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Humble trucks, great food

Affordable, tasty tacos, right on the street. Why does L.A. want to spoil the fun?

April 21, 2008|C. Thi Nguyen | C. Thi Nguyen is a graduate student in philosophy at UCLA. He's also senior editor of Chow Digest at chowhound.com

All my best L.A. memories are about girls or taco trucks. There's something shockingly vivid about having great tacos out of a truck -- standing outside, wind in your hair, chowing down with all the homies, hipsters, off-duty cops, nurses, professors and homeless dudes. People are pretty cheerful around a taco truck; they smile, they talk. On a good night, the crowd around a taco truck is the closest thing we have to a unified Los Angeles soul.

Maybe it's because of what my friend, food theorist Kathy Shin, calls "the joy of festival food." It feels a bit like a party out there -- the mix of intense flavors, milling people, bright lights in the night. Or maybe it's the sense of camaraderie -- that nobody knows who you are or how much you make, you're all there in the heat or the cold for the same reason -- good food, for cheap. Or maybe it's just because some of the trucks offer the most gloriously energetic food in this city -- tacos that are like bullets of spiky, oniony happiness.

Which is why what the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has done terrifies me. On Wednesday, the supervisors passed a harsh set of regulations for unincorporated county areas. Parking a taco truck in one spot for longer than an hour is now punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, or six months in jail, or both. Developers and restaurant owners, particularly in East L.A., are pushing for tougher enforcement too. These changes, say some truck owners, will probably put them out of business.

This is a cultural disaster. Forget the Getty -- it's the taco trucks, and their crowds, that are the true culture of L.A. Attacking the trucks is like New York going after its hot dog stands or Memphis banning barbecue pits.

And other than raw greed, I can't see any reason for it. Ron Mukai, an East L.A. developer, says the trucks are unfair competition, edging out the "legitimate brick-and-mortar businesses." But the county's 14,000 registered catering trucks seem just as legitimate as restaurants -- they're just providing a different service. Restaurants provide meals, and a table to eat them at, and walls to eat them within. Taco trucks provide food, pure and simple. They charge less because they're selling less.

And that's why I love taco trucks: They're the most efficient mechanism for converting cash into hot food. Some days, I've only got five bucks to spend, and I want every dime to go into high-quality food, not setting.

Los Angeles has always struck me as one of the most aesthetically democratic of cities. The beaches are public, half the museums are free and culinary glory is sold at every street corner for almost nothing. It's paradise for the impoverished food lover. So these new regulations don't just attack taco trucks, they hurt eaters, especially poor eaters. In a lot of places in town, it's the only meal you can get for three or four bucks. And in some places, it's a great meal for three or four bucks.

Taco trucks live and die by the quality of their food, so they tend to have, on average, better chow than full restaurants with the same type of food. And because trucks can move to where there are customers, there's higher turnover, and hence, fresher food. They meet a precise need for that large hunk of the marketplace that cares a lot about the food and not at all about the premises -- sort of like Amazon.com, but with pork. Which is why, I suppose, they're an economic threat.

They're good for Los Angeles too. The reason so many people think of L.A. as a community-less disaster of urban sprawl is the lifelessness of our sidewalks. Right now, in a lot of streets, the taco trucks are the only spots of humanity -- bright little oases of meat and cheer in the night.

So go out to your local taco truck and have a taco. Or, if you know the location of one of the few trucks that make them, have a cemitas poblanas, a Central Mexican sandwich of fried meat, fresh avocado slices, chipotle chile paste and Oaxacan string cheese. Or try an atole -- a hot, thick corn drink, spiked with sticks of cinnamon, best enjoyed on a cool night outside a taco truck. Put your paper plate down on the trunk of your car, lean back, take a breath of fresh air, sip your atole, and enjoy it while you can.

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