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Taco trucks and the Hispanic influx


Jaymes
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I can see you now, walking resplendantly down the Avenue in a costume made up of adding machine tape and excel spreadsheets. You better get to work on that new suit.

I'm not disagreeing. What I am saying is that the hispanic, and particularly the Central American contingent, has always been a force here. And carrying that back a bit further, we were part of Spain for a while. In many ways, the port of New Orleans (along with Mobile) were long the major points of entry for goods from Latin America-particularly foodstuffs and coffee. We are still a large banana port and one of the largest coffee ports in the world (the world's largest coffee handling facility is on the Northshore in Lacombe). That's all I'm saying.

As far as the Vietnamese and restaurants are concerned, and why there are so many of them in general and specifically why there are so many more of them than Hispanic, given the population-I think it's like this.

When you think fine world cuisine, you rarely think Central America. Apparently, even they don't think that. Sure, a pupusa is good, and everybody likes a plantain, but how far can you take that? Not so far I don't think, or they would have done it already.

The Asian population largely came here in the late 70's and the early 80's as a result of the fall of South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. They were a closely knit community that had some things going for them that made assimilation into the local population pretty easy-primarily that they were Catholic, they ate lots of seafood and fresh vegetables-often spicy, and many of them were able to go directly to work on boats and in other facets of the seafood industry as their culture was not totally dissimilar to our Coastal culture. In fact, they got so comfortable, so fast, that it angered many of the entrenched fisherman on the coast. These new folks worked longer, harder, and cheaper-for themselves, largely-than their competition and there was a general feeling of distrust along the coast between the natives (many of them 1st and 2nd generation immigrants themselves-though from Eastern Europe or the Canary Islands) and the newly arrived Asians.

Over a period of time the Vietnamese opened up restaurants to feed themselves the stuff that they ate at home. Happily for all of us, these things are not so different than what we were eating already. Spicy seafood soups, great bread (the best bakery in New Orleans, hands down, is Vietnamese as is the best cup of coffee is too), pastries, filled buns, all kinds of things that really aren't too much of a stretch for us to take a look at, try and say, "damn, that's pretty good. Can I have some more? How do you make this stuff?"

Over the last 25 years they have proven themselves to be good neighbors in many of the Coastal communities where they live and have prospered greatly as a general rule. Their restaurants have spread outside of what have been the traditional areas where they lived (West Bank, NO East, Kenner and a bunch of little coastal towns from Mobile to Port Aransas) because the stuff is good. Also, given the food prep, it's not too expensive an operation to run the average Vietnamese restaurant. usually you will only see one or two people banging around the pots and pans, as big pots of consomme are something that can be prepared ahead of time and not much of the menu in the average restaurant has to be prepared a la minuit. And, in reality, I think that they have succeeded all along the Gulf Coast because the stuff is good, and that is, after all, what's important.

As I type this I am looking our my window high atop the palatial Xerox building in beautiful downtown Kenner (It's a Winner!) and I can see the parking lot for Pho Bang, one of my favorite spots. The roof fell in on the building and they have just gotten it repaired. I was passing by yesterday and I saw a bunch of Vietnamese guys carrying in chairs. This made me very happy. I am now, everyday at lunch, checking the parking lot for cars and as soon as I see some, a good crowd, I will be all up in there on a big bowl of pho and washing it down with a couple of huge iced coffees. Can't wait. I love that stuff.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Yes, New Orleans has spoken spanish before.

Every roofing crew here in s.w. LA is mexican. We were talking about it this morning..I guess the guys who HAD been roofers have become roofing contractors.

We actually have a great Vietnamese resturant here and a Thai one opened late last year, but alas it was on the lake and I don't know if they are back and running since the storms.But the mexican choices here still suck.

I've heard the N.O. demographics being compared to the Houston building boom and resulting rise in the latin population. I could see it to a lesser degree I think, just because N.O. is smaller in area.

I know whatever happens, it'll only end up being a richer gumbo.

.

