The taco truck mystery

This one comes from Felix Salmon.  In my view Felix puts forward the two correct hypotheses:

…food trucks are much more likely to be run by first-generation immigrants, for a variety of reasons. Quite aside from any hard-working immigrant stereotype, that’s good news just because the food they sell is going to be that much more authentic. (Not that food trucks need to be particularly authentic to be delicious: just ask the Korean taco people.)


My favorite theory is that it basically comes down to the amount of time that elapses between the taco being made and the taco being eaten. Fillings can stay warm and delicious for a while, but the tortilla really is at its very best within seconds of coming off the stove, rather than getting soggy at the bottom of a tortilla warmer brought to you by your server. I suspect that if you could walk into the kitchen of a decent taco restaurant and get the chef to make you one then and there, it too would taste better than the same taco ordered off the menu.

I would add one factor.  Taco trucks are mobile, and they often serve Latino construction workers, who are themselves mobile in terms of choosing various workplaces over the course of a year, and thus they require mobile sources of food.  This encourages the taco truck, but not the stationary restaurant, to invest in better and more authentic food.


I've been working in construction for about 12 years and I've never seen a taco truck at a construction site. Food trucks all the time, which I eat off of all the time, but not taco trucks. Those seem to be holed up in wheaton and Langley park near high density Latino residencies or the fancy kind (korean taco) that hang outside of office buildings downtown during the weekdays.
Construction trucks usually have hot dogs, burgers, lasagna, chilli, soups, sodas, mac and cheese, wings, bananas, and often tamales.

Maybe for the sort of calorific profile a construction worker desires tacos are a bit wimpy.


Although maybe authentic tacos are better in that department. I would not know. But I can tell you that if you work really hard and you can get by on the tacos that they serve at at taco bell then you must have a really slow metabolism.

Tamales are so awesome they make up for no tacos, though.

You don't live on the West Coast. In LA they came to all the big job sites I visited since the early 90s.

Authenticity is one of the weirder fetishes that white people have come up with.

tell me about it. it's like these demographically gated SWPLs who dream of electric peasant laborers never heard of the concept of a recipe.

I agree in general, but I think with regard to the food in question, it is a way to refer to "that kind of taco experience that differs from the tacos sold by the cookie cutter mexican restaurants that dot the landscape".

Then it's variety that they are really seeking; not authenticity.

Or, if we're talking about food-authenticity specifically, not the general fetish for it (which I agree with Matt on, pretty much), there's something else.

The "non-authentic" tacos took something delicious and unusual-for-our-American-palates (the Mexico City style street taco) and changed it into something that some profile or other (or someone's idea of it, or the Ideal Mass Market Test Group) found most palatable.

There's nothing wrong with that - but it's not a Mexico City style street taco.

I don't care much about the fetish for the authentic - but I'd rather try the "real thing" because it will be more unusual - the desire is culinary novelty, I suppose one might say. "Authentic" can be - and often is, I think - meant as simply shorthand for "not modified to suit someone else's ideas of what my culinary desires might be".

This kind of authenticity seems the kind of authenticity that is an extension of Western concerns with branding and standardisation, rather more than the kind of authenticity that is associated with people actually misrepresenting their product.

That is, it's based on probably fairly Western view that if a product is not a standardised version of a product or the branded version of a product, it's a "fake" even if the product technically meets all the right specifications, is more or less the sort of object and the seller gave you full information about what it is.

I do wonder if this is a parasitic tendency, since it's not the kind of attitude that would seem to me to create food innovation rather than tendencies to try and standardise and quality control existing food concepts.

Its similar to them feeling guilty about hiring low-status people for low-status jobs.

Matt, Really? All fetishes are by definition over the top, but "authenticity is one of the weirder" is hard to accept. As Sigivald said, people want to try stuff that wasn't changed to suit them. Exploring new cultures and cuisines is weird? I disagree. Of course, any passion taken to an extreme can be silly.

Say I served you a dish claiming it came from a exotic African country and you thoroughly enjoyed it. Later I told you I'd lied and the recipe was just a creation of mine. Would you be disappointed? That's when authenticity becomes a fetish.

People should rate food on its taste rather than provenance.

Rahul, I'd be disappointed that you lied to me. Then I would have thanked you for a good meal, even though I would have learned nothing about that local cuisine.

Authentic food is not one of my obsessions. I simply took issue with calling the preference for authentic food "weird." Most preferences seem weird to someone who doesn't hold them. If they don't hurt anyone, then let them be. I bristle at people who tell me how I "should rate" stuff.

