We food writers over the age of 30 occasionally like to put out little reminders to you youngsters that the street-food movement in America was around long before people started selling Korean spicy pork buns out of chic trucks. Remember the taco trucks! we like to scold, then embark on some boring anecdote about driving over the bridge in the middle of the night decades ago to buy tacos de barbacoa off a dingy truck on Fruitvale.
In a great LA Times article published today, Gustavo Arelleno, author of “Ask a Mexican” and the forthcoming Tacos USA, schools all of us that taco trucks are totally new school. Back in the late 19th century, horse-drawn wagons known as tamaleros roamed the streets of Los Angeles selling tamales:
On the menu was everything from popcorn to pigs' feet, oyster cocktails to sandwiches, but the majority of them hawked tamales prepared elsewhere and kept warm in steam buckets. Competition spurred innovation — wagons transformed into portable kitchens with functioning stoves (some illegally tapped into the city's gas mains and water pipes) and featured counters so that as many as eight people at a time could dine around the wagons. One enterprising tamalero even rolled around town in a two-story giant, the top level his sleeping quarters.
What's just as interesting is that, even a century ago, LA's tamaleros faced the same kind of opposition that San Francisco's gourmet food trucks do — and had just as many fans who kept them thriving.