The Truck Stops Here

Denver's loncheras were cooking until the city put the brakes on mobile vendors.

"It was easy," Raul recalls.

The courier drove to a Huntington Park apartment where other Mexican nationals lived. One of them handed Raul $20 and told him to find something to eat. Raul wandered though the neighborhood in a daze.

"I was surprised," he says. "Everyone had a car. The yards all had grass. All the houses were nice. It was a pretty city. I was a little bit afraid to be there, but I knew I had to do it this way."

Many vendors park at a commissary run by Beverly and Joel Gutierrez outside their Chile Store.
John Johnston
Many vendors park at a commissary run by Beverly and Joel Gutierrez outside their Chile Store.
Carol e Campbell and her family live near the lot where Raul Cabral parks his truck.
John Johnston
Carol e Campbell and her family live near the lot where Raul Cabral parks his truck.

After a few weeks, his roommates found Raul a dishwashing job at Tom's Burgers. Raul then contacted his father, who put him in touch with a cousin, Romulo Cabral, who had arrived in L.A. several years earlier. With a job, an apartment and a relative nearby, Raul stayed in Southern California until 1990. Then one afternoon, during a lunch break at Tom's, a Hispanic gang member pressed a pistol to Raul's head and demanded cash. Raul handed over $20 and watched the robber flee the store, firing at a car as he did.

"That's when I decided to move," he says.

Now seventeen, Raul joined his father in Las Vegas and found jobs as a dishwasher in a casino and a busboy at a coffee shop. His father, who already had his citizenship documentation, applied for Raul's green card. But after three years in Vegas, Raul and his father both lost their jobs during a labor dispute. Raul returned to L.A., while his father went back to Mexico to get the rest of the family and move them to Colorado.

Raul had no intention of living in a place as cold and unfamiliar as Denver. But after visiting, he decided to stay with his father, mother, brother and sisters. He found a job cooking at a Mexican restaurant. Four years later, he traded his apron for a hard hat in the oil fields. Three years after that, while laying tubing, Raul wrenched his back.

At age 27, with a wife and infant son, Raul didn't know what to do. Although the oil company had issued him a $25,000 disability check, his family couldn't live off that for long. He'd always dreamed of opening his own business, but he didn't know where to start.

Then, during a family discussion one day, his cousin Romulo asked, "Why not a lonchera?"

Romulo Cabral had arrived in Denver a few years after Raul. Like his cousin, Romulo also tried working in the oil fields, but he soon decided he wanted to be his own boss. He thought about opening a restaurant, but that would be very expensive. Instead, he bought one of the loncheras he'd seen rumbling through L.A., with their Our Lady of Guadalupe murals on the outside and their narrow, fully equipped kitchens inside. And in 1998, King Taco hit the streets.

As one of the first lonchera proprietors in Denver, Romulo struggled to get a handle on the business. He drove everywhere seeking the perfect spot for his truck. Eventually he settled among the stationery taquerías, mercados and panaderías on Morrison Road, the heart of Denver City Councilwoman Ramona Martinez's district, where the Hispanic population has nearly doubled in the past decade, from 23,305 to more than 40,901. It's one of the fastest-growing parts of the city, yet there has been little major development there.

But new businesses spring up every day, businesses that cater to Mexican immigrants who long for a taste of home: boot shops, record shops and loncheras. King Taco quickly found a following, as customers gathered at Romulo's window to order his tortas, tacos, quesadillas and asada.

"Maybe you should try it, too," Romulo now told his cousin.

Raul, who'd helped Romulo behind the grill once or twice, went to L.A. and bought a used 1985 Chevy, which he brought back to Denver. The lonchera's engine needed work and the kitchen required remodeling, but Raul had "a good feeling."

His family did not.

"You're crazy," his father said. "I don't believe in the truck."

"You don't believe," Raul replied. "But I do."

In May 1999, after spending $4,000 to renovate the lonchera he christened El Tacazo, Raul applied for a business license, a health department permit and fire department certification.

"That was my future," he explains. "I had to do everything right. They gave me my license and said, 'You're ready to work.' I didn't have any problems."

With his wife and a brother beside him, Raul steered his truck toward factories, construction sites and busy street corners. But by the end of that first day, he'd made barely fifteen dollars.

"It was a real bad time," he says. "I didn't make enough for gas."

One day, an electrician repairing some wiring in Raul's house suggested a spot where he could park the lonchera: an unpaved lot off Alameda at Raritan, which the electrician happened to own. For $150 month, El Tacazo could have a home.

Raul agreed. Eight months later, working from 10:30 a.m. to well past midnight, he was clearing $600 a day -- enough to buy a home and a few horses, as well as indulge his passion for the rodeo. At last, his family believed.

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