Enjoy your Taco Bell, then.

Chop suey is pretty awful.

Others have said this, but let me just try to lay it out succinctly:

1) Food should be (a) varied and (b) good.
2) To take three examples: Cookie-cutter Americanized Chinese food sucks and does not vary. Cookie-cutter Americanized Mexican food sucks and does not vary. Cookie cutter Indian food is fine but does not vary.
3) Authentic Chinese/Mexican/Indian food are great and varied.
4) Generally speaking, for most kinds of cuisine, P("good" | "authentic") > P("good" | "inauthentic").
5) Many culinary innovations in the U.S. are in the service of cheap food, easily manufactured food, long-lasting food, or "familiar-tasting" food. These are mostly orthogonal to "tastiness" and sometimes there is a negative correlation.
6) Authentic food is often optimized for tastiness, though using non-ideal search procedures, over the course of hundreds of years.
7) Thus, an innovation over authentic food is fine but the primary goal of the innovation must be tastiness.

I say the word "authentic" a fair amount when talking about restaurants of non-American-style food, but I see little evidence of a fetish for authenticity -- only a search for good and varied food.

Only problem with that is that Americanized chinese food is quite good. General Tso's chicken is not remotely authentic, but it is delicious. It's fair to point out a lack of variety--Americanized Chinese food isn't as varied as what Chinese cuisine (whatever that really is) involves. However, while it's fine to not like americanized Chinese food, it's absurd to declare the Chinese food "real" and the Americanized kind "fake". That's when it becomes a fetish, when you freeze in time and place some form of a cuisine and declare it the real version with later foreign evolutions being some illegitimate deviation. We don't just do this with food, mind you.

Another indication of fetishization is whether you had a negative reaction to your sushi chef not being Asian. Oh, everybody does it, let's just be honest.

I think there are two different kinds of foods: (a) food we like to eat (b) food we like to admit we eat

I think that's a basic problem with contemporary American food discussions. American Chinese (and a lot of fast food too ) often falls in category (a)

From my experience, there's a definite quality difference between foods even within cuisines. I've had delicious cookie-cutter Americanized Chinese, and bad cookie-cutter Americanized Chinese. A Taco Bell from California can be superior to a fancy sit-down Mexican restaurant in the Northeast (Believe me, I speak from experience. Horrific, horrific experience.). "Cookie cutter Indian food" is just as good as the Chinese or Mexican; it's just that you're more likely to find someone who squeamishly says no to the cuisine, so liking it shows you're hip and diverse and adventurous and better than more people. It's the exception, not the rule, but I've had Indian food that literally tasted like puke.

Also, the search for varied food is definitely culturally determined, as well. I've had a lot of good, high-quality German food in Germany, but it doesn't vary a whole heck of a lot. At least, not like American cuisine does.

Not a white people issue. Go to any southern black family's cookout and you'll realize this.

However, new food trucks (unlike the standard falafel carts) seem to be geared more towards college educated, foodie clients with a twitter feed.

It seems like the obvious answer is observer bias. You expect the truck tacos to be better and, shockingly, they meet your expectations.

100% Agree. The answer cannot be that the fillings are placed in the tortilla more quickly than at a restaurant.

Rather, SWPL think food trucks are amazing. So when they eat at food trucks, they think the food is amazing.

Eating at food trucks is fun, I get it. But it's silly to argue that the food actually has better flavor than food from a restaurant.

Someone ought to do a on-site blind test. Can people really tell apart an as-yet-unknown restaurant taco from a truck-taco?

Doesn't that completely depend on the truck and restaurant?

It's not like having a bigger kitchen and higher rent magically makes quick food any better - the local tacqueria could literally be in a taco truck and do everything the same in terms of food prep and production; the kitchens aren't big and it's all prep from bins and meats slow-cooked in advance.

The other issue is that restaurant tacos tend to be the hard-shell taco ala Taco Bell, with lettuce and a fairly bland filling.

Tacqueria and taco truck tacos are closer to the street food roots, and should and do taste different. Whether the different is "better" or not is entirely a matter of taste, naturally, but I think you're missing that the "tacos" here are often literally not the same product.

(And the final hypothesis is that the "foodie" food cart specializes heavily; moreso than most restaurants can or will. This should naturally lead to a quality difference, ceteris paribus [or close to it].)

I'm not even arguing about which is better; I'm basically wondering if people can even reliably tell them apart in a blind test. There are good restaurant-tacos and bad restaurant-tacos and so also for food-trucks.

