The lure of the outlaw taco cart
By Charles Perry
Times Staff Writer
THE scent of frying beef wafts down the sidewalk. Knots of people stand around socializing in the mild summer dusk, waiting for carne asada tacos.
They're not waiting for their orders at L.A.'s familiar taco trucks, although some of those do stay open at night. These people are patronizing outlaw taco carts — unlicensed, fry-by-night street cook stations.
Most such carts fry carne asada on a gas-fired griddle, and some also have the proper vertical spit for roasting marinated pork al pastor. The better-equipped ones have steam table compartments filled with precooked taco fillings such as barbacoa. A few make their own fresh tortillas or pupusas.
Why do they operate in the evening? Because people like snacking on the street when the weather's nice — and because the county's health inspectors mostly work during daytime.
Up to code
THERE is such a thing as a legal taco cart. Markets and restaurants can be licensed to operate them.
"We had an operation out there [in the parking lot] for several months," says Gary Kinman, manager of the Liborio Market on 3rd Street in Los Angeles. "Carne asada, yes, and the Central American people love their pupusas, so we had that. At first it was for weekends, and eventually it was practically every night."
In this case, Kinman ended up reluctantly closing the operation. "People loved it," Kinman says, "and it was a success from that standpoint, but there were logistical problems."
One restaurant that has put in a cart is at a jinxed east San Fernando Valley address, just a few steps too far north of the street corner to attract much walk-in business. A dozen restaurants have failed there over the years.
"I thought if people could see my food, they'd buy it," says the proprietor. "So I thought of a cart, because that's how I got started — with a cart. But with a cart, you know, you always have to run from the inspectors, so I became a restaurant owner."
And then back to a cart operator — to draw attention to his restaurant. His new cart is not quite up to code, so he declined to be identified. The food comes from an inspected kitchen and the taco cook wears the now-familiar disposable plastic gloves, but the cart lacks a few bells and whistles such as a sink, so the owner is resigned to getting a citation sooner or later. "Then I'll have to figure what to do. Most of my business is outside here," he says, waving his hand toward the sidewalk.
Every night of the week you see people responding to the lure of the cart, gathering in front of the restaurant to order tacos. "I tell them, 'There's plenty of seating inside.' But they'd rather eat out here."
The vast majority of taco carts are nowhere near code, however.
"Near downtown you may see a cart or stand in front of an auto shop," says Jose Martinez, who supervises the county health department field agents who inspect lunch trucks. "There's no permit issued for that kind of operation — it's illegal food sales. Some of these carts are rudimentary, made in somebody's backyard, while others are very professional-looking and cost thousands of dollars. People may be fooled when they see them, because they'll be covered in stainless steel, with a professional-type griddle."
The slickest-looking stand I've come across was not downtown but in Pacoima. Its stainless steel panels had the same broad diamond pattern you've seen at '50s-revival lunch counters. Along with two propane griddles, it had steam table compartments for barbacoa and cabeza (beef head meat). Beside it, there were shelves for ingredients, a chrome rack for napkins, cartons and plastic forks and a couple of dining tables, complete with tablecloths. They even gave out numbered receipts — a necessity, with 12 or 15 customers waiting around for their orders.
The food was just wonderful, too. The sauces had a bright chile fragrance and a decided snap of heat; the tacos were wrapped in fresh tortillas cooked on the spot, full of the sweet hominy perfume of masa.
Carts are more densely concentrated downtown than in the Valley, though they tend to be less fancy. One Saturday night, more than a dozen of them could be seen in a four-mile corridor bounded by Vermont Avenue and Main Street. There were no carts in sight next to auto body shops, but there were three in front of electric repair shops, and a couple stood outside storefront churches.
One stand in front of somebody's home had separate griddles for frying beef, onions and whole jalapeños and for warming store-bought tortillas. If you asked for mole (in this case, a mild hot sauce), a family member would take your tacos to a condiment table in the front yard of the house and add sauce there. This operation also made burritos and empanadas.
A couple of blocks to the east, a cart and some tables had been set up in the parking lot of an electric repair shop; at least a dozen customers were enjoying themselves there. With strings of lights overhead, it had the air of a party. A few blocks north of that, a cart frying carne asada and a folding table full of iced Mexican fruit juices (aguas frescas) stood in front of a storefront church.
On another street, up near the Santa Monica Freeway, there was a humble wooden cart, painted white, with an al pastor spit revolving and two griddles working. On one, the owners were making fresh tortillas in the gathering dusk.
This particular street seemed to be mostly Central American, since the other three stands on it — there was one about every 10 blocks — were turning out pupusas, rather than Mexican food. One woman was using a professional-looking metal griddle with iron legs. Another pupusa operation had a neatly painted sign listing its prices, which it enterprisingly set up on the sidewalk.
WHETHER downtown or elsewhere, these carts tend to show up on residential streets in Latino neighborhoods where there aren't many restaurants. Lunch trucks also serve these neighborhoods, but the carts, with their lower overhead, can afford to locate in less-trafficked areas. They're more or less the unlicensed, low-budget equivalent of the taco trucks.
The health department has two main problems with these carts. For one, they lack an inspected chain of sanitary food handling — there's no way to know whether the ingredients come from a reliable source and whether they've been protected from contamination and spoilage at every point.
And the cart or stand is a problem in itself. To be licensed for dispensing food, it must be stored between uses in an approved, inspected location, usually in one of the commissaries that specialize in MFPUs (mobile food preparation units). Health inspectors are all too aware how easily a cart innocently stored in a garage can be contaminated. Rodents and insects have nothing to do all day and night but crawl around looking for food.
And those are just the main problems. The California health code also mandates a number of requirements for an MFPU, including availability of toilet facilities for employees within 200 feet, a sink with hot and cold water for washing hands and utensils and storage of all food-related items at least 6 inches above the ground.
But to tell whether a cart is legal, you don't have to look for a sink. A licensed cart must have on two sides its company name and address printed in letters at least 3 inches high. More to the point, it has to display a health permit prominently.
Health inspectors often make sweeps of the neighborhoods. "We impound some carts," Martinez says, "and some makeshift equipment that could never be suitable is destroyed."
Needless to say, many of the people involved are recent immigrants. "A lot of the people do not have ID," Martinez says. "People who've been caught before often don't want to claim anything, they'll step aside [from the cart] and say they have nothing to do with it. We assume they don't know the law. We ask them to come to the office, and we will explain. Some come, some don't."
In general, the taco cart operators are appealing figures, gregarious, proud of their food, glad to be making a living in this country. The California health code is labyrinthine, and compliance can be costly. But the health issues are real.
Still, many do make terrific tacos. For better or worse, they're tacos on the wild side.