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La Villa Real serves traditional northern Mexican food from its lonchera

They infiltrated the city this year: a gleaming fleet of trucks, sporting vibrant color schemes and elaborate paint jobs, hawking everything from biscuits to banh mi. A hip generation was behind the wheel — restaurateurs who wanted to reach a broader audience, cash-strapped chefs who needed an inexpensive kitchen, ambitious entrepreneurs with plans for expansion. They snapped up trucks and trailers all over town as the street-food trend already popular in other parts of the country suddenly rolled into Denver.

But the loncheras were here first.

Maria Garcia and Marco Angeles met when they were both working in a Denver restaurant, a few years after Garcia moved to the United States from Durango, Mexico, 26 years ago. The two married and started a family, and soon decided that rather than work in restaurants, they'd like to own one. Restaurants don't come cheap, though, so twelve years ago, Garcia and Angeles bought a food truck. They called it La Villa Real, and used it to deliver traditional northern Mexican snacks and meals to hungry Denver diners.

Last year the couple played a very real part in giving this city's new food-truck scene its start. When Josh Wolkon and Brandon Biederman went up and down Federal Boulevard, asking street-food crews where they might find a mobile kitchen, Garcia and Angeles sold them a couple of tacos — and an old Mack that was sitting in their back yard, which became the Steuben's Food Truck ("Meals on Wheels," June 3). "I was attracted to the classic feel of a lonchera," says Wolkon. "We needed something that ran on diesel for the conversion, and this one was in Denver. That truck was exactly what we were looking for."

"It was too big," Garcia says with a shrug. "No one could drive it."

Not that Garcia and Angeles do much driving. As the new fleet of colorful gourmet street-food purveyors zipped around farmers' markets and downtown parking lots, using the trucks as marketing tools and catering vehicles as well as mobile kitchens, the two La Villa Real loncheras stuck to their traditional locations. They'd roll up in the morning with a day's stock of meats, cheeses and tortillas and stay there until night, when they'd head back to the commissary — which they happen to now share with Pinche Tacos owner Kevin Morrison — for storage and restocking. The original truck is based at Federal and Fourth Avenue, where it's been for a dozen years. The second truck, which the couple bought six years ago, continues to park at Alameda and Raritan, the same spot where its previous owner had been stationed for six years.

But the road has not always been smooth. A decade ago, Denver changed the rules that regulate mobile vending in this city, and Garcia and Angeles had to find their way through the same restrictions that the new food trucks have had to maneuver this year. Suddenly the trucks could no longer park wherever they pleased. After complaints from neighbors about noise, criminal activity and trash, the city determined that all food-hawking carts, trucks and trailers had to park on private property — and could park there for only four hours before they had to move.

The new trucks have dealt with that rule by working events, teaming up with brick-and-mortar establishments that often let them park on private property for free for a few hours, and leasing land when they need to, for parties such as the Justice League of Street Food events. But then, they have the star power — and the social networking system — to help customers find them.

The old guard doesn't have the same advertising focus. Besides, loncheras have always operated more like permanent structures, turning up in the same spots day after day. To do that after the city's rules changed, many of them found strategically located lots that straddled several properties. That way, they could move just a few feet when the four-hour time limit was up. But that also meant they might be paying rent to multiple property owners — in the case of Garcia and Angeles, three different landlords for each of their trucks. The extra expense is worth it, though, because they've amassed a loyal following at these regular locations, one that doesn't rely on Twitter or Facebook. "We've had some of our customers for twelve years," says Garcia. "And some of them come back two or three times a day."

That was evident when I stopped by La Villa Real's Alameda and Raritan location two weeks ago, on a day when the steel-colored sky hung thick with cold over a street studded with wire-fenced used-car lots, dilapidated strip malls and construction projects. Despite the chill, the gleaming white truck, stenciled with green lettering in Spanish, attracted a steady stream of people who shouted their orders through a window over the noise of a sizzling grill, then retreated to their cars to wait for lunch.

"We mostly have people who live around here and want food from Mexico but don't want to cook it at home," says Garcia. "And a burrito's only three dollars. So they can come back many times a day." Because of those regulars, they're not interested in taking their business on the road, as the new trucks do. "We've catered parties," she adds. "But it's better for us to stay here."

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