Salinas Taco Trucks in Jeopardy

I will be eternally grateful to the participants at Chowhound because they taught me, many years ago, to love taco trucks. I now seek out taco trucks wherever I go and some of the best tacos I have eaten have been off of these mobile trucks in many different cities. My mouth waters to think about the tacos at the El Novillo taco truck in Oakland's Fruitvale district followed by a licuado nuez -- a milkshake with walnuts -- from the Ojo de Agua truck nearby.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the community that springs up around taco trucks in many towns. In some places, I will be the only "jueda" at the trucks -- surrounded by mainly Latino families or workers on lunch breaks. The workers and owners of the taco trucks are usually immigrants to the United States and seem to work very hard at their jobs. Cleanliness is always a question when I bring friends to taco trucks for the first time, and contrary to popular belief, taco trucks are inspected by the Health Department and are held to general health and safety standards. Is every taco truck I have gone to immaculate? No, but neither is every "brick and mortar" restaurant.

Citing safety and health concerns, along with cries of "unfair competition" from brick and mortar restaurants in the area, the City of Salinas is considering an outright ban on "mobile vendors" or a severe restriction on their business. In January, the city set a cap on the vendor permits at the current count of 31 and no new permits will be issued causing a gradual fade-out of taco trucks in Salinas. Next week, an as-of-yet unpublicized proposal is scheduled to go before the city council that will further restrict the taco trucks. The proposal could include possible time restrictions instructing taco trucks to only operate between 6 pm and 6 am, could require that the vendors move their trucks every 15 minutes to one hour, or could cause taco trucks to have to move off of public streets and on to private property zoned for the business.

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Melanie Wong, a frequent poster to the Chowhound boards, is often in Salinas visiting family and has been highlighting the wonderful food coming from the Salinas taco trucks. "I'm on the side of good food, and the side of the best tacos I can find, wherever that is," she says. And in Salinas, the best tacos seem to come from the trucks. In talking to other customers, Wong discovered that the Salinas taco trucks are a magnet for Latino families up and down the valley as the town is known for having some of the best food around. And according to a thread on the Chowhound boards this week, many Chowhounds agree about the caliber of tacos they tasted.

This is not an easy battle to fight. The Salinas United Business Association (SUBA) is in favor of restrictions on the taco trucks, and the taco truck vendors are not naturally organized enough to have a united voice to fight the issue. Fortunately, the vendors have recently retained counsel from the Central Valley. "The vendors couldn't get anyone in the area to represent them," says Wong, as the issue in Salinas is so divisive.

Restrictions or elimination of taco trucks seems to be a trend in cities throughout the nation. The city of Santa Ana has been trying to ban trucks over the last year, Nashville considered an ordinance, and Los Angeles has passed restrictions on taco trucks.

The ban bothers me because it seems like big business squashing the little guy in order to make a higher profit. While there may be legitimate health and safety concerns, in most counties there are processes in place with the county health inspector to handle any issues without the city council stepping in with an overarching ban. The same goes for vendors working without legitimate licenses. In both instances, the government should be going after the perpetrator instead of banning an entire class of food providers.

And I don't buy the claims of unfair competition from traditional sit-down restaurants. When I go out to eat at a restaurant, I don't usually end up at a taco truck. It may be legitimate that the taco trucks pull from franchise establishments like Taco Bell, McDonald's and Wendy's, but I don't see much crossover between restaurants and taco trucks. But even if it were the case that taco trucks were competition, how about making a better taco that attracts people to your business and letting the market decide what it likes best? There will always be the issue of cost, as taco trucks have lower overhead and can sell the tacos for less. But with value-add services such as liquor, sit-down service, and menu items other than tacos and burritos, it is possible to attract people to a sit-down restaurant over a taco truck.

Additionally, the Salinas taco trucks are providing food to a clientele that may not have much other means to eat out. There is a high concentration of very low-income agricultural workers in that area who either don't have the time or don't have the money to eat at higher-end restaurants. "The Salinas taco trucks are a vibrant part of the local community", says Jeanne Brophy who visited the taco trucks in December. "They are a great alternative for those who don't want to spend money going to sit-down restaurants and want fresher and tastier food than traditional fast-food franchises."

The possible taco truck ban in Salinas has overarching effects for all of us in the Bay Area. This could set a precedent that will soon come to our communities, and the ban will affect approximately 49 families in Salinas. Immigrant families that are trying hard to create a business and add value to their city by preparing and serving great food -- families who are a part of our greater Bay Area community.

If you are interested in having your voice heard about the Salinas taco trucks, contact the Salinas City Council before their scheduled meeting on June 19.

To visit the Salinas taco trucks, check out this map detailing the location of all the trucks (via Chowhound).

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All photos courtesy of Melanie Wong and used with her permission.

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