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I was actually going to make some of the same points as Brooks, but he beat me to it and said it better, anyway. One thing to remember about Vietnamese food, which separates it from other Asian cuisines, is that there is a considerable French influence there--perhaps making it a bit more approachable to non-Asians. Plus, the largest part of the Vietnamese community in the US came here in a big hurry, with little other than the clothes they were wearing. Setting up a restaurant and selling "home cooking" to those who followed must have seemed a no-brainer. Of course, the rest of us benefitted from it, too. :biggrin:

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In a Rick Bayless segment he says Mexican food should modify every cuisine thru fusion as it has done in Texas, New Mexico, and California. The original remains but an offshoot is created. This is going to be interesting---the creole and cajun won't go away, but oh what new creations do we expect. Don't mess with my turtle soup though. Thinking of you guys-- see you soon.

Cooking is chemistry, baking is alchemy.

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In a Rick Bayless segment he says Mexican food should modify every cuisine thru fusion as it has done in Texas, New Mexico, and California.  The original remains but an offshoot is created.

This reminds me of what we call our kids -- the MexiCajuns. Shouldn't be hard to market that and start the chains across the country. Tio Boudreaux's? Zydeco Salsa?

Why hasn't this happened already?

Bridget Avila

My Blog

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  • 1 year later...

Sadly, the push back against the taco trucks has begun. Jefferson Parish effectively banned taco trucks today:

The new rules, which go into force in 10 days, bar food trucks from areas along many major streets in Jefferson Parish, limiting them to heavy commercial and industrial zones. And the rules require vendors to provide permanent restrooms, which typically are not available at the trucks that sell Latin American food to workers who came to the New Orleans area for Katrina rebuilding jobs.

More info here.

The city council says they just want to get the parish back to what it was before Katrina. Fools. Don't they realize that tacos trucks are one of the improvements to the area.

No such measures are pending in Orleans parish.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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I read this with great sadness...why are snowball stands exempt from providing permanent bathrooms and taco trucks are not? The taco trucks meet the state board of health standards & are required to display the certification like everyone else serving food. I smell some racism/class-ism in this one. If I lived in JP, I'd be ringing my councilperson's phone today!

Hmm, maybe we can get the Loyola Law Clinic to take the case of a taco truck vendor & file against JP for some sort of business discrimination; is it legal to create a special exemption for snowball stands when they often serve hot dogs, nachos, ice cream, and other foods?

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Forget the law going into effect in 10 days. From what I could tell, taco trucks got out of Jefferson overnight. I drove down Jefferson Highway today, and the truck usually parked in the Jefferson Parish Lowe's has moved across the levee into Orleans Parish.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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Well, the ironic thing about JP running the trucks out of the Parish is that the very same people who are after them (business owners who have some kind of competing business-small restaurants, primarily) are the very same people who WOULDN"T EVEN BE OPEN were it not for the Hispanic workers who showed up to gut their places, repair their plumbing, hang their sheetrock, and man their stoves. Now that they are finished, they seem to think that they are somehow going to be able to go back to Aug 28, 2005 by simply removing the trucks. Those people are on better drugs than I am apparently able to procure through my meager health insurance.

That's ok. I'm good with the trucks and they are good with me. I will be eating lunch at El Chapparal today (corner of MLK and Claiborne Ave in the island of the old Wagner's Meat (you can't beat it!) parking lot. 3 tacos (beef, pork, chiccarone), beef gordita (pancakes made while you wait!) and a large horchata (they're good, but a bit heavy on the almond chunks-they need a better blender, I guess). This place started out as a truck located in the same parking lot just shortly after the city was reinhabited and the business did so well that they got all papered up and moved into a real (if not small) space. That's how this is supposed to work. We need the workers and they need to eat. The trucks feed them inexpensively and they can save that money to buy stuff in our stores and generate sales tax for our political leaders to steal and misspend. It's the American way.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Looks like I spoke too soon about Orleans Parish not planning to run off the taco trucks. Check out this article from the Times-Picayune.

Mayor Ray Nagin, through a spokesman, said this week that he does not oppose food trucks that follow the law.

''As long as these vendors have their health inspections and permits, they're licensed by the city, they pay their sales taxes, everything is good,'' spokesman David Robinson-Morris said. ''There is no move to ban these from the city.''

Similarly, City Councilwoman Shelley Midura said the trucks are welcome in her district, which includes Lakeview, Mid-City and parts of Uptown, as long as they follow rules protecting food safety and fair commerce. Midura would oppose an outright ban on food trucks, which converged en masse after Hurricane Katrina and serve mostly Latino construction workers, an aide said.

