Taco Hell

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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."

But at meeting after meeting over the past year, he has been a leading spokesman for the vendors, many of whom don't speak much English.

Each time, his message has been that the vendors want this ordinance so they can continue to work and support their families.

He usually opens his own business around 7 at night. He runs until 2 a.m. on weeknights, 4 a.m. on the weekends. He goes that late because it's good business. The dancers come out hungry and like to linger with their dates in the parking lot around his truck.

He spends an hour or two cleaning the parking lot and checking supplies after closing. He works about 20 hours a day on weekends, and sometimes, he says, he doesn't sleep at all.

The proposed ordinance would make him close at 2 every morning, cutting about 25 percent of his business. It would also require him to be fingerprinted, something that no other restaurant worker has to do.

He says he agreed to these and other conditions because he wanted people to see that the vendors were willing to meet the neighborhoods halfway.

Dominguez, like Hernan Rivera and other vendors, sees the vending business as "the little baby steps trying to learn how to walk. In 10 years, we might own a chain of restaurants."

Given the sharp way he runs his current truck, it isn't likely the neighbors would have much cause to complain about him or shut him down. He consistently gets good health ratings from the county.

Like Rivera and other vendors involved in the past year's negotiations, he sees the ordinance as a step toward improving the business on which they're building their dreams.

"Every time I go to these village meetings, I am humiliated," says Dominguez. "My self-esteem and pride are on the ground because of the negative stuff they say about us. We know there are some bad apples out there. But this ordinance will help take out those bad apples.

"These people say we're all criminals," he adds, shaking his head. "But I am not one. We work hard. This whole thing is about getting these people to see that we will do whatever it takes to comply. So maybe when they see one of us working, they'll respect us."

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow