Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Taco trucks are driving a fine line

Parked mobile vendors draw visits from customers, regulators

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Nick Kirkpatrick⁄Special to The Gazette
Ercilia Garcia prepares and serves tacos at Mexico Puebla, a mobile vendor outside the Motor Vehicle Administration in Gaithersburg. Several trucks have sold Latino foods at the spot for years.
Another steamy summer day, another lunchtime rush in front of the Motor Vehicle Administration in Gaithersburg as scores of hungry customers descend on the trucks selling Latino food that line Metropolitan Court.

The operators expect to sell $200 to $300 worth of tacos, pupusas, burritos and more each day. There are typically three or four of the brightly decorated box-trucks in place by 8 a.m. every day, sizzling and smoking and tapping into the clamor for quick, cheap, authentic Latin eats.

The strip on Metropolitan Court has become an ideal spot, nestled among a personal storage company, a MARC train stop and office parks. For the die-hard, predominantly Latino customers, it has become a haven, a slice of Latino life and culture in a shady alcove created by the row of trucks situated under a canopy of overhanging trees.

But it is not entirely outside the attention of city and county agencies responsible for licensing and inspecting the trucks.

‘‘They don’t give us a hard time, for the reason that we respect the rules,” Roberto Parada of Germantown, who with his wife and daughter owns the Taqueria & Pupuseria El Paso, the third truck in line, said in Spanish. ‘‘Everything is fine as long as we do what they tell us.”

And as long as the customers keep lining up, Parada said, his family will keep bringing the truck, for which he said he holds the proper permits.

Savoring bites of his taco al pastor from Tarsis Delgado’s taco truck, Jorge Salazar, a translator with the MVA, took pause during his lunch break Thursday. In his travels around the region, only Delgado’s truck, the second in line, and a place in Adams Morgan have the real thing, he said.

‘‘I’ve been looking all over for a real al pastor,” said the Washington, D.C., resident. ‘‘These are the only two places where I’ve found real, authentic Mexican food.”

Roadside rules

It’s not as simple as having good eats. Under the letter of the law, the City of Gaithersburg should be forcing the trucks to keep moving.

‘‘Pursuant to the code, they have to move every 30 minutes, and not come back” for two hours, said Kevin Roman, a Gaithersburg code enforcement officer.

Traffic safety, trash and debris are concerns. The city has also written parking tickets for customers parked illegally.

But Gaithersburg officials only respond to complaints, which for Metropolitan Court remain low.

‘‘It’s so sporadic,” Roman said. ‘‘But we’re starting to hear more complaints.”

After inquiries from The Gazette and a citizen complaint Thursday, the city warned the truck owners in front of the MVA to keep things tidy and ordered that all chairs be removed. The owners can be fined $200 and their permits revoked.

Also licensed by two county agencies, the pupusa trucks — named after the El Salvadoran dish of a fried pocket of corn meal stuffed with meats and cheeses — abide by the same basic rules as ice cream trucks and hot dog carts.

Summer is peak time for the 200-plus mobile food vendors in Montgomery County, of which about 43 are taco and pupusa trucks, according to Kevin Chinnia, manager of the environmental inspection program in the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of licensed pupusa trucks jumped this year from about 30, Chinnia said.

But then there are unlicensed ones. With more than 4,300 food service facilities countywide, HHS is able to inspect any given truck about once a year.

‘‘We’re very short on inspectors. Right now we have like 19,” Chinnia said. ‘‘[Truck owners] are not getting licensed and they’re going out on weekends and evenings because they know inspectors aren’t going to be going out then. ... I would hate to take a guess, but I know they’re out there,” he said, citing the Takoma Park area in particular.

In Montgomery Village last month, county police Officer Diane Tillery, community services officer for the 6th District, ordered a pupusa truck to move from its spot on Contour Road, near Lakeforest mall. Residents had complained for about two months and the truck owner, a 75-yer-old woman and her son, did not have a vendor’s license from the county Department of Permitting Services, Tillery said. The woman already had been bounced by the nearby Cider Mill Apartments and the Village Plaza Shopping Center.

It makes for a scene far more lax than elsewhere in the country. In Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors passed a law last month forcing the trucks to keep moving, igniting a firestorm in California. Last year, Houston tightened regulations on cleanliness and waste management. And in November, Prince George’s County launched a truck crackdown in the Langley Park area, according to media reports and Web sites devoted to covering the battle over taco trucks, such as www.saveourtacotrucks.org, whose slogan is ‘‘Carne asada is not a crime.”

Working together

What happened in Prince George’s looms large over the vendors in Gaithersburg. Where those vendors went wrong was selling cigarettes and beer, said Delgado, of Gaithersburg who owns his truck with his wife and has been coming to the MVA spot for six years.

‘‘Whether the economy is good or bad, people gotta eat three times a day,” he said, just as a construction worker walked up and ordered twelve of the $2 tacos — seven steak and five tongue.

In the next truck down, Parada’s wife Nadir and their 22-year-old daughter Teresa do not hesitate in boasting of how much better their life is now.

All three worked for years in restaurants in their native El Salvador, in Los Angeles and in Montgomery County. But now with their pupusa truck, they can be together, work together, whenever and wherever they want, Nadir explained from inside the truck during the lunch rush Thursday. Her husband leaned in with another order. She slapped another pollo asado onto the griddle. Then a carne asada.

‘‘It’s so much better because it’s ours,” she said in Spanish.