But City Councilman Oliver Thomas said Thursday that he fears the mobile kitchens -- some with tags from other states -- suck business away from permanent restaurants still struggling to recover.

He said the City Council may ''need to do the same thing that Jefferson Parish did.''

''We're trying to bring back our tourism business, our restaurants,'' Thomas said in an interview. ''How are we helping our restaurants that are trying to recover by having more food trucks from Texas open up? How do the tacos help gumbo?''

Thomas said he asked the Nagin administration this week to review city laws and enforcement procedures for itinerant food vendors. He said he was spurred by the Parish Council's action last week banning mobile vendors from many roads and requiring them to provide bathrooms, which many said they cannot furnish on trucks that amount to little more than kitchens on wheels.

Thomas also expressed minimal tolerance for the argument that Latino workers prefer Latin-American food. He said that when he left New Orleans to attend college in New Mexico, he adapted his palate to local cuisine.

''I didn't have a Creole-Cajun food truck,'' he said. ''I learned to eat the food. What's wrong with that? What, they don't like our food?''

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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The trucks will stay, I am willing to bet. If the merchants aren't behind it, it won't fly.

Also, I don't know who Oliver Thomas (often a welcome voice of reason at CC meetings) is pandering too, but it is clear that he has some kind of agenda going. What the hell does he care about taco trucks?

It's funny that Shelly Midura is all for them. Someone should go park one in front of the Uptowner. It would be fun to see how long she remains in favor of them. Hell, if we had known that I'm sure that we could have talked Greg Sonnier into opening a truck and parking it out there.

Sometimes this place is just too screwed up to even comprehend.

Brooks Hamaker, aka "Mayhaw Man"

There's a train everyday, leaving either way...

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Well, he'd better be careful. Take away those taco trucks, and the newest voting block in his district will be feeling some cultural anxiety.

Never mind that really good, nutritious, affordable food comes off taco trucks. I love them here in my area, when I am out and about.

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The TP comes out with an editorial in favor of the trucks:

But they have provided long-time residents a bonus. Who knew how tasty a fresh tortilla filled with spicy pork and cilantro could taste coming out of what amounts to a FEMA trailer on wheels?

So it is distressing that City Councilman Oliver Thomas is echoing the intolerant attitudes displayed by the Jefferson Parish Council, which passed regulations recently that in essence shut down the so-called taco trucks.

Mr. Thomas said this week that the New Orleans City Council might "need to do the same thing that Jefferson did." He argued that taco trucks are detrimental to the city's efforts to bring back tourism and nourish the restaurants that are so appealing to visitors. "How do the tacos help gumbo?" he asked.

That is a false argument. Taco trucks aren't taking business away from traditional New Orleans restaurants. The work crews who make up the largest share of business for the trucks frequently find themselves on jobs in remote reaches of the city, where there are few lunch options. They say that they're too grimy to go into many restaurants for a sit-down meal. The food trucks are a convenient and inexpensive option.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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I know there is great gumbo to be had in N.O., but isn't it primarily a Cajun dish while N.O. is primarily a Creole city? I know N.O. is quite the melting pot, but is that the most emblematic dish? Just curious.

So long as basic health codes are followed I cannot see anything but good things from having these trucks.

Edited by menon1971 (log)
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I know there is great gumbo to be had in N.O., but isn't it primarily a Cajun dish . . .

I don't think gumbo is or ever has been a primarily Cajun dish. There are some dishes (like jambalaya and etouffee) that definitely started with the Cajuns, but you will find gumbo all over what used to be the Franco-Spanish colony of Louisiana, including the Mississippi and Alabama coasts. On the other hand, chicken and sausage gumbo is a distinctively Cajun dish. I think it's been fairly recently that it has traveled as far east as New Orleans and you will see very little of it in Mississippi and Alabama. The standard variety of gumbo in that area is seafood gumbo with okra.

