TACO TRUCKS: “STREETAURANTS” AND LE BON PAIN.
It seems to me that in the case of most life forms, if not all, food is a function of form. That is, life forms need sustenance to survive. From the very beginning of life forms, then, food was of paramount importance. It stands to reason that life forms came into existence equipped not only ready to consume food but to find it or ferret it out. Speaking about humans only, when did they start to make food not only for their individual sustenance but for others, particularly in a manner we now call “eateries” or “restaurants”?
Depending on the geography, food-trucks have a variety of names from food vans, mobile canteens, lunch wagons, etc. Heather Shouse, senior food and drink correspondent for Time Out Chicago, as well as the Chicago reporter for Food & Wine magazine refers to the fare of food-trucks as “nomadic snacks.” In Chicago, one Taco Truck is called “the Tamale Spaceship.”All this by way of determining the current surge in Taco Trucks throughout the United States, particularly in the Hispanic Southwest and enclaves of Hispanic populations everywhere in the country. Since the 1960s, food truck loncherias have sprouted up in Mexican-American neighborhoods of East L.A., giving rise to their origin there. But Taco Trucks—now more commonly referred to as Food Trucks—are everywhere around the globe.
One plausible story about the origin of Food-Trucks in the United States suggests they originated with the portable “Chuck Wagon” of Texas cattle drives. Though often portable, many food-trucks have taken root in popular corners and locales. Ice-cream trucks are a version of food-trucks. Food vending on the sidewalks of New York are also versions of food-trucks. There’s “good eatin’” at those various versions of food-trucks. Today, there’s a multitudinous array of food-trucks specializing in a variety of international cuisines.
The street-eats of one Taco Truck in California boasts a menu of berenjena (eggplant) and alcachofas (artichokes)—a heady menu for a fast-food wheeled cart that started out selling tacos with carnitas and barbacoa fillings as a fast-lunch alternative. Taco Trucks belie the expectation of sit-down dining in what we call “restaurants.” In a way, these Taco Trucks are “restaurants on wheels”: “truckoraunts”—very au courant and a la mode—defying the static definition of entrepreneurship and dining.
Important to note, however, is that Taco Trucks in themselves are not new. That is, the concept of food-trucks. During the early years of World War II, I worked as a minor helper on a fast-food truck at the Westinghouse plant in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The truck was not motorized. The cook, cashier, and I worked the food-truck everywhere through- out the plant. We were swamped with business at every stop. En route, my job was also to pick up trash.
Recently, the University of North Caroline Press published Sandra Gutierrez’ Cookbook of Street Food (Latin American Street Food! The Best Flavors of Markets, Beaches of Roadside Stands from Mexico to Argentina) with international recipes like Peruvian dried squid, Brazilian avocado ice-cream, and Salvadorean papusas. In particular, Gutierrez touts the avocado sauce of U.S. Mexican Taco Trucks, a sauce that tops much of the fare of those Taco Trucks. The Taco Truck craze in the United States reflects the multicultural population of the United States.
There’s no glut of these trucks with hand-held food today in the United States, and I doubt that there will be anytime soon. Food-trucks are a boon to the dining industry. They’re convenient: the food comes to you. By and large, food-trucks are regulated by statutes (laws) most everywhere. In Chicago that regulation is considerably more severe than elsewhere because cooking in a truck is illegal. To avoid getting caught, some maverick Taco Truckers park their “snack shacks” in lots behind buildings where foot savants sniff them out.
Nevertheless, food-trucks are found in Asia, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, England, Mexico, and Timbuktu—in other words: everywhere. San Francisco has hundreds of Food-Trucks. In Los Angeles there are over 4,000 food truck identified by the L.A. County Department of Health as Mobile Restaurants. The Food-Truck craze is sweeping the nation. They’re handy for weddings, school dances, parties, late-night après drinks, and other festivities. Popular and increasing in number, Philadelphia, for example, has a Mobile Food Association. Dallas hosts a Food Truck Palooza. In the Smithsonian Magazine (March 2012), Jonathan Gold calls food trucks “the new incubators of culinary innovation.” Annually, Washington DC hosts a Truckeroo of food trucks.
As a rule Taco Trucks don’t take checks or credit cards. Cash in small bills is best. Oftentimes diners take their own chairs when eating at Taco Trucks. No need to know Spanish when ordering at Taco Trucks. Servers can handle English as well as Spanglish. Though colorfull, Taco Trucks are in the main unpretentious. The philosophy of Taco Trucks is that great food is produced by great ingredients. It’s far too easy to dismiss Taco Trucks as “greasy spoons.”
Because of that perception, in some cities health officials have cracked down on Taco Trucks. Taco Truck vendors have appealed for protection from the Asociación de Loncheros, an advocacy group for lunch truck operators. Though some owner-operators of Taco Trucks talk about long-range “brick and mortar” durability for their business, the appeal and allure of the Taco Truck itself allays that pull al fresco. My money’s on gravity—no hay como la comida al aire even though it may appear like decadent loafing.
The history of outdoor dining goes back to medieval times as a forerunner of picnics. Al fresco dining, or dining ‘in the open air’, has been traditional in European countries for hundreds of years before American backyard cookouts and the advent of sidewalk cafes. In 1877, St. Louis restaurateur Tony Faust was among the first to add rooftop dining as an option for his guests. Pleasure gardens and Tea Gardens were forerunners of al fresco dining.
Does food taste better eaten outdoors? Perhaps? Maybe it’s just the informality and joie engendered by the casualness of outdoor dining. The air rife with aromas. No pretenses to impress nearby diners. Ah!
In los Angeles, outdoor dining is particularly memorable in the internationally renowned Marketplace on Olvera Street opened in 1930. Buen provecho!
Copyrigtht 2014 by Dr. Philip De Ortego y Gasca