Bribery, Threats, Broken-Down Vehicles, Lawsuits, Pioneers, Good Food: Tales From OC's Taco Trucks
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
Once the city began enforcing the 30-minute-maximum, Guzmán got upset. “It affected us tremendously,” he says. “People couldn’t find us, then we had to move around.” By this point, the Guzmán clan owned three loncheras. “We couldn’t pay our bills, and they wanted us to close at 8 in the evening. It was going to kill our business.”
Guzmán and other younger loncheros held a meeting and decided to work with the city. “Look, I’m from a new generation of loncheros,” he says. “Before, they were known as roach coaches, and let’s face it, there was some truth to that. They were synonymous with trashed neighborhoods, old trucks and owners who just didn’t care. But we new guys, we wanted to keep them clean. We put in tens of thousands of dollars for upgrades, to give better service to the people, but also be friendly with the city.
“So we went to the old vanguard and said, ‘Look, the city is ready to crack down on us again,’” Guzmán continus. “We need to have our loncheras clean. We need to paint them. The minute we leave our spots, clean the outside. And, most important, we had to help one another out. And no more rivalries. We wanted another image. We didn’t want to be seen as vandals [by] the city. They always associated us with drug sales, with alcohol sales.
“When we explained it like that to the older loncheros, it motivated them to get their acts together. They realized the fight [against the city] wasn’t going to be easy. We had to show them we were up to the fight with good arguments and show we were as legitimate as a restaurant.”
It worked for the most part. But the City Council responded by proposing to create 150 permanent parking spaces for loncheras on city streets, force them to close by 8 p.m., and place a 90-minute-parking rule for each spot. Under that first proposal, a lottery system would be created to hand out the parking spots for taco trucks; then the council members wanted to do it based on seniority.
“Please,” Guzmán scoffs. “It would’ve been favoritism all the way. I felt as if they were going to take away the sustenance of so many families. It was going to be a huge economic loss. And it was too much a worry that, at any moment, [the city] could take away the parking spots from us. That woke up anyone who already wasn’t with us new guys.”
Though Guzmán had previously advocated working alongside the city, he and two others filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court seeking to overturn the city’s restrictions. “We had to react to defend our interests,” he says. “The arguments they had, we gave them justification with our responses.”
In 2006, after a four-day trial, Judge W. Michael Hayes found for Guzmán and his fellow loncheros. In a ruling, Hayes said he wasn’t convinced by the city’s argument that loncheros were a public-safety threat and added that the taco trucks would “suffer irreparable losses” with limited hours and times to park.
As a result, taco trucks in Santa Ana can now park in one spot for any amount of time. Winning, for Guzmán, was a “relief,” he says. “Now, I have a future. I can do something.”
But the taco-truck battle in Santa Ana isn’t over. Santa Ana officials have created the Renaissance Specific Plan (RSP), an ambitious redevelopment project for the city’s downtown that critics claim will gentrify the area’s heavily Latino businesses and residents out of the area. Among the new rules proposed is the elimination of taco trucks altogether. The RSP states, “All business activities [within the RSP boundaries] shall be conducted and located within an enclosed building” and, “No sales shall be made directly from a building to persons on a public sidewalk.”
Santa Ana officials didn’t return calls for comment.
Guzmán is unfazed, “Loncheros will deal with that when the time comes,” he says.
Now, Guzmán and his siblings own four loncheras that operate in Santa Ana, with an extra one available for catering or to replace a broken-down truck; each manages one. The original Alebrije’s still parks on Pomona Street, between Sycamore and Main streets. About a year and a half ago, the Guzmáns branched out for the first time outside their hometown, nabbing a spot at the Cypress Swap Meet. Sales have tripled within that short time.
One of Guzmán’s trucks is operated by Albert Hernandez. He was working at a car dealership in Westminster but longed to start a business. “I knew Roberto, and about three years ago, he said there was an opportunity for me to buy one of his trucks,” he says, taking a break from preparing food to sweep the sidewalk in front of his truck on Cubbon Street between Main and Sycamore streets in Santa Ana. “The investment wasn’t much, and it’s paid off well.”
Hernandez, who one day hopes to operate his own fleet and even open a restaurant, parks his truck in front of a Northgate Gonzalez market from 9 in the morning until 9 at night seven days a week. Code enforcement never bothers. “It’s thanks to the loncheros like Roberto, who fought the fights before me, that I can operate in peace,” he says.
