The best thing I had to eat last week was a massive carnitas huarache, from the Gorditas Lupita’s truck on Eagle Rock Boulevard near Avenue 34. I ate it while leaning against a warehouse wall in Glassell Park, washed it down with a bottle of Mexican Coke and perfumed with the exhaust of a thousand diesel trucks. The second-best thing may have been a Puebla-style cemita overstuffed with fried beef milanesa, ripe avocado and shreds of the Pueblan string cheese called quesillo — that one I ate sitting on a plastic folding chair right on Indiana Street, where it runs into César Chávez at Five Points in East L.A.
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Rolling with the homies: Taco love at El Pique
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Saturday night tacos with Edilberto and Guadalupe, right, at La Oaxaqueña in Venice
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Taste of the city: a carne asada taco from El Pique
The third, who knows? A bean-smeared clayuda devoured while sitting curbside at the La Oaxaqueña truck on Lincoln at Rose in Venice? A tostada of fiercely hot aguachile, chopped marinated shrimp, eaten on a milk crate perched next to a Whittier Boulevard medical clinic? A spicy tongue taco eaten at El Pique, in the parking lot of a Highland Park car wash on York at Avenue 53? The carne asada taco at the El Chato truck on Olympic near La Brea, the tooth-staining red sauce at El Taquito Mexicana in Pasadena, the al pastor at El Taurino on Hoover at 11th near Macarthur Park? They all came from trucks; they all made me feel glad to be alive, glad to be in Los Angeles.
I love mini-malls. I love swap meets. I love tamale carts. I love itinerant fruit vendors. I love old Guatemalan women with hampers full of corn on the cob and squirt-bottle mayonnaise. I love the pickups that roam the Eastside, with loads of mangoes or bushels of fresh green chickpeas. I love the guys who lop off the tops of coconuts with rusted machetes. I love entry-level capitalism at its most chaotic, where the barriers to doing business are on the wispy side of minimal, where a family with a dream and a catering license can support itself selling delicious barbecued cabeza from a truck window, where two dozen oddball eating places can be launched for less money than it would take to open a single outlet of Burger King. There are plenty of cities in America where freedom is best expressed as the right to choose between Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr., but Los Angeles is not one of those places. I think that’s why I live here.
Last week, led by Gloria Molina, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors passed a law basically outlawing taco trucks, making it a crime for them to linger at one location for more than an hour, punishable by a $1,000 fine or up to six months in prison. (An old law directed trucks to move every half-hour, but the fine was low and the law largely ignored.) Taco trucks, at least the better-known ones, tend to be anchored to a specific location, often outside a nightclub. (If you are on Lexington at Western, you are eating at El Matador; if on Eagle Rock south of York, probably at Rambo’s Tacos.) Owners of brick-and-mortar restaurants are always complaining about unfair competition from vendors with lower overhead and fewer taxes to pay, although most of the really successful trucks seem to flourish in neighborhoods without many restaurants: on industrial strips, along stretches dominated by auto shops, light manufacturing and discount upholsterers. California has seen squabbles like this before — it took extensive legal action to get taco trucks back on the streets of Salinas after restaurant owners there managed to get them banned.
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But if you have followed taco trucks for any length of time, you have noticed the time-honored progression of cooks moving from street cart to taco truck to full-fledged restaurant. And some people actually prefer the trucks.
The truck parked behind the Hoover Avenue El Taurino on weekends, as is well-known, has al pastor tacos better, fresher than the ones made inside the stand, and the crowd outside the truck after the bars close is legendary. I have friends who consider the King Taco chain too corporate for serious consideration but can’t stay away from the truck parked in a place of honor at the mammoth original East Third Street location. Other perfectly respectable taquerías — La Estrella, Mariela’s — basically seem to serve as docking stations for their trucks. (The El Taquito truck that parks in a lot on Lake north of California is as much a Pasadena institution as the Rose Bowl — and occasionally has longer lines.) Why would an ordinarily sensible woman wait 45 minutes outside a truck to secure the same plate of food she could nab in one-tenth that time at the related taquería next door? Sure, it’s the communal experience, the great brotherhood of the taco-eaters, but it is also the food. In tacos as in love, timing is everything, and if you’ve ever inhaled a taco of pork al pastor moments after the slivers of dripping meat have been hacked from the spit, you know: At that moment, desire and fulfillment are one. A great street taco is happiness translated into the language of warm tortillas, finely chopped onion and a hot sauce that bring you to your knees. The taqueros will usually ask if you want your tacos wrapped to go, but I have never known an order to last even the few seconds it takes to walk back to the car.
A Few Good Trucks (locations as of this writing):Gorditas Lupita’s, Eagle Rock Blvd. near Avenue 34, Glassell Park; Cemitas Tepeac, Indiana St. at César Chávez, East L.A.; La Oaxaqueña, Lincoln Blvd. at Rose, Venice; 4 Ventos, Whittier Blvd. east of Soto, East L.A.; El Pique, car-wash parking lot on York at Avenue 53, Highland Park; El Chato, Olympic Blvd. near La Brea, L.A.; El Taquito Mexicana, auto-shop parking lot on Lake Ave. near California, Pasadena; El Taurino, 1104 S. Hoover St. at 11th, L.A.; El Matador, Lexington at Western, L.A.; Rambo’s Tacos, Eagle Rock Blvd. south of York, Eagle Rock; King Taco, 4504 E. Third St. at Ford, East L.A.; La Estrella, 502 N. Fair Oaks, Pasadena; Mariela’s, Third St. near Catalina, Koreatown, and Sunset near Coronado, Silver Lake.