As Los Angeles institutions go, perhaps only the Lakers inspire as much passionate debate and chest-thumping as the humble taco truck: "My corner carne asada is better than yours, amigo!" Unlike the Lakers, however, you don't have to be Jack Nicholson to afford the top-of-the-line taco truck experience. Gobbling oniony beef tacos as you rest your paper plate on your car hood and watch the sun set over the freeway traffic will set you back about $3. It is an evening of fine dining accessible to any college student, construction worker or unemployed actor.
But a new set of regulations due to go into effect around May 15 has some of L.A.'s taco truck drivers and their customers worried whether the restaurants on wheels will be able to keep rolling. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors made parking a taco truck in one spot for more than an hour punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 or six months in jail or both. The law applies to mobile caterers in unincorporated areas of the city, which includes spicy ground beef's ground zero, East L.A.
"There are so many other problems in this city. Gangs. Robberies. To focus on people trying to make a living selling tacos? It makes no sense," says Olegario Hernandez, while gassing up his taco truck on East L.A.'s Whittier Blvd. Taco truck drivers say it takes time to set up and prepare the food, and that moving constantly would make doing business impossible.
For years, county law has required that taco trucks move after 30 minutes, but rarely has the law, which carried a $60 fine, been enforced. The new, harsher taco truck law, and a promise of stricter enforcement, was inspired by the needs of businesses and residents in East L.A., says County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who proposed the regulations. "It all stems from an ongoing turf battle between the vendors and the merchants," Molina says. "The businesses don't appreciate [the taco trucks] down in front. And some of the residents consider it annoying to have the trucks out until midnight or two in the morning. We're trying to create a better and more livable community."
Awareness of the law, enacted April 15, among L.A.'s 14,000 licensed taco truckers is still low. On April 23, at an East L.A. parking lot where dozens line up every afternoon to clean and restock their trucks, not a single driver had heard of the changes. "It seems like they're doing it very quietly," says Monica Jimenez, whose family has been in the taco truck business for 25 years. "They didn't announce it." Jimenez's family is one of dozens who have spoken to an attorney about challenging the new law on the grounds that it violates the state vehicle code, which says that sales from mobile caterers can only be regulated for public safety. "The county has created a Sword of Damocles," says Jimenez' attorney, Philip Greenwald. "They're trying to frighten [the taco truck drivers] out of business."
Taco truck patrons are getting fired up, too. About 2,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the law to be repealed at Saveourtacotrucks.org, a web site created by two teachers, Aaron Sonderleiter and Chris Rutherford. Signers have left comments like, "The revolution will be served on a paper plate," "This is for you, Taco Zone. Your al pastor tacos have warmed my soul on many a cold night," and "Quit punishing people for bringing us taco-induced joy! Viva los taco trucks!"
The pair has just had their web site translated into Spanish and created a flyer that reads, "Carne Asada Is Not a Crime," which they're asking taco lovers to print and post in their neighborhoods. "Taco trucks are such a vibrant part of the landscape of L.A.," says Rutherford. "They're messing with the free market." There's talk of grander plans, too, like a citywide "taco truck night," in which Angelenos will be encouraged to eat a meal at a taco truck in a show of solidarity.
Right now, however, the heart of the taco truck preservation movement is Sonderleiter's living room in Highland Park, at two-man meetings fueled by burritos from Leo's taco truck, widely considered the Kobe Bryant of vendors. "We've probably spent enough money there to put two of Leo's kids through college," says Rutherford. "He recognizes us and knows what we like. You just don't get that at Jack in the Box."