Salmon is presumably talking about the difference between trucks and tacquerias, not trucks and Taco Bell type restaurants.

Another possibility is that taco trucks have much lower costs of entry and exit which leads to more experimentation and thus much faster evolution.

that's right!!! Also taco trucks are under more severe punishment from clients. there's only 1 reason why people make a line, eat at a place with no seats and exposed to cold/rain/hot weather: awesome food. you're not tricked by nice music, trendy lightning, amicable waiters or alcohol. you either like the food or not.

Actually there is a 2nd reason why they're waiting in line: the patrons are being tricked -- by the line itself. IMO, this is as true for Kogi (the truck which popularized the recent craze in LA and subsequently other cities) as it is for the Cheesecake Factory. Monster lines, not justified by the food.

The construction food truck is actually a crazy business. Usually only one is allowed on to the site and it is usually determined by someone working for the general contractor who gets free food and often a kick back for being allowed this exclusivity. These are often relationships that have gone back decades and if a rogue taco truck actually tried to get on a construction site, there would be problems for that person.

Yeah, but Felix was speaking in the context of Austin food trucks which are pretty immobile. These trucks aren't chasing around work sites; they are setting up shop at various hot spots for food trucks.

I had a Far East truck taco today for lunch downtown DC. Their pineapple salsa is excellent, though the menu doesn't really strike me as particularly Eastern. The term "taco" is applied pretty liberally though. Good stuff in a folded over tortilla = taco. Good stuff in a wrapped up tortilla with one or both ends open = wrap. Good stuff completely wrapped in a tortilla = burrito. Or my favorite, the ChocoTaco ice cream treat wrapped in silver foil.

Totally agree! ChocoTacos kick butt!

Felix Salmon you say?

Was the article about how food trucks need to be legislated out of existence because they tend to serve unhealthy food and the poor (being terribly, terribly stupid) need a benevolent guiding hand to help them out in making healthy choices?

We have lots of awesome food trucks in SoCal (the OC). I favor the old-school variety versus the shiny fad, for value. I love the breakfast burritos and tacos ... but there was a guy locally who got a brain worm from taco de cabeza ... so be forewarned.

No, Felix is pretty broad minded about things he actually comes into contact with or personally knows people who like them. It is just that he lives in such a narrow little world and that can make him grating to read when he writes about anything other than big city living.

Felix Salmon Derangement Syndrome... it seems like the bar is comically set just a bit lower each time I click on MR comments.

Shouldn't he specialize in wild Sockeye?

I fail to see the logic behind the last paragraph, i.e., that having a customer base that shifts around encourages better and more authentic food. To the contrary, because those transient workers are likely less able to drive to their favorite restuarants (or perhaps any place) for lunch, they're stuck with whatever is available at their sites. By having a somewhat captive lunch crowd, the mobile unit has less incentive to improve its food. On the other hand, a restaurant, being unable to chase potential customers and thus being unable to optimize location as crowds shift, must have good enough food to warrant customers travelling to it. Now, what constitutes good enough to travel for can be either more authentic (which is Tyler's belief) or for most of us, tasty regardless of some weird notion of authenticity.

Does the context of eating food designed to be portable from a truck as part of a walk to lunch impart the food with a bit of extra flavor? Is it just more fun to eat a taco in that environment?

Decent point about the different between seconds off the grill vs. minutes off the grill. The rest is just SWPLs signaling sophistication among themselves.

The idea that people raised in X country, even if they were too poor to afford restaurants or even quality ingredients, somehow "know" what constitutes top quality X country cuisine better than wealthy and sophisticated people raised elsewhere and allowed to sample the best of what the world has to offer is absurd. What if the women in their family saved money on day-old ingredients and were lousy cooks to boot? Why the cosmopolitan sophisticate's myth that all the world's poor brown people are born with culinary powers and sophistication that whitey can never match?

You'd be much smarter to pick a Mexican restaurant that appealed to wealthy/educated Americans who spend too much time seeking good food than one that appealed to Mexican immigrants.

Definitely not true here in Phoenix. The latter places serve food just as tasty (but less fancy) than the former at half the price.

As Rahul touches on above, it's because "authenticity" really is a signal for "flavors/presentation I am not used to." Cosmopolitan sophisticates want to experience foods that differ considerably from what they know. "Authentic" or "traditional" foods are desirable because they are less likely to have been modified to suit American tastes and are more likely to include exotic ingredients. It has nothing to do with the culinary powers or sophistication of poor brown people, even if some of the cosmopolitan sophisticates themselves might believe this to be so. It's really about exoticism and enjoying (or signaling that you enjoy) new tastes.

