The Truck Stops Here

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

"In the summertime, with the food out there, you could walk out and just smell the stench," Bennett recalls. "I'd ask them nicely to collect their trash, but unfortunately, they don't speak English very well, and we didn't communicate as well as we might. I had a friend who is Puerto Rican speak to them, and things got better for a while, but I'd have to go out every few weeks to sweep and clean. I hired an exterminator. I wasn't too happy."

Trash wasn't the only problem. Raul's lonchera often blocked the views of motorists trying to enter traffic on Alameda. And at night, especially on weekends and during the summer, customers congregated in the parking lot and alley to eat, talk and play music.

"Cars would park all over the sidewalk and the right-of-way, and people would sit all over," Campbell says. "It became this weird gathering place. This unwieldy, unorganized, out-of-control thing. I just don't feel comfortable having grown men hanging around the alley after midnight."

A customer outside Romulo Cabral's King Taco lonchera.
John Johnston
A customer outside Romulo Cabral's King Taco lonchera.
Romulo's King Taco was one of the first loncheras in town.
John Johnston
Romulo's King Taco was one of the first loncheras in town.

Campbell insists that she and her neighbors don't have a personal problem with Raul and that his nationality has nothing to do with their complaints. They simply have a different vision of how food trucks should operate near neighborhoods.

"I always thought these businesses were really wonderful when they pulled up to a construction site or a factory and served people who didn't have access to hot meals," Campbell explains. "Their customers had access to restrooms and trash facilities. They'd be there a few hours and then move. I have a lot of empathy for the small business owner, but I just have more respect for folks who pay rent and utilities, hire people, shovel snow on the sidewalks and pay taxes. If he wants to open a restaurant, we'd welcome him, but a mobile food business best serves the community by being mobile."

Campbell didn't approach Raul directly with the complaints, she says, because it wasn't her place to enforce the city's laws. Instead, she contacted Denver City Council members Ramona Martinez, Debbie Ortega and Kathleen MacKenzie, who represents the Athmar area, and requested "the most stringent regulation possible."

Early in 2001, a delegation from La Gente Unida, including Raul and Romulo Cabral, sat down at a negotiating table with councilmembers Ortega and Martinez and other city officials, and tried to state their case.

After Strapko had rescinded the two-hour order several months earlier, zoning officials had endorsed a proposal that would require all outdoor eateries to be attached to restaurants. But when truck owners pointed out that the rule would essentially close down their businesses, the idea was scrapped.

Now the vendors explained that they couldn't pack up every few hours and still make a profit. Since loncheras cook food right on the spot, it takes several hours just to clean, prep and open for business. If drivers had to keep moving, they'd also lose customers who count on them to be in a certain place.

"People come to my truck every day because they know I'll be there," Raul explains. "If people don't see me, they won't stop."

Besides, being stationary is part of the lonchera tradition. In Mexico, outdoor food carts stand on practically every block. People make a habit of stopping by a vendor, buying a burrito, settling on the curb to eat. Mexican natives living in Denver say loncheras remind them of home.

"The people who eat at my truck like to go outside and eat and see a friendly face," Romulo says.

Loncheras are popular, the vendors contend, because more and more people in Denver are demanding their food. Eating at food trucks is less expensive and faster than eating at restaurants. The food tastes different, too. Raul and other lonchera cooks use the kind of meat, cheese and vegetables that cooks do in Mexico: tripe, tongue, stomach, fresh tomatoes, hand-made corn tortillas. And they prepare the food the Mexican way, too: boiled or fried with a smoky pork flavor, spiced nice and hot. Not only that, the loncheras offer soda pop and candy imported from Mexico, items you can't find in most restaurants here.

"My customers don't want to eat in restaurants," Raul says. "They said that the food doesn't taste the same. If they like food trucks, it doesn't matter how many restaurants they see. They come to the trucks. The people who work at Chipotle even come to me."

Martina Morales has proof of the loncheras' popularity. In November 2000, she opened Paty's Taquería, a restaurant at 825 South Federal, a few blocks from where she parks her lonchera. Although the food for Paty's and the truck is prepared in the same kitchen by the same cook following the same recipes, customers still preferred the lonchera over the taquería.

"They don't like the food inside," Morales says. "The restaurant will be empty and there'll be a line outside the truck. I don't know why, but I like it better there, too."

Not only do customers count on finding the loncheras in a certain spot, but moving the heavy trucks can be treacherous, vendors say. Once, while trying to comply with the two-hour rule, Raul got caught in heavy traffic and slammed on the brakes to avoid a car that had stopped abruptly. In the process, he sent his brother flying from the kitchen into the cab.

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