By Kristine Hoang
By Ryan Ritchie
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Edwin Goei
By Cleo Tobbi
By Dominique Boubion
No one knows when the first catering trucks began rumbling through Orange County streets, let alone when they began to transform into an almost-exclusively Mexican-food phenomenon. Now, as Mexicans spread across the United States with entrepreneurial Latinos literally chasing behind, municipalities across the country can’t pass anti–lonchera ordinances quickly enough. The most notorious instance was last year in Los Angeles County, where the Board of Supervisors sought to make parking a truck longer than an hour in unincorporated communities such as East Los Angeles a misdemeanor with a penalty of a $1,000 fine, six months in jail—or both. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge overturned the supes’ wishes.
That loncheras in Orange County are basically left alone by law enforcement might surprise many, considering the county’s xenophobic reputation and a county health department that just eight years ago tried to regulate how Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese restaurants prepared their food, traditions that had been employed for centuries. But throughout the 1990s, as Orange County began its dramatic change in demographics, cities actively fought to legislate taco trucks out of existence.
In 1992, Anaheim crafted a law outlawing taco and produce trucks altogether from residential areas; a Superior Court judge quickly struck that down. But that didn’t deter city officials the following year from implementing another ordinance that sought to subject anyone working the mobile restaurants to a criminal background check before receiving an operating permit. A group of vendors sued, and Superior Court Judge Warren Siegel overturned most of the codes in 1996, noting such tactics amounted to an invasion of privacy.
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“The ordinance sets up a full investigation and licensing system based upon the supplying of considerable personal information, including information relating to potentially ever-changing employees,” he wrote in an opinion. “This is pervasive to the point of creating the authority to prohibit vending.”
Siegel did allow Anaheim to force taco trucks in residential neighborhoods to move every 10 minutes; vendors sued again and eventually settled out of court for $12,000 in attorney fees and a revocation of any time limit.
But the hardest-fought struggles occurred in Santa Ana, the heart of the county’s Mexican community and one of the largest Latino cities, percentage-wise, in the United States. As more Mexican immigrants began moving to Santa Ana during the 1960s, the city code was rewritten to force loncheras to move 50 feet every five minutes or risk parking tickets. Most vendors let the citations bloom on their windshields rather than give up such prime real estate.
The statute stayed in effect for decades. In 1994, under pressure from vendors, a more-sympathetic City Council changed the rules: a 30-minute parking limit and no setting up shop closer than 200 feet to intersections and 500 feet from competitors, parks and schools. But under subsequent pressure from neighborhood associations, they also required each truck carry a $1 million insurance policy and perform criminal background checks, à la Anaheim’s, an attempt to ensure, according to the city attorney at the time, that vendors “don’t have an unsavory background.”
A Superior Court judge quickly granted an injunction against its implementation, and the case languished for two years. Finally, presiding Judge Ronald Bauer threw it out in 1996, noting it “impermissibly intrudes upon several areas already extensively regulated by the state and that a permanent injunction must therefore be issued against any enforcement or implementation of that ordinance.”
Although the city of Santa Ana had a 30-minute-parking rule on the books, officials generally ignored loncheras that stayed longer than their allotted time. In 2005, however, police started cracking down on the time limit. Complaints from residents about littering trucks and business owners about competition ushered in a crackdown.
One of the affected loncheros was Roberto Guzmán, whose Alebrije’s Grill trucks are distinctive even in the taco-truck community for their searing pink-Cadillac paint job and a menu featuring Mexico City specialties such as alambres and mushroom quesadillas (for a full review of Alebrije’s, read “Of Taco Trucks and Battleships”). The now-42-year-old Mexico City native started Alebrije’s Grill in 2001 after spending a decade in Orange County as a chauffeur and courier. Like nearly everyone interviewed for this story, Guzmán longed to be his own boss. “I wanted to be my own owner, my own boss, so I didn’t have to work for anyone and do what I liked,” he says. He longed to return to the days of his childhood, when the Guzmáns operated a couple of street stalls selling food in Mexico’s capital. With help from three brothers and a sister, plus money from selling his house, Guzmán was able to rent a truck.
Problems immediately arose: The slogan on his truck read, “Coma como en el DF” (“Eat like in DF”; the letters are an acronym for Federal District, the official designation of Mexico City). “People came up to us and yelled that all us chilangos [derogatory nickname for Mexico City residents] are thieves and dirty. Mexicans said that!” Guzmán says with a laugh. “But then they ate our food, the authentic food del distrito federal, and their minds changed.”