I think the short answer to your rhetorical question is that cosmopolitan sophisticates are not necessarily out for "top quality" X country cuisine; they want "new and exciting" cuisine. Still, your idea about wealthy and sophisticated people combining the best of what the world has to offer with high-quality ingredients fits this model perfectly. Indeed, upscale fusion restaurants bring in money hand over fist by offering cosmopolitan sophisticates exactly that. That's because an cool and interesting riff on traditional cuisine can appeal to a sophisticate's desire for novelty and new tastes just as much as their first bowl of traditional, lovingly-crafted pho.

Fusion food can be good but then again, some "authentic" food is good precisely because the recipes were honed over hundreds of years to appeal to the tastes of sophisticates in that country. I don't know much about Mexico but in India, the Mughlai food you find in restaurants in North India and often in the U.S. is, as the name implies, a version of what was once served to nobility there. Of course the food is going to be good. If a Parisian chef wants to tweak these recipes and fuse them with other influences, he is certainly welcome to try but the cuisine is already itself an earlier fusion of all kinds of influences.

Ironically, if you ever happen to bump into a "real" Indian royal personage, ex-nawab , or former maharajah (yes, India did allow titular princes even after Independence) etc. they will lament about how most of the food that is served under the guise of Muhghlai is such a sham.

Point is, "authenticity" is an overhyped concept; it really depends on your perspective.

"You’d be much smarter to pick a Mexican restaurant that appealed to wealthy/educated Americans who spend too much time seeking good food than one that appealed to Mexican immigrants."

So in other words, when a (comparatively) wealthy and educated person like Tyler Cowen or Felix Salmon says that a particular food truck or restaurant that attracts lots of immigrants actually has genuinely good food, it probably does have good food. Thanks for clarifying.

Of course, some countries have bad or boring food so authentic food from that country might not be all that worth seeking out. Mexico usually would not appear on such a list, though, which is why authentic food from that country tends to appeal to many wealthy/educated Americans who spend too much time seeking good food.

I had a lobster roll from a food truck for lunch today. I could not ascertain whether any of the employees were originally from Maine, but I think it can be assumed.

It was so much better than your typical fast good chain restaurant lobster roll, mostly because it was a tres authentic.

Maybe it is because a typical restaurant can compete on several metrics (decor, music, variety, customization, speed etc.) whereas a taco-truck's only competing on taste?

Also, I suspect a food-truck gets an unfair competitive advantage over traditional restaurants: no rent, lesser taxes, fees, certifications and regulations etc. Hence it can devote more of your dollar to true-food-prep costs. Less overhead.

I agree with the first point, mostly. My impression is that the best food trucks in DC focus on a small menu that tends to be very good. The lobster truck does lobster and shrimp, Conn. or Maine style, plus chowder. El Floridano does four sandwiches. Basil Thyme will have a few lasagnas and manicotti. (The excess gyro trucks disprove my point, none of them seem that good. Maybe they buy their cones of meat from the same place as other gyro places.)

Food truck operators disagree with the second point, and claim that their percentage overhead costs are comparable.

Well, the second point isn't surprising: How many businesses have you heard admit, yes we do get an unfair competitive advantage? Food truck operators are the wrong people to ask this question to.

Agreed! The EL CHILANGO taco truck in Arlington, VA is the bomb. Here it is on Yelp, where it has a 5-star rating (for 123 reviews):

The dude who works it even gave me a complimentary taco while I was waiting.

I'm agree It was so much better

When I was in the Marines there was a food truck that came by every day at ten. The food was better than lower enlisted fare, because it was the staff NCO's leftovers. I would say that it tasted better, because it was less authentic military food.


Sorry, but I think the fresh tortilla notion is completely bunk. Tortillas aren't like french fries - the extra two minutes in a tortilla warmer from kitchen to table isn't going to ruin their flavor, texture, and chew. I would listen to the theory that asada fresh off the grill/griddle and pastor fresh off the spit is better than meat sitting in a steam pan b/c you can only get crispy fried bits when meat comes fresh off the grill.

Please save a few bucks and come down to Mexico to test your hypothesis.

