Taco Hell

Mexican food vendors circle the wagons as community activists fume over neighborhood blight

The Board of Adjustment reset the city's course entirely in July 1999 when it postponed ruling on Montoya's appeal of the disputed zoning rule and instructed neighborhoods and vendors to negotiate a solution.

Next week, the negotiators will present the board with the proposed ordinances that emerged from the past year's talks. The proposals would require vendors to get a vending license from the city. The city would regulate how, where and when they could operate on private property. The new rules would also make it easier to shut down vendors who don't comply. Vendors, who now can stay open as late as they want, would have to turn off their lights and pull up their tables and chairs at 10 p.m. They could remain open, in the pitch dark, as takeout businesses until 2 a.m.

To beef up enforcement, the city has promised to hire six new inspectors, allow them to cite vendors without having to wait for citizen complaints, and to send them into neighborhoods after hours, when most of the vendor businesses operate.

Aureliano Dominguez with his daughter Ashley at his taco truck on East Van Buren Street.
Paolo Vescia
Aureliano Dominguez with his daughter Ashley at his taco truck on East Van Buren Street.

Williams says the fact that the city is willing to enact reforms on this tiny issue -- but not on other blight violations in neighborhoods -- "just goes to show you that their fear of marching minorities is greater than their fear of neighborhood leaders."

Even if the city increases its enforcement effort, the county still lacks enough health inspectors to cover the more than 1,700 vendors. Loopholes in county regulations also concern activists.

David Ludwig, who heads the county's Division of Environmental Health, which handles permits for food vendors and restaurants, concedes that even finding the vendors can be difficult.

Neighborhood opponents claim that mobile vendor operations are dirtier than most restaurants. But Ludwig says the percentage of mobile vendors with bad inspections about equals that of restaurants.

Still, he says, the neighborhood activists have had some legitimate gripes.

One is whether vendors are using approved commissaries, as the county requires, to dispose of their waste grease and water. (A commissary is a business that has the capability of handling vendor wastes, often another restaurant or food supplier.)

Vendor representatives have told the city's village planning committees, which have been considering the proposed ordinance changes all summer, that they have access to more than 20 commissaries. But a recent check by the county found that only two would take any vendor. Another two would take only vendors who signed agreements to purchase food and goods through them.

Without commissaries, says Ludwig, vendors are prone to dump their wastes illegally.

Hernan Rivera says that to get his health permit, he found a commissary not far from his setup in front of La Reyna Bakery. It gave him a letter of agreement. But before the year was out, the management asked him to move on because it could make more money off larger rigs. Without telling the county, he began using La Reyna Bakery, where he works during the day, as his commissary.

Ludwig says such an arrangement is legal under the current standards. But the makeshift arrangements of other vendors may not be.

"We really need to reevaluate that whole system on our end. I don't know whether they're dumping illegally in the alley or where they're setting up."

A number of vendors also own restaurants and service their mobile outlets there.

But Ludwig suspects that some vendors are cleaning their trucks at home. Unfortunately, like the city, the county has no after-hours inspectors to do anything about it.

Rest rooms are another problem. The proposed city ordinance requires one within a "reasonable" distance. Vice Mayor Lingner, who supports the ordinance, says what's reasonable has not yet been defined.

Ludwig says he's aware of situations where the rest rooms have been port-o-johns, bushes and worse. "I've had inspectors who've come back and said, yeah, they've got the little camp stool sitting up by the driver's seat and they're using it. And when you pick up a box that has human defecation in it -- I've had an inspector do that -- you have to wonder about personal hygiene and what people are thinking."

He says county inspectors probably confiscate more food from mobiles than from restaurants, because food, like everything else, heats up in a hot metal box.

Not surprisingly, ordinance opponents have seized on all of these horror stories, and played them to the hilt. At meeting after meeting this summer, they have pointed to their portable displays of photographs showing the most egregious examples of health and zoning violations, passing them off as the rule rather than the rarity. They have tried to vilify the vendors as low-lifes who would do just about anything to make a sale.

Aureliano Dominguez is a handsome man, short and strong, whose black mustache and hair are as sharp as the creases of his well-pressed Ralph Lauren shirts.

He runs a food truck, selling tacos, empanadas, tortas and other goodies across the street from the El Capri dance club near 21st Street and Van Buren.

Before the vendor struggle, he never envisioned himself speaking up for anyone but himself. "I thought I was somebody that was breathing and eating, but wasn't counted, wasn't important to people."

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