By Edwin Goei
By Gustavo Arellano
By Edwin Goei
By Yesenia Varela
By Thao Ta
By Gustavo Arellano
By OC Weekly Staff
By Edwin Goei
Tales From the Taco Trucks
Bribery, threats, broken-down vehicles, lawsuits, pioneers and good food: the lives of Orange County’s loncheros
Joseph Ramirez remembers where he parked on the first stop of the first day of business for his Los Hermanos Lonchera sin Fronteras taco truck.
“It was near the Santa Ana Zoo, around 10 in the morning,” the 39-year-old says between flipping grease-flecked tortillas and stirring crispy carne asada at 2 a.m. outside Memphis at the Santora on a Friday. His younger brother Edward de la Cruz takes orders from drunken hipsters. “We were driving around and found an empty parking spot on a small street.”
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“Four carne asada burritos,” de la Cruz interrupts. Ramirez smiles. It’s been a slow night.
“I park the truck on the street,” he continues. “Then, a car parks in front of us so I can’t move out. Five guys get out and start coming toward us. They surround our truck!”
In no uncertain terms, the men told the brothers that this particular location was for their truck, had been for years, that they’ve parked cars at the spot and amassed tickets just to ensure that their truck could return, and the brothers should get the hell out—or else. But Ramirez, a granite block of Mexican heft who’s actually a soft-spoken teddy bear, remained cool. “I got out, introduced myself and apologized,” he says.
Someone wants three chicken tacos; Ramirez tosses chunks onto the grill, and the resulting sizzle releases a savory aroma.
“I told them I wasn’t here to take their business,” Ramirez says. “Their snacks were way cheaper than ours. We were two separate businesses, we sold different food, and they weren’t there when I parked. Sorry, but we weren’t moving. They eventually left but were angry.”
The burritos are ready. Ramirez wraps them tightly in foil and, stretching outside the truck’s tiny window, hands them to hungry eaters. “All right, guys, here you go,” he says to them, but they don’t listen, too busy chomping into the steaming brick.
“Our mom was with us on that first day,” Ramirez cracks. “She thought we were going to get killed.”
The roach coach. Botulism on wheels. Mobile Montezuma’s revenge. The humble taco truck, known universally in Latino OC as loncheras, its workers as loncheros, has finally left its mooring as the feedbag for immigrants, construction workers and prescient foodies and become mainstream, even hip. Young chefs across the country are increasingly using them to sell innovative gourmet street food, none more acclaimed than Kogi BBQ, a Los Angeles-based company that occasionally visits Orange County; its fusion of Korean and Mexican food, combined with a mastery of Internet and social-networking skills, has earned it a cultish following and national media coverage.
But these stars, well-funded and well-versed in the ways of Twitter and Facebook, are the new wave of loncheras. Loncheras have become largely acceptable only because of the battles—some with blood, some in the courtroom—fought by immigrant men and women, most of whom still toil in obscurity, all looking to change the ways of the past to improve the future for all loncheros.
“We hear the stories of the past—it was like the Wild West,” de la Cruz says after unsuccessfully trying to convince a bedraggled lady that their homemade salsa won’t nuke her tongue. “All the fighting and harassment. We’re lucky—all we have to worry about is this damn truck and making good food.”
* * *
“It was hell in the old days,” says José, who requested the Weekly not use his real name. The Michoacán native has operated loncheras on and off for 20 years, mostly in Santa Ana residential neighborhoods and Anaheim industrial parks. “One of my first routes was around 1990. I had to pay a guy $50 a week just to be able to work a neighborhood. He was a friend, but he said the money was necessary to pay off gang members and cops.”
“I didn’t believe him,” Jose continues. “Then one day, some cholo comes up to my lonchera and points a gun. It was during the day, but he didn’t care. I was by myself—my wife, who usually helps me, had the day off. I thought I was going to die. I was scared. I mentioned the name of the guy whose route I bought—said he was my boss. The cholo smiled and put away the gun. He didn’t buy anything that day, but they never bothered me again.”
His wife, Maricela, chimes in. “I didn’t want to do that stop anymore, but it was too valuable. We got good money out of it. But we eventually left it after hearing of even better rutas to visit. We tried to get one in Stanton, but a lonchero there threatened to call the police. Another stop was peaceful until the business owner demanded part of what we made. But the biggest problem? In every city we went, we had to keep moving. We could’ve made more money if it weren’t for those rules.”