtesy Catering, a Sunland commissary where catering trucks load up on supplies, including such popular Mexican food items as refried beans, carnitas (fried pork) and beef skirt.

Apparently, the owners of the estimated 200 to 500 taco trucks in the area find they can do without the burgers and potato chips and, instead, concentrate on tacos, many times filled with sesos (brains), cabeza (head) or lengua (tongue).

"This is a good business--people love tacos," said Ernesto Sanchez, 48, who sells an average of 300 tacos a day from his truck parked behind a supermarket in East Los Angeles. Like many other truck operators, Sanchez left behind a low-paying job in a restaurant to start his own business.

The taco trucks' customers range from recent Mexican immigrants wearing cowboy hats and worn leather boots to preppie Pasadena teen-agers. On a chilly evening, customers eagerly reached for the warm, palm-sized tortillas served on paper plates "for here" or wrapped in aluminum foil "to go." Clouds of steam carry the scent of onions, cilantro and cooked meat.

The trucks can be found almost anywhere in the Los Angeles area, but they tend to congregate in heavily Latino areas, said Alfonso Medina, a senior sanitarian with the Los Angeles County Health Department. "You'll find them in Van Nuys, Pacoima, Florence, Huntington Park, Wilmington and anywhere down Brooklyn Avenue (in East Los Angeles)."

Unlike traditional catering trucks that sell food to workers at factories or construction sites during the day, taco trucks stay put at choice spots--paying up to $200 a month for space near bars, corner gasoline stations and busy parking lots--and do most of their business at night and on weekends. In this manner, the taco truck owner1931503713neighbors; frequently, they let customers run up tabs of $20 or $30.

On a recent Friday night, at least 30 taco trucks were open for business in East Los Angeles. "We're here many hours, and it's hard work," said Juan Valles, 36, who pays an East Los Angeles bar owner $100 per month to park on his lot. Bars are prized spots: They sell liquor--which catering trucks cannot under law--and supply steady streams of customers. But the rowdy bar customers sometimes stir up trouble, to which the Valles' shattered windshield attests.

And paying rent does not mean that a spot is guaranteed. "You can lose a spot if you sell bad food--people won't come," said Roberto Abrero, who pays $100 a night to park in a lot next to a South Central Los Angeles nightclub.

Still, compared to opening and equipping a traditional restaurant, a taco truck is a much cheaper proposition for an immigrant entrepreneur. Taco trucks are almost always used vehicles--mostly 22-foot-long Chevrolet Step Vans--that cost at least half as much as the new models, which sell for $40,000 and more. Most of the owners make a down payment and finance the rest.

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