The old sway backed nag that is the Chow website can still put out an interesting article once in a blue moon.
In a piece titled “Food Truck Frenzy Leaves Loncheras In The Dust” Gustavo Arellano, syndicated writer of the “Ask A Mexican” newspaper column, posits that Mexican taco cart owners are being left out of the frenzy of media accorded their hip new peers in the mobile food culture that’s currently gripping the United States. “If you only saw these shows like Eat Street or most of the coverage on the Food Network, you’d think this is a brand-new phenomenon that has never existed before in the United States,”
Speaking at a food cart festival in Oakland that drew thousands of people in two and a half days, Mr. Arellano said the following: “Let us now praise famous loncheras.”
His point being that perhaps an old school lonchera could be invited to a huge, food cart festival.
In a piece in Westword, a Denver alt-weekly, Arellano continues on the topic.
“Gourmet trucks are hip and all the rage, but all of you are idiots. You’re not doing anything new, you’re not celebrating anything new, you’re just riding the coattails of people who went to court and fought for this.”
Let’s view his hypothesis through the lens of Austin Texas.
Last fall, C3, an Austin-based entertainment company, threw a big food cart party called the Gypsy Picnic on the banks of Lady Bird Lake with thirty local carts providing the chow.
Not one lonchera amongst them.
Hundreds of lonchera carts in Austin have been running for decades prior to the current trend of gourmet food trucks and not one was invited to the celebration of the mobile food culture.
But let’s examine Arellano’s argument more closely.
Since Yelp is a highly regimented food forum where each review is strictly filed under the respective restaurant which it applies to, we’ll use the site as a base metric.
Let’s look at two food carts:
The modern, chef driven cart utilizing farm to market ingredients [which Arellano calls “luxe lonchera] vs the old school lonchera cart putting out tacos for a primarily Latino crowd.
Chef Bryce Gilmore [regarded as one of Austin’s best chefs] opened up his Odd Duck Farm To Trailer cart in December of 2009. Since that opening his cart has been reviewed 316 times.
Chef Yolanda Sanchez Cornejo [regarded as one of Austin’s best taqueras] opened up her cart El Taco Rico early in 2007. Since that opening her business has been reviewed 4 times.
That’s pretty stark and it definitely gives me pause.
I’d never thought about Arellano’s theory til I read the Chow article.
I got turned onto loncheras back in the 1990’s and have had a thing for food carts ever since.
The reason being that they are often open extremely early and extremely late, they are cheap, they typically make their food from scratch and I like to sit outside when I eat.
I praised the heavens when the lonchera scene started to diversify. All of a sudden I could get a lamb hot dog covered with feta cheese and tzatziki sauce, a plate of Yom Nua or a basket of Korean fried chicken.
I never slowed down to think about the effect the rampant popularity of the new carts with their Twitter accounts and sous vide cooking techniques could have on the old fashioned loncheras.
I was too busy eating and loving the food at places like East Side King, Arancini and Three Little Pigs.
Delicious but a far cry from the lonchera-based carne guisada tacos I’d eaten and loved for years.
But Arellano has made me think about the forebears of this movement. Some of these people got their asses beaten for their trailblazing work. They were threatened, robbed at pistol point and had laws passed to limit their ability to do business.
Hell, we’re still combating these problems in the Austin of 2011, can you imagine how tough it was 20 years ago?
Speaking further on the difference between the new gastro-carts and the old taco wagons Arellano continues…”they’re really no different — except the luxe-loncheras will charge you four bucks for the same tacos the regular loncheras gives you for two.”
Now we’re starting to see the bleed over from that unhappy circumstance. The loncheras are visiting their rivals and beginning to emulate them. Our former $1.50 tacos are heading towards $4 and our beloved homemade tortillas are beginning to be replaced by factory issue ones.
This is the Torchy’s effect, as these are the business practices of the immensely popular Austin based taco chain.
I’ve read Arellano’s column Ask A Mexican for years. It is hilarious. He’s clearly a well informed writer raising some interesting points about the current food truck trend.
Below is a hot link to a great article Arellano wrote for Orange County Weekly about the hard lives of the old school loncheras in Southern California.
It’s well worth your time.
When you’re finished pondering this topic I’d love for you to share your thoughts in comments about this subject.