Los Angelinos Fighting to Save Taco Trucks

12 Mar

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles, loath to rally cohesively around a local cause, has joined hands around tortillas.

A new county ordinance restricting taco trucks has outraged food bloggers, construction workers, residents of East Los Angeles accustomed to plopping down in a folding chair, taco in one hand, nonalcoholic sangria in the other, as well as members of the taco-loving public willing to drive 15 miles for the best carnitas.

Nearly 5,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the new law at saveourtacotrucks.org, where “carne asada is not a crime.” Enraged taco cart proprietors are defiant; some have hired lawyers. On Thursday, people flocked to taco trucks in support.

This a place where you can pave over a freeway’s carpool lanes with toll roads, and few will complain. You can propose a 40-story skyrise in the center of Hollywood, and hardly anyone two miles to the west will take notice. You can squander public money, close down the ports and flatten landmarks, and many residents of this sprawling metropolis will simply yawn and move on.

But this is also a food-obsessed city with rich Hispanic cultural traditions, and tacos have crossed the miles of road and class divides.

“Taco trucks are iconic here,” said Aaron Sonderleiter, a teacher from the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles and one of the petition founders. “You go to one and you see black, people, white people, old people, young people. They really capture a microcosm of L.A.”

Violations of the old rules, which allow food vendors to remain in a location for 30 minutes, are mere infractions, and in any case the rules are seldom enforced. But under the new ordinance, which goes into effect next week, taco carts would be required to change location every hour, with violators facing fines, misdemeanor charges and, possibly, jail time. County officials say the change comes at the behest of residents who find the carts eyesores, and some restaurant owners who feel undermined by the price-chopping ways of their mobile competition.

“They are a blight,” said Omar Loya of East Los Angeles who took his complaints about the trucks to the office of his county supervisor, Gloria Molina.

Ms. Molina’s policy director, Gerry Hertzberg, said the trucks had become “a big quality of life issue” in some neighborhoods.

“Businesses with a fixed place of business complain about unfair competition and the spillover effects mobile vendors have on the surrounding area,” Mr. Hertzberg said, citing litter, noise, public urination and excessive parking space hoarding as typical complaints.

The new restrictions apply to the county’s unincorporated areas, of which East Los Angeles, which lies just east of downtown, is the most populated. In this dominantly Hispanic neighborhood, taco trucks — and their culinary cousins, fresh fruit vendors — are the curbside pizza storefronts of New York.

At night, some serve as social centers, where communities gather to listen to music and chow down. Some trucks — loncheras — are adorned with names or artwork that signifies the region of Mexico that the vendor hails from, and the food served often also has a regional distinction.

Far faster and far cheaper than restaurants, they are a favorite for day laborers, poor families and cheap dates.

“In my case I have 30 minutes for lunch,” said Carlos Baptista, a construction worker eating a fish taco last week. “And when I only have $4 in my pocket, it is more cheaper than restaurants.”

Under the new ordinance, trucks in a commercial zone will have an hour to sit; those in a residential area will still have to leave after 30 minutes, but in much of East Los Angeles, commercial and residential are one. After the allotted time, a vendor would have to move at least one half mile from the location, and not return for three hours. The district attorney may also charge taco flouters with a misdemeanor, and fines will increase from $60 to $100 dollars for first violation, increasing to a cap of $500.

The City of Los Angeles already has similar restrictions, but they have been uncontroversial because they are rarely enforced; a law regulating food trucks in the city was enforced 28 times last year, according to the police. Efforts to restrict the vendors have met resistance in other cities, as well.

Several taco truck owners last week said they had heard of the law change and were displeased.

“We are hard workers and we pay taxes,” said Jose Naranjo, who has been selling fish and shrimp tacos from his truck in East Los Angeles since 1989. “We are poor people feeding other poor people.”

Mr. Hertzberg said the current county law was enforced roughly “150 times a year,” although Henry Romero, the captain of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s East Los Angeles station, said they had not issued a summons in four years. (Mr. Hertzberg later said that he was referring to 2004, during which one violator was fined 60 times.)

Law enforcement officials say the new ordinance has clearer language that will make enforcement easier.

“Is it one of my primary goals?” Captain Romero said. “Put it this way: We will enforce it when we get complaints from the community.”

Several restaurant owners in East Los Angeles, when asked about the taco trucks, shrugged. “What they do is different,” said Bernardo Garcia, who owns three restaurants.

But there are plenty who disagree.

“A lot of these food trucks are not from our community, they make money in our community but do not give back to the community,” said Lourdes Caracoza, the president of Maravilla Business Association, which covers a small section of East Los Angeles. “People say this is part of our culture. I don’t recall any towns in Mexico having taco trucks.”

One Response to “Los Angelinos Fighting to Save Taco Trucks”

  1. mauro chavez February 20, 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    where can i find a lonchera truck spartanburg south carolina

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