Who doesn't love a carne asada-serving taco truck or a smart trailer offering gourmet, local hot dogs? You'd be surprised. Despite the challenges in bringing quality food to the masses, these mobile eateries have overcome both consumer perception and city battles to deliver healthy, authentic meals on ingeniously-designed wheels.
Christopher Rutherford asks for a raise of hands: Who eats at taco trucks? The tortilla-holding hands in the audience shoot up. Eating at taco trucks is the best way to engage with local culture, he says, and for a $5 dinner, you can't beat the deal. A few years ago, Los Angeles proposed an ordinance that allowed taco trucks to only park for 30 minutes at a time, sparking this battle cry from the taco-eating community: "Carne Asada is Not a Crime." (You can get this as a shirt.)
Taco trucks are a special part of Los Angeles history, Rutherford and his friend Aaron Sonderleiter argued, and the ordinance also discriminated against business owners who didn't have the money to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. So SaveOurTacoTrucks.org was born, and Rutherford and Sonderleiter organized a series of citywide taco nights. Their activism sparked an international debate, and they eventually organized a trade organization that supported the truckers. This in turn has paved the way for more mobile vendors, like the other panelists. So go out there and find a taco truck tonight, and enjoy one of the best meals in town.
On the heels of that ordinance, Sue Moore and Larry Bain started Let's Be Frank. It was partially because they wanted the experience of selling hot dogs on the street, but they also wanted to show their love for the ranchers and farmers they know. Moore and Bain had considered creating a traditional restaurant with organic, responsible food a la Chez Panisse, but then they realized that they would only reach the small group of people who could afford it. Street food was more democratic, and it also directly illustrated the connection from pasture to plate.
Bain has been incredibly active in food rights, which is even more involved than you might think—he actually drove down to L.A. today with a cow in his car! But he discovered that although street food seemed like a simple business, the ranchers were game, the consumers were game...but the laws were not game. Everything they do is illegal, says Bain, but they enjoy the challenge of trying to change the laws. Supporting mobile food is a decision supporting the connection to better food, he explains. So whatever you do, just take that bite.
Kam Miceli had the same focus for Green Truck—to bring organic, healthy food to a place other than the moneyed west side of Los Angeles. Besides delivering such cuisine all over town, Green Truck itself is a sustainable business, powering their vehicles with frying oil, ditching chemicals and plastic utensils, and running a solar-powered commissary. Their Mother Trucker veggie burger is a hit, but they cater to the whole spectrum, from vegans to carnivores: "all-food-itarians,"
For all the panelists, the design of the truck was very important to the business because they were reinventing an old model, but in a way that let them to interact with customers in a more open way. It's not as easy as driving to a location and serving food, says Miceli, it's about bringing together the food, the employees, the people, the place—the entire experience. Let's Be Frank has recently taken their experience a step further and parked it permanently: They just opened their first brick-and-mortar store. But don't worry, you'll still see Let's Be Frank around town.
Image via New York Public Library