Mobile 'Taquerias' Bring New Flavors to New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS - The smell of sizzling beef and warm flour tortillas beckons from a food truck perched at an intersection here.

Inside, Maria Jimenez doles out tacos and fajitas thick with meat, cheese and lettuce. Most people who come to Taqueria Los Poblanos order beef or pork tacos. But regulars also like the minced lengua, or tongue.

Food trucks such as this one - offering flavorful, cheap and authentic Latin-American fare - were all but non-existent before Katrina. They now dot the landscape in New Orleans and neighboring Jefferson Parish. Their regular customers are the Hispanic laborers who have migrated here to rebuild homes, but they've also built a following among local residents.

In the New Orleans area, permits issued to mobile vendors that prepare food on their trucks - such as taquerias and hot dog vendors - jumped nearly eightfold from July 2005 to July 2006, the state health department says. Through July 2007, another 83 new permits were issued, up 36 percent from last year.

As it turns out, not everyone is a fan. In June, the Jefferson Parish Council voted unanimously to bar mobile vendors from setting up shop at some of the busiest thoroughfares in the area. The parish also limited how long the trucks could be stationary: 30 minutes. And it decreed that mobile vendors who stay at one site any longer must have a restroom accessible to customers.

Food vendors complain that the parish is trying to put them out of business. The rules make it nearly impossible for mobile vendors to work in the area, says Carmela Diaz, owner of Taqueria Sanchez.

"We are going to fight it," Diaz says. "This is not a sit-down restaurant. People take food to go," so the taqueria shouldn't be required to have a restroom.

But Jeff Charlet, regulatory manager of the Jefferson Parish Department of Inspection and Code Enforcement, says the state has long required take-out and dine-in eateries, as well as stores, office buildings and schools, to have bathrooms accessible to the public.

Diaz has recently closed two of her four taquerias. She shut down one of her two in Jefferson Parish in early July because it was in a prohibited zone. Police and immigration officers effectively closed another in New Orleans, she says, by telling her she was on private property and would be arrested if she didn't leave. New Orleans police say they have no record of the incident. Officials with Immigration and Customs Enforcement couldn't confirm the incident.

In New Orleans, David Robinson-Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Ray Nagin, says the city isn't considering changes to mobile food cart rules. "At this time, from the mayor's office, there isn't any concern," he says. "They're not posing any threat as long as they're following the ordinances and they're licensed."

National civil rights groups say they fear the crackdown on mobile food carts is a warning sign of residents' rising tensions with the Hispanic community, whose numbers here have swollen since Katrina.

"This is how it comes up, one (rule) related to public nuisance - and then you've got other ordinances that follow, regarding language access, English-only signs, housing," says Anita Sinha, a staff attorney at the Advancement Project in Washington, a civil rights group.

Thomas Capella, chairman of the Jefferson Parish Council, defends the new rules, saying, "Everybody is restricted, not just the Spanish food carts. What was happening is that people were camping out on vacant property and basically becoming a restaurant or cafe."

Some carts also pose health and safety concerns, says Louis Congemi, a Jefferson Parish councilman. "I wouldn't personally eat at one," Congemi says.

George Ketry, a New Orleans cab driver, finds the carts "can be an eyesore." But his bigger worry, he says, is the "cleanliness of the food."

At Taqueria Sanchez, "The city comes, they check the temperature of the meats, it's clean, it's perfect," says Jennifer Lopez, who works at one of the mobile trucks in Jefferson Parish.

Michael Lockhart, a medical representative, says he thinks the carts should be allowed to stay as long as the proprietors pay their taxes. They fill a need, he says, for travelers such as him, who eat on the run.

"It's good and it's quick," says Lockhart, who stopped by a Taqueria Sanchez truck in Jefferson Parish to buy two pork tacos ($3). "I'm on the road, and you don't have time to go into a restaurant."

Mobile food vendors in Jefferson Parish say that if the restrictions became too onerous, they may move a few miles away, to New Orleans, which has looser restrictions on food carts. That would create more competition for food carts such as Taqueria Los Poblanos.

At this mobile cart, much of the action happens between noon and 2 p.m. That's when office workers take lunch breaks and Hispanic day laborers put down their hammers and nails.

"Whenever I work in the area, I come every day," says Jose Rasgado, who eats the beef tacos and gorditas, a meat-and-tortilla dish, at Los Poblanos. "For me, the taste is best, because (other) places don't have the hot jalapeños they have."

Maria Jimenez and her husband, Miguel, moved from Houston to New Orleans - with their food cart - in May 2006 after hearing of a need for restaurants here after Katrina. Business has been much better than in Houston, where taquerias seem to occupy every corner, Maria says. But as more restaurants reopen after the hurricane and other taquerias arrive - a Taqueria Sanchez truck competes for customers across the street - business has slipped.

Los Poblanos serves about 150 customers a day, Maria says, compared with up to 300 last year. Miguel says he's not too worried about business falling further if more taquerias move to New Orleans from Jefferson Parish, because the taqueria enjoys loyal customers.

His friend Jose Rios, 36, who runs Chaparral Taqueria a few miles away, isn't fretting, either: "I was one of the first to sell tacos in this area. I've been in the same place for a year and a half. People know where I am."