When I first moved to Orange County as a jaded teenager — fresh out of North Hollywood High School, on the prowl for la vida tranquila — my favorite pastime was to troll the streets of SanTana, searching for the blinking signs and soft-white string lights that a lifetime of living in L.A. had trained me to spot out Mexican street food.
Of course, SanTana is abundant in such sidewalk tacos and torta-slinging loncheras, and I spent several years spoiled by O.C.’s Mexican culinary hub, just as the streets of South Los Angeles had spoiled me during my youth. But Long Beach, where I shuffled over to for cheaper rent in the late 2000s, had no such street food culture – that is, until 2017.
Decades of the health department trying to discourage the city’s still-thriving underbelly from bubbling its grit upon the surface left little room for grey area activities like unpermitted food sales or late-night mobile pop-ups. A health department that operates independently of L.A. County’s also meant that anyone wishing to park a legal lonchera in Long Beach needed to obtain a separate permit from the city, adding fees and licenses that might not be worth it for roving businesses that for a long time were only allowed to park in the port and industrial areas.
Even after the health department loosened regulations on parking limitations and began allowing L.A. County permits to operate in the city in 2011, food trucks were a staggering rarity. Occasionally, trucks from around the region would appear at structured events, like the Third Thursday Food Truck Fun on Broadway in Belmont Heights and Zaferia’s short-lived weekly Lunch Truck It. A few simple-serving local trucks began parking in front of City Hall during lunch time. A lone taco truck appeared on Locust Avenue behind the Superior, and I was so afraid of it getting shut down I refused to write about it until they started operating a more visible second truck on Ocean Boulevard in late 2016.
Flash forward one year later and the city’s once-abysmal street food scene is showing major signs of life. Now, nearly every mechanic shop, llantera, church parking lot and liquor store above 7th Street fill with after-hours planchas and trompos and salsa bars, many of which once have histories of serving across L.A.
El Roto is holding it down on both Locust and Ocean as the double-whammy old-guard of downtown Long Beach’s wheeled taquerias. The SoCal Caribbean Halal Truck and their jerk chicken and curries are now a staple of the Pine Avenue drunk-food scene. And a simple drive down Pacific Coast Highway on any night of the week reveals an array of blinking signs and string lights, just like in my SanTana dreams.
About 20 trucks operate with Long Beach health department permits, but on most nights, it’s possible to find about half of that, mostly posted on private property in food deserts like the Westside, North Long Beach and the real Eastside, which cuts through the central heart of the city.
To get acquainted with some of the newcomers, start yourself off with a few avocado-slathered Tijuana-style tacos ($1.25) from Tacos Tres Garcia, which made the move from its usual spot as part of the dense Alameda Street brigade in nearby Compton to the corner of Redondo and Anaheim Street last spring. [ED. NOTE: As of Jan. 8, Tacos Tres Garcia is now parked on Anaheim Street one block east of Redondo]
Then, head down PCH, where Tacos El Sapo (formerly of East L.A.) slings al pastor across from Poly High School. On the corner of Long Beach Boulevard, there’s the new Arturo’s Tacos with lengua, cabeza and more. Champurrado and birria are king at Tacos El Gym in the parking lot of Mike’s Liquor at Pine Avenue.
If you still have room, drive north, up Santa Fe or along Artesia Boulevard. You can end the night with a sope (or, hell, a cheeseburger) at Vera’s Tacos in the parking lot of a Westside carneceria, or at Manny’s, the northern nighttime parking spot for City Hall’s beloved lunch truck, where breakfast burritos are served all day and everything from cemitas to huaraches to chili cheese fries line the eclectic menu.
On weekend nights only, hunt for the dimly-lit tent in the church parking lot on Carson just west of the 710, where some of the best tacos in the city have quietly hidden for years. Tacos Estilo D.F. does pastor, buche, suadero and more in hand-patted masa rounds overflowing with frijoles de la olla and a cooling avocado salsa. Order as many as you can manage and wash it down with an horchata. Long Beach’s street food future depends on it.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.