Hold The Tacos, New Orleans Says

Miguel Bustillo, Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2007

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But not everyone is enamored of the newest cheap eats to captivate the Crescent City. Jefferson Parish politicians, who have long turned a blind eye to whites and blacks peddling shrimp out of pickup trucks and snow cones on the street, recently outlawed rolling Mexican-food kitchens, calling them an unwelcome reminder of what Hurricane Katrina brought. Soon, Sanchez will be run out of business.

“What they’re doing is just mean,” the Texas native, 49, said in Spanish, noting that he’d secured all needed permits before officials changed the rules last month. “I do think they want the Mexicans out. I don’t see any other explanation.”

Nearly two years after Katrina led thousands of Latino immigrants to New Orleans in search of reconstruction work, it’s obvious that the new arrivals are having a cultural influence that reaches beyond repairing homes and businesses—and that’s making some people uncomfortable.

Authentic Mexican food is now widely available here in taco trucks and storefront taquerias, adding a contemporary Latin tinge to a famously mixed-up culinary scene that’s always managed to preserve its unique Cajun and Creole flavor even as most of America has become homogenized.

But the new ethnic eateries are emerging at a time when many traditional New Orleans restaurants are struggling in the face of sagging tourism and a smaller population—one that’s noticeably browner than before Katrina. New Orleans now has about 260,000 residents, down from about 460,000. Roughly 50,000 are Latinos, up from 15,000.

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To advocates of reclaiming the old ways, new establishments that do not build upon the city’s reputation, and may not even be permanent, represent a barrier to progress. As New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas recently put it in an interview with the Times-Picayune, “How do the tacos help gumbo?”

Yet many New Orleanians welcome anyone willing to repopulate the city—and surprising numbers are eagerly munching tongue and cow’s head tacos, broadening their palates in a city where the civic pastime is eating and talking about where to eat next.

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So far, the revolution looks one-sided: Latino laborers don’t seem to care for shrimp Creole, oyster po’ boy sandwiches—or even hamburgers, as long as there is Mexican food around.

“Crawfish? The little lobsters? I tried it, but to be honest it did not suit me,” Abel Lara, 33, said as he stopped at a taco truck during a quick break from his job laying floors at a medical center. “I don’t understand why it’s so popular.”

More than any history book, New Orleans’ cuisine has memorialized the waves of immigration that shaped and reshaped the old colonial port.

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But taco peddlers apparently are different.

In New Orleans, the city council president wants them off the streets—although Mayor C. Ray Nagin has indicated he opposes such a move. In neighboring Jefferson Parish, the move last month to ban them was swift.

The vendors were given only 10 days before they’d be cited for breaking the new law. It requires any mobile vendor selling cooked food to offer customers restrooms and washing stations—things a taco truck clearly cannot.

“It’s narrowly drafted, and it’s discriminatory,” said Dr. Vinicio Madrigal, a Jefferson Parish physician and community leader who serves on the area’s economic development commission. Madrigal studied the ordinance and said it clearly aimed to outlaw taco trucks while permitting other street vendors. He fired off an angry letter to the politicians and said he got a call from one who chided him for siding with outsiders.

“I told him, I didn’t know anyone when I got here either,” said Madrigal, a Costa Rican immigrant.

Some taco vendors got the message and immediately rolled out of the suburb, which is now more populous than New Orleans. Others chose to stay and fight.

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Even before the ban, Falcon said, inspectors kept coming by her truck, which is parked on the same avenue as a Taco Bell that’s still shuttered with plywood, to poke thermometers in her meat. Jefferson Parish Councilman Louis Congemi, the author of the ban, refused to discuss it. Councilman John Young said the motivation was strengthening zoning standards that have deteriorated since the storm, not racism.

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Jefferson Parish leaders also raised fears that taco trucks were unsanitary. But Louisiana health officials who investigated the mobile kitchens found nothing wrong.

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