Just-made or just warmed tortillas are better than tortillas a couple minutes later. Both are warm, but the tortillas piled in the "tortilla warmer" are somehow more moist, they don't taste the same, and they just break more easily when you put food inside =(

No need to come to Mexico. I live in Chicago. Even Rick Bayless agrees that some of the world's best tortillas are made right here. :)

A corn tortilla is still good after sitting for a week in a fridge, its just more likely to break.

we should stop all hispanic immigration and let in chinese from various provinces with different cuisines and make their green cards dependent on their cooking skills

Even better would be a green card cookoff pitting various aspiring immigrants of various nationalities against each other. Judged by Donald Trump, of course.

Just park trucks on the border. Win a truck! Off you go. No more green cards, green carts.

They'd all end up switching to making American-Chinese food after all their white patrons complain about the lack of General Tso's chicken and the presence of dishes like jellyfish and chicken feet.

Living in developing countries for years I appreciated the lack of regulation in many industries. Food stalls was the most evident. The social experience, quality and cost were my favorite things about food stalls. Most immigrants miss this aspects of their countries especially in regards to food stalls.

Also, entry costs nad risk are much lower than going into other industries or a brick and morter restraurant.

I live in Phoenix and it's hilarious to see what other parts of the country consider "authentic" taco-wise, moreso that so many people consider authentic always desirable. A pork burrito from my local shop (heaped in authenticity) would gag you with big chunks of slimy fat and gristle.

A fresh soft corn tortilla has a half-life of one minute if you want it to hold the filling while you eat it. Lightly fried about the same, crisp fried quite a bit longer. Flour tortillas are far more durable, thanks to the gluten.

This week I'm in Phoenix for the first time. I had some local tacos today. I'm not sure how authentic they were but they were the best thing I've had to eat here so far and better than any I've ever had in NYC. That last part wasn't really a surprise.

Most roach coaches I see actually visit office building parking lots around lunchtime (and invariably have "La Cuckaracha" horns). I haven't seen many at construction sites, or serving particularly Hispanic customers - and often don't sell tacos. Many of the roach coaches in my area actually sell Chinese, Chinese+Vietnamese, or Indian food.

Only somewhat relatedly, a friend of mine was lamenting the disappearance of Eastern-European restaurants in the Bay Area, as there aren't so many immigrants from those countries any more, and they tend not to be desperate enough to open restaurants.

There's a big difference between the urban taco truck and the rural taco truck.

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, rural California. The taco trucks we had would tend to camp at one or two known spaces and loyally serve customers from there. This was in part due to the rural character--there are only one or two "centrally located" spots for miles around. Also, nearly all the food is completely local, probably grown somewhere within 10 miles. Add in plenty of migrants and a Mexican history, and you've got taco trucks, taquerias, fancy sit-down restaurants in the middle of nowhere, and the food is incredible, no matter how authentic. Seriously, the folks out there have no idea just how good they have it, food-wise.

But yeah, the taco trucks are permanent enough that there's usually a couple lawn chairs and a folding table nearby, just in case you need it.

And NYC (or North Jersey) CANNOT do Mexican. I have tried again and again. After hearing whether I'd like ranch or Italian dressing on my taco salad, after tasting too many mole poblanas with hints of peanut butter and molasses, after witnessing "Mexican fusion" cuisine that's really little more wrapping some things in a tortilla, shrugging and saying "Meh," I've given up on the area.

Oh, and do not ask about the chile rellenos. Please. I still am not sure what that thing was, really.

Either way, the best taco I have ever had was in a gas station in Dallas.
The best tamale I have ever had was in a sit down restaurant in Fort Worth.

What's more SWPL, being concerned about the 'authenticity' of your food or angsting over whether 'authenticity' itself is simply a construct manufactured by SWPLs?

I think I know the answer.

No one has touched on the point that with respect to food trucks, you have a much better chance of having the owner prepare the food.

Sure they have, read the comments before posting.

No. Just wasted 5 minutes re-reading the comments and no one touched on that point.

A better chance is still a pretty slim chance. What immigrants have cash or credit to get into a $100k food truck? For an investor, a food truck is far less risky than a fixed store. It's liquid, portable, no front-of-house costs, no decor...and your menu costs are close to zero.

Fatty greasy tacos taste good. When I'm in a fancy clean place, it only highlights that fatty greasy reality by upping the contrast. It makes me feel guilty. Take me to a dive and, well, I expect it to be fatty and greasy and I can therefore enjoy it without the guilt. Or something like that. Basically, I'm trying to tell a priming story and how a clean fancy place "primes" my mind to think of certain things and those thoughts don't mesh well with a good cheap taco. It can change my perception in a way that a "yummy greasy" taco can suddenly seem like a "grossly greasy" taco.

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