Thoughts About the Whole Food Truck Thing

by MicheleAnna.Jordan |

I am having second thoughts about the whole food truck thing. At first I was excited by the surge of popularity and diversity, as I’ve had a passion for taco trucks as long as I can remember. I can’t tell you the number of dates I’ve hauled to this or that taco truck, not always with great results. Seriously? they’d say, giving me quizzical looks. It wasn’t exactly a test but if someone warmed to the idea instantly, the possibility of a second date definitely increased. One summer in the early 1990s, I had a party with a no-host taco truck, an expression that amuses me no end. I cracked up whenever I thought of it. The truck sat in my backyard and operated exactly as it would have on a street corner or in a parking lot. It was a memorable fete.

Back when I first started writing about taco trucks, in the late 1980s, they were off-the-grid treasures where you could get some of the most authentic and delicious Mexican food anywhere, served up under the sky with nary a pretension. Finding a good taco truck was exhilarating and my pursuit took me from San Jose to Boonville and from east Oakland to the tip of Baja California. I found unforgettable trucks in the parking lot of a Goodwill store on East 14th St. in Oakland, across from the VW dealership in La Paz, a couple of blocks north of the tourist area in Cabo San Lucas and on the corner of West and Sebastopol Rd. in Santa Rosa.

I had rules. The tacos had to be served in plastic baskets–paper plates, while rare, were okay, too–and could not cost more than $1.50 (I’ve updated this to $2). If I was asked if I wanted soft or crispy tacos, I’d make an excuse and leave. Meats had to include al pastor, carne asada, lengua, cabeza and carnitas. Sesos could be offered, too, but not chicken. There could be fish or shrimp, too. To count as traditional, the tacos had to consist of two small corn tortillas, hot and tender, topped with chopped meat, a bit of salsa, minced white onion and cilantro, with a couple of radishes and a wedge of lime alongside. That’s it. No shredded lettuce, no cheese, NO SOUR CREAM.

Deviations weren’t welcome, as you absolutely cannot improve on the simple perfection of a traditional taco. I still feel that way. If I want something innovative, gussied up, complicated or inventive, I’ll go elsewhere, not to a truck.

Things have changed. There are still traditional taco trucks with tacos that range from $1 to $2 and follow the rules. But they have been eclipsed by the new food trucks, the ones that are all about innovation. Whether it’s a grilled cheese sandwich, curried chicken, a cupcake, a crepe or $7.50 tacos, today’s food trucks are about a chef’s inventiveness, not about tradition. Some offer great food, some mediocre, some disappointing.

I’m not completely thrilled by the development. Food trucks have become trendy, a hip thing, with a lot customers who have that annoying “I’m-eating-this-and-you’re-not” attitude that characterizes so many people who identify themselves as foodies. They are not cheap, they are not around at 1 a.m. when you’re coming home from a concert and have a taco jones and they don’t feel like hidden treasures of traditional deliciousness. There’s no sense of unfamiliar culture, of getting to know people you might otherwise never  meet. I loved sitting outside at the now-closed taco truck at West and Sebastopol Rd. late on a cold night in mid-December with a bunch of Mexican teenagers. Uncomfortable at first, as the night progressed we all warmed to each other and found ways to communicate, even with language barriers.

I worry about the impact on our restaurants, too. In a thriving economy, I don’t think it would be quite so troubling. But restaurants, including our best ones, are struggling and the ubiquity of food trucks is making a difficult situation worse. Some of our favorite eateries may not survive this economy and I’ve heard from more than one savvy restaurateur that food trucks are a big factor these days. These are not restaurateurs who whine about competition or who stand like a deer in headlights as troubles bear down on them. These are smart, talented people who are doing all they can–working longer hours themselves, paring down wine lists, focusing on value while maintaining quality–to keep their businesses alive.

So what am I saying? Boycott food trucks? No. Regulate them more? No. Just think about it all in the larger context and don’t abandon your neighborhood cafes, bistros and restaurants, not if you want them to be there when winter sets in and you have a hankerin’ for a big hot bowl of, say, French onion soup or osso buco at a cozy table, with your favorite waiter or waitress making sure your glass is full.

Food trucks as a phenomenon will fade, either when the next big new thing comes along or the weather sends most of us indoors. Then they’ll take their place alongside all the other ways we feed ourselves. They will settle into their appropriate niche. Radio didn’t vanish when television came along, newspapers won’t vanish because of the internet and books you can hold in your hand won’t be replaced by books you need electricity to read. But there’s always a shake-out and I’m hoping we don’t look back on 2011 as a time when we lost places we loved because we weren’t paying attention. In times like these–troubled economic times–we need to support each other and that means not abandoning your neighborhood restaurants. It is more important than ever to support the places you value. We’re all in this together.