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Hola, NOLA

Taco trucks and native talent put the eats on the streets, meeting the needs of a huge influx of Latino laborers.



The eating has never been so good at the Lowe's home-improvement center. At the entrance to the parking lot of the busy store on Elysian Fields Avenue, an aged RV has been converted into a walk-up restaurant serving grilled sausage sandwiches at lunch and eggs with grits in the morning. Close to Lowe's front doors, a boxy catering truck is often on hand displaying cheese steaks and meatball subs wrapped up in its onboard steam cases.

"We never bring our lunch anymore," says Kyle Johnson, a sales associate in Lowe's kitchen appliance department.

Customers, too, are getting quick meals on the go outside Lowe's, and at one catering truck at the edge of the parking lot most of them are ordering in Spanish. For $2, they get a soft corn tortilla piled with chopped grilled chicken, white onions, cilantro, tomatoes and jalapenos. There are burritos and tamales and fried taquitos, and the soft-drink cooler holds an assortment of guava and tamarind-flavored beverages alongside the Coke and Gatorade.

A phenomenon in many other cities where large numbers of Latino people live and work, such taco trucks -- as they are universally known -- are another sign of the times in post-Katrina New Orleans. They simultaneously cater to the palates of the many Latino laborers who have arrived since the storm and fill a void left by shuttered restaurants in parts of town that remain devastated from the levee failures. They have also come as a small blessing for those locals who have long complained that New Orleans ran short on authentic Mexican cooking.

Taco trucks are moving targets, migrating wherever business seems good day to day. But they tend to favor the large parking lots of destroyed pharmacies, gas stations and grocery stores that dot the city. The Uptown stretch of Claiborne Avenue is a particularly reliable area to find taco trucks, with the parking lot of the abandoned Popeyes fried chicken store at Louisiana Avenue a prime address now for steak tacos and enchilada plates. Head to the debris-strewn parking lot of the closed Rite-Aid on Napoleon Avenue for chicken tacos and quesadillas.

The Wagner's Meat location at Martin Luther King Boulevard is another hot spot. One afternoon, a trio of women was there selling plates of pulled pork with black beans and rice and little cups of salsa to workers eating on the tailgates of their enormous pickup trucks. Another day, the same spot was occupied by a trailer airbrushed with Southwest landscape scenes and the name El Chaparral, an operation that came to New Orleans from El Paso following a large group of workers from that community. Foremen line up here to buy orders of pork tacos with roasted jalapenos by the dozen for their crews back at the job site.

Most such vendors prominently display their health-inspection certificates and city licenses, though others appear to be bootleg operations. The Exxon station at Lee Circle has become a gathering point for day laborers, most of whom are Latino, and it's common to see people selling them foil-wrapped tacos and tamales from the back of station wagons parked nearby. Some particularly well-organized work crews also have gotten into the business of feeding others working near their job sites. Hector Martinez, foreman of a crew of a half-dozen laborers gutting houses, makes some extra money at lunchtime selling a few cartons of stewed chicken with rice and corn tortillas for $6. Martinez says his wife cooks lunch for his crew and makes a little extra as a catering sideline.

Locals are getting in on the action, too, though usually by selling more familiar New Orleans fare from trucks and trailers. "Papa" Joe Rucker started a trailer-based barbecue operation on the streets of New Orleans after his Slidell restaurant, Papa Joe's, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Most recently, he's been at the corner of Elysian Fields and Gentilly Boulevard. When a chicken-wing vendor in a RV dubbed Sweet Heat beat him to the spot one morning, Papa Joe put up no fuss but simply moved across the street to the otherwise empty parking lot of the shuttered Zappardo's grocery store.

"You can put me anywhere, I do fine no matter where I go," Rucker says while simultaneously tending two smokers full of ribs in his trailer.

The parking lot of the gutted Robert grocery store on Canal Street in Mid-City has been the business address for local taco vendor Jack Hickman. He was a financial consultant in Metairie, but lost most of his clients after the storm and decided to try his hand at catering in flood-wracked areas. He found a catering truck for sale on eBay and started cooking what he knew -- roast beef for sandwiches, eggs and potatoes for breakfast -- but soon added tacos due to customer demand.

"I only added the tacos because so many Mexicans came by asking for them," he says. "But I'm teaching them now to eat our way, too. When I tell them to get the red beans or white beans with the sausage and greens, they come back and ask for it again."

When Hickman arrives at the parking lot each morning, there are still plenty of workers curled up in the cabs of their pickup trucks, where many of them spend the night. But as the neighborhood makes progress, he thinks he'll have to move on soon.

"After the Sav-A-Center down the street opened up, my business dropped 35 percent right away," Hickman says. "I'll probably be moving my location to Chalmette soon.

"I hear there are a lot of hungry crews down there."

Taco trucks are another sign of the times in post-Katrina - New Orleans, simultaneously catering to the palates of - Latino laborers who have arrived since the storm and - filling a void left by shuttered restaurants in devastated - parts of town. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Taco trucks are another sign of the times in post-Katrina New Orleans, simultaneously catering to the palates of Latino laborers who have arrived since the storm and filling a void left by shuttered restaurants in devastated parts of town.

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