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Let's give credit where credit is due: gumbo is an african word, an african ingredient (okra), and gumbo the soup is a wholly creolized entity--old world techniques blended with African & new world techniques & ingredients. You can find gumbo all over the south, especially in ports like NO, Mobile, & Charleston, where many enslaved Africans came into contact with French colonial settlers & local ingredients. It's cajun, big-C Creole, lowcountry, coastal, southern, and a whole lotta other adjectives.

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To pan back just a bit.....

The warmth, vibrancy, and color of Mexican culture can only enrich New Orleans. New Orleans, like NYC, is home to many cultures, and that, surely, is part of its fizz.

Last Mardi Gras, I was wowed by a group of twenty or so Mexican women who were marching in one of the parades. Some were old, some were young, but they came blazing down St. Charles in spangly red, ruffled dresses, with silk poppies in their hair and huge, radiant smiles on their faces. Fantastic! New Orleans is a celebratory place, and Mexico is a fiesta culture. What a lovely match!

And, as everyone is saying, the city's Mexican restaurants are about to get exponentially better. It started happening in NYC a few years ago, and New Yorkers are thrilled to death.

Those are my two cents. Carry on with the truck discussion!

Edited by BrooksNYC (log)
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Thanks for the comment Brooks (I suppose on this board we should call you the other Brooks :biggrin: ). I think a little Hispanic flair would be a great addition to the city. They like parades. We like parades. This could be a perfect combination.

Of course, the French Quarter is really Spanish (it looks a like San Sebastian in Spain, which burned and was rebuilt around the same time). There is nothing foreign about these folks.

It's hard to say if the influx of taco trucks and Latinos will have an effect on the city's fine dining. Adolfo Garcia, the chef and owner of Rio Mar and La Boca, told me that he doesn't think that it will. Different markets. I wonder though. In addition to García's own La Boca, there is a fancy Latin tapas place on Magazine called Baru and an upscale looking Honduria place set to open in the Lower Garden District. These restaurants aren't catering to the new arrivals, but I think there might be a more indirect connection. All the taco trucks generate interest in Latin American food. And the greater visibility of Hispanics in New Orleans might encourage people already living here to share more of their own culture through new restaurants.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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  • 2 months later...

Let's not forget that not all Hispanics are Mexicans. And not everyone eats tacos. We've had Central Americans in town for years. At work (I teach Spanish at Tulane when I'm not writing), I've been hearing that the untold story is the major influx of Brazilian workers. Some people even think that more Brazilian workers arrived than Mexicans.

Last week, Brett Anderson reported on some of the culinary manifestations of this influx:

Taquerias and mobile food vendors have been the most visible evidence of Latin America's influence on post-Katrina New Orleans cuisine. While I do not believe the Age of the Taco is over, last week I began to wonder if an overlapping phenomenon was under way, one that historians could actually look back upon as being more radical than the near-sudden profusion of corn tortillas, aguas frescas and carnitas in our po-boy town.

Is it possible New Orleanians have a lot to learn about eating steak?

The thought occurred to me at Brazil Latino restaurant. It is a churrascaria (pronounced chur-aska-rea),or Brazilian steakhouse, where diners eat meat cooked over an open fire on sword-like skewers. The style extends from the centuries-old gaucho culture of Brazil and Argentina, and Joao Silva brought it to Gretna last month.

One of the Brazilians I work with said that there is a Brazilian supermarket on Williams (where else?). It's supposed to have a little restaurant in the back, although she hasn't tried it.

In other Hispanic-food related news, I spoke with the wonderful Tacos San Miguel and they're set to open a second store in the Carrollton area in October.

Todd A. Price aka "TAPrice"

Homepage and writings; A Frolic of My Own (personal blog)

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It's truly exciting to be on the verge of some authentic ethnic cuisine in New Orleans. I'm from Chicago originally, and the lack of "street food" as I label it has really gotten to me. The ability to go grab some fantastic Latino food is going to be a really appealing option.

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Some people even think that more Brazilian workers arrived than Mexicans.

That was probably true in the immediate aftermath of the storm. I don't know if it's still the case.

One of the Brazilians I work with said that there is a Brazilian supermarket on Williams (where else?). It's supposed to have a little restaurant in the back, although she hasn't tried it.

In other Hispanic-food related news, I spoke with the wonderful Tacos San Miguel and they're set to open a second store in the Carrollton area in October.

Cool, and cool. Will have to check both out.

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