Guzmán is still thinking big. He admires the ingenuity of the Kogi publicity machine, not so much the food. “We didn’t do publicity before because the loncheros of before were people who weren’t open-minded,” he says. “They were our dads, our uncles, men and women who thought, ‘Why should I pay for publicity or come out in the newspaper when people know me?’ It’s a cultural thing. Today, we’re more open. I’m younger; I know this country a bit more. We’re a bit more current.”
* * *
Ramirez and de la Cruz of Los Hermanos Lonchera sin Fronteras are part of this new generation. They blast Johnny Cash as frequently as Los Tigres del Norte. Their Twitter account (twitter.com/loshermanosLSF) gives followers daily specials, everything from bacon-wrapped hot dogs to cheeseburgers, ceviche to picadillo. It was Ramirez’s dream to own a truck; de la Cruz is getting his master’s in psychology and wants to work in art therapy, but he decided to help his older brother start out, making an investment in the hopes of a return. Ramirez had no experience cooking outside of family gatherings; de la Cruz was a server at BJ’s.
New trucks, fully equipped, run about $135,000. But the brothers bought theirs for $20,000.
“The truck’s older than dirt,” Ramirez says with a laugh.
Every Tuesday through Saturday, the brothers leave their Corona homes around 6 in the morning, take the 261 toll road from the 91 freeway, and pick up their truck where Guzmán parks his fleet: International Catering in Irvine, one of the county’s six officially licensed commissaries for taco trucks. Per the California Health and Safety Code, all taco trucks must park in one. It’s not much, really, just asphalt squeezed between construction firms, a Waste Management plant and a cement factory, with a warehouse for food storage, but dozens of trucks park here for a monthly fee that entitles them to daily cleanings, natural gas to heat their grills and ice to keep their sodas cool.
Running the operation is Rasmi Ihmud. “Rasmi is someone who supports la raza hispana,” Guzmán says. “He might not be Mexican, but he’s done it with us. For me, he’s done much by telling us about his experiences and inspirations. He’s been very direct with us and given us a hand when we needed it.”
“Rasmi is a great guy,” de la Cruz affirms. “When we told people we wanted to start a lonchera, they told us to call him. He’s the one who gave us the tip on the taco truck. Before we started, he told us, ‘Before you learn a route, find your spot. Know the kitchen, the commissary.’ Great advice—he could’ve just taken our money for parking the truck, but he’s too kind for that.”
Ihmud, though allowing the Weekly to take pictures inside the commissary, declined to be interviewed.
At 7:30 a.m., the lot is abuzz with trucks. Ramirez starts grilling meat for their first stop in an hour; de la Cruz goes to an icehouse with a wheelbarrow so he can shovel crushed ice, take it back to the truck, and spread it in a cooler, inside which he’ll pack the sodas. Other people clean their windows, gossip, or give one another tips.
“You need to go to Buena Park,” a lady tells de la Cruz in Spanish as he returns to the truck. “It’s my spot, and it gets me a lot of business. But I don’t need it anymore, and I like you guys. Go ahead and get it.”
She gives them directions (the brothers have never visited the city) and tells them to show up at noon sharp. “You have to get there on time,” she tells de la Cruz firmly. “I’ve seen other loncheros pass by there, wanting to take it from me. If you’re not there on time, they’ll take it quickly.”
Ramirez says hola to Ricardo Ochoa, who lives in Santa Ana and has washed trucks at International Catering for 18 years. He’s seen it all—fights, highs, people coming in to find dreams and leaving broke, others getting rich. But Ochoa never had any aspirations to join the industry. “No, here, there are no bribes, no scandals, no threats—I just talk to people and make friends.”
He does worry, though. “The lonchera industry is like a carousel,” he says. “Everyone visits the good, the bad, the okay. But it seems we’re stuck right now on the really bad.”
De la Cruz agrees. “This first stop we’re going to [a factory in Costa Mesa], when we first found it in February, we’d have 15 guys buy from us, all just stuffing their mouths,” he says, as Ramirez points to his watch. Time’s short. “Right now, we only sell to three workers, and they don’t buy as much as they used to. Everyone else got laid off. But as long as our customers want to eat, we’ll go there.”
“It’s a hard industry,” Guzmán says. “Many think it’s easy, but of 10 that enter, only one stays. But it’s a great one. All the world can stop cutting [their] hair, buying shoes, but eating food is essential. We help people with that. Our industry, it’s noble.”
To see more photos, click here.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Orange County dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.