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Hold the tacos, New Orleans says

Mexican-food trucks are outlawed in a parish. Is it racism wrapped in a health issue?

July 14, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — In the parking lot of a drive-thru daiquiri bar that sells frozen White Russians in plastic to-go cups, Fidel Sanchez is running an illegal enterprise that's too unwholesome to be tolerated, according to politicians here in suburban Jefferson Parish.

Sanchez is selling tacos out of a truck -- and judging from the lunch-hour line outside Taqueria Sanchez el Sabrosito, many Louisianans have become fast fans of his flavorful carne al pastor and spicy pork chicharrones.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Taco trucks: An article in Saturday's Section A about taco trucks in the New Orleans area said the three flags on the Tres Banderas taco truck were those of Mexico, the United States and Honduras. The flags were of Mexico, the United States and El Salvador.

But not everyone is enamored of the newest cheap eats to captivate the Crescent City. Jefferson Parish politicians, who have long turned a blind eye to whites and blacks peddling shrimp out of pickup trucks and snow cones on the street, recently outlawed rolling Mexican-food kitchens, calling them an unwelcome reminder of what Hurricane Katrina brought. Soon, Sanchez will be run out of business.

"What they're doing is just mean," the Texas native, 49, said in Spanish, noting that he'd secured all needed permits before officials changed the rules last month. "I do think they want the Mexicans out. I don't see any other explanation."

Nearly two years after Katrina led thousands of Latino immigrants to New Orleans in search of reconstruction work, it's obvious that the new arrivals are having a cultural influence that reaches beyond repairing homes and businesses -- and that's making some people uncomfortable.

Authentic Mexican food is now widely available here in taco trucks and storefront taquerias, adding a contemporary Latin tinge to a famously mixed-up culinary scene that's always managed to preserve its unique Cajun and Creole flavor even as most of America has become homogenized.

But the new ethnic eateries are emerging at a time when many traditional New Orleans restaurants are struggling in the face of sagging tourism and a smaller population -- one that's noticeably browner than before Katrina. New Orleans now has about 260,000 residents, down from about 460,000. Roughly 50,000 are Latinos, up from 15,000.

So taco trucks have become fodder for a larger debate over whether to recreate the past or embrace a new future in New Orleans -- a discussion that's thick with racial undertones.

To advocates of reclaiming the old ways, new establishments that do not build upon the city's reputation, and may not even be permanent, represent a barrier to progress. As New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas recently put it in an interview with the Times-Picayune, "How do the tacos help gumbo?"

Yet many New Orleanians welcome anyone willing to repopulate the city -- and surprising numbers are eagerly munching tongue and cow's head tacos, broadening their palates in a city where the civic pastime is eating and talking about where to eat next.

Mary Beth Lasseter, who chronicles food history at the University of Mississippi's Southern Foodways Alliance, said she was helping rebuild Willie Mae's Scotch House, a famed New Orleans soul food restaurant, when she sampled the offerings of a taco truck in the parking lot of a home improvement store. Most clients then were Latino workers coated in mold and dust. A few months later, half the customers were native Southerners like her.

"That was the first time the dots connected for me and I realized we were about to have a food revolution in this city," Lasseter said. "Food so often tells the story -- that's our premise here -- and that is when I knew that New Orleans would be changing again."

So far, the revolution looks one-sided: Latino laborers don't seem to care for shrimp Creole, oyster po' boy sandwiches -- or even hamburgers, as long as there is Mexican food around.

"Crawfish? The little lobsters? I tried it, but to be honest it did not suit me," Abel Lara, 33, said as he stopped at a taco truck during a quick break from his job laying floors at a medical center. "I don't understand why it's so popular."

More than any history book, New Orleans' cuisine has memorialized the waves of immigration that shaped and reshaped the old colonial port.

The Creoles' jambalaya remade Spaniards' paella with Caribbean spices. The Cajuns' gumbo melded andouille sausage with African okra and sassafras leaves from Choctaw Indians. Sicilians spread olive relish on a crusty round bread called muffuletta and fashioned a sandwich that every New Orleans tourist now samples.

New Orleans also has a lively tradition of street food that's humorously represented by the ubiquitous Lucky Dogs, the frankfurter vendors found on every corner of the French Quarter and immortalized in the comic novel "A Confederacy of Dunces."

But taco peddlers apparently are different.

In New Orleans, the city council president wants them off the streets -- although Mayor C. Ray Nagin has indicated he opposes such a move. In neighboring Jefferson Parish, the move last month to ban them was swift.

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