How the hell did Americans measure the coolness of their cities before food trucks rolled in? For years now, the number of mobile vendors of pork belly sliders or bacon waffle sandwich cones has been bandied about as a gauge of a city's pop-cultural standing. Shows like Food Network's The Great Food Truck Race and Cooking Channel's Eat Street depict these upscale food trucks as quasi-heroic, the revolutionary delivery systems for an America that never flags in the pursuit of delicious fun, Twitter-tracking the every move of tandoori taco vendors. This new boom in food truck culture is sexy, boundary-slashing, inherently democratic.
And total bullshit, says Gustavo Arellano.
Arellano is managing editor at the OC Weekly in Orange County, California, and author of the syndicated column ¡Ask a Mexican! He thinks the ongoing media coverage of food trucks blatantly ignores the true innovators, owners of the original generation of loncheras, Mexican taco trucks plying the parts of America's towns and cities your average Chipotle fan would fear to tread. Arellano calls the new class of upscale food trucks "luxe loncheras."
"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," Arellano says of the upscale trucks, noting that loncheras have been a major part of Southern California's culture for six decades.
Scroll the list of competitors for the next season of The Great Food Truck Race, which begins August 14, and it's clear Arellano's on to something: eight trucks, eight expressions of the upscale food truck trend, from Cleveland's Hodge Podge (truffled mac ’n' cheese) to San Diego's Devilicious (butter-poached lobster grilled cheese).
Arellano thinks America's complicated racial and cultural ambivalence is to blame for the wider diss of the nation's original taqueros, the way early white fans of Elvis's version of "Hound Dog" were expressing a de facto diss of Big Mama Thornton's Delta blues original. And then there's language.
"If a Mexican does it, it doesn't exist for a lot of foodies—not because they're Mexican but because they speak Spanish," Arellano says. "If you don't speak English you don't exist, unless you're on Zimmern or Bourdain, and they're not Food Network hosts, they're on Travel Channel. ... It just shows how simultaneously myopic and onanistic this whole scene really is."
So if you want to acknowledge old-school loncheras, how do you make your voice heard over the frenzy for the noveltier-than-thou trucks? Heather Shouse, author of the recently published Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, says she tried to give props to the taco trucks that pioneered the form by listing nearly a dozen in a section of her book called "Taco Truck Starter Guide." She also calls out the fact that the socioeconomic chasm separating customers at traditional loncheras and new-style trucks is "fairly vast," a point University of Texas doctoral student Robert Lemon makes in his short film ¿Tacos or Tacos?, which maps the parallel universes of Austin's food truck cultures.
In Food Trucks, Shouse also presents the flip side of the media frenzy, such as the fact that noted LA Weekly food critic Jonathan Gold is generally more excited by regional Mexican food trucks than purveyors of Kobe sliders—a point Gold made in a panel discussion on street food featuring Arellano and moderated by KCRW's Evan Kleiman: "Some [upscale trucks] are good, some are dreadful. ... Luxe loncheras are catering to people who love the novelty."
About that novelty thing: Shouse's book shows that, try as an author might to give props to the original lonchera culture, it's French toast trucks that sell books. A paradox she finds a little uncomfortable. "I just want to make it really clear: This is no way meant to capitalize on a trend," Shouse says of her book, "but to show people that food trucks are not a new model. Street food in various forms has been around in parts of this country for a long, long time. As good as Kogi is, it did not invent food trucks." Still, Food Trucks will inevitably be seen as further validation of the upscale trend. The first printing of it is already sold out.
Even Gustavo Arellano may find it challenging to give loncheras their due. He's working on a food book of his own, a history called Taco U.S.A.: How Mexican Food Conquered America, due for publication in May 2012. "I'm still debating about whether to cover the lonchera scene," Arellano says. He calls it just one of many trends he'll include in his book. Whether it'll be the history that the pioneers of America's loncheras deserve remains to be seen.