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Taco Truck Battle Heats Up in Los Angeles

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Taco Truck Battle Heats Up in Los Angeles

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Taco Truck Battle Heats Up in Los Angeles

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Next, we're going to report on a city that's feeling the pangs of a more subtle change. In this case, it's the pains of hunger. The city is Los Angeles, where people spend much time in their cars, so it's fitting that some of the most popular meals are served on wheels. Taco trucks are a favorite spot for good, inexpensive Mexican food. But next week, L.A. County is enacting tougher laws that truck owners in parts of L.A. say could put them out of business.

NPR's Ben Bergman investigates.

BEN BERGMAN: L.A.'s most famous restaurant critic gets paid to eat wherever he wants. Yet several times a week, Jonathan Gold pulls over to the side of the road and eats cuisine served on a paper plate, out of a truck.

Mr. JONATHAN GOLD (Restaurant critic, LA Weekly): I've probably been to 3 or 4,000 taco trucks in my life. It's a hobby, you might say.

BERGMAN: Gold, the only food critic to have won a Pulitzer Prize, says most of the time, the tacos are so delicious, that even if he intends to take them home to his family, he can't help but devour the tacos in the time it takes to walk from the truck to his car.

Mr. GOLD: If I had to eat only one taco for the rest of my life, it would probably be a perfect taco el pasteur with marinated pork cooked on a revolving spit, the crispy, bubbly bits carved off to order, put it in the thing with hot salsa and a little tiny sliver of roasted pineapple.

BERGMAN: But not everyone is so enamored of taco trucks, known to their critics as roach coaches.

L.A. County recently passed new laws that will make it a misdemeanor to park a taco truck in the same place for more than an hour, punishable with $1,000 fine or six months in jail. The county already has similar rules on the books, but they only carry a $60 fine and are rarely enforced.

The harsher laws are in response to complaints from business owners like Maria Melgar, who says taco trucks have made her life miserable.

Ms. MARIA MELGAR (Owner, Birrieria Guadelarja Restaurant): (Spanish spoken)

BERGMAN: Melgar owns the Birrieria Guadelarja in East L.A. She serves only one kind of meat - slow cooked goat. At a recent lunch hour, the dimly lit restaurant was nearly empty, save for a man sitting at the center table. And he was there for an interview.

Mr. LOUIS HERRERA (President, Greater East Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce): My name is Louis Herrera. I'm the president of the Greater East Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

BERGMAN: Herrera, who represents 70 restaurants, says taco trucks - or catering trucks, as he prefers to call them - deliberately park in front of successful restaurants and steal away customers.

Mr. HERRERA: After six o'clock, this restaurant is closed because that's the hour that the catering trucks come in. They can't compete with the prices of the catering trucks. Their prices are so much less because their overhead is zero.

BERGMAN: Herrera suspects many taco trucks don't pay taxes and don't pay attention to health and safety.

Mr. HERRERA: That's not competition. That's not being fair.

BERGMAN: Herrera has been in this area, East L.A., for nearly 40 years, selling used cars across the street. The population here is 98 percent Hispanic, and the streets are home to hundreds of taco trucks. No neighborhood is more affected by the new rules than East L.A.

(Soundbite of knocking)

BERGMAN: At Tacos El Galuzo, down the street from Birrieria Guadelarja, customers are lined up to buy $.90 tacos el pasteur or asada quesadillas for $3.25.

Juan Torres, originally from Mexico, has owned this truck for seven years and works here every night of the week. He's still paying off his truck, which cost $70,000. Should the Health Department come by, as it does every couple of months, he keeps the truck immaculately clean.

Mr. JUAN TORRES (Owner, Tacos El Galuzo): I have everything permits. I pay taxes. (unintelligible)

BERGMAN: Despite the fact they're mobile, most taco trucks, including this one, park on the same street every night. Torres even pays hundreds of dollars in rent to the business he parks in front of. He says the new laws could ruin his business because he depends on repeat customers who always know where to find him.

Mr. TORRES: And the people come in and don't see me, they can go another place - another restaurant, you know.

BERGMAN: Torres and other truck owners have hired an attorney, Phillip Greenwald, to challenge the rule.

Mr. PHILLIP GREENWALD (Attorney): The potential of a jail sentence and/or a $1,000 fine for parking to sell food? That's a bit overkill. It's outrageous.

BERGMAN: While Greenwald pursues a legal strategy, truck owners are forming a taco resistance. When the rules go into effect May 15th, over 100 taco truck owners vow to stay parked right where they are.

Ben Bergman, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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