PHOTOGRAPHY Chris Pilaro
Ramon Perez will take your order now.
Wendell, Idaho, calls itself the “Hub City of the Magic Valley,” and if you’re on a taco truck safari, that’s about right. You literally can’t get in or out of this town, barring some deliberately complex detour, without passing several quality mobile taco facilities.
Think of them of as culinary and social laboratories, these humble little trucks serving their simple, fresh and authentic Mexican food. They are run, without exception, by Hispanic immigrants, whose numbers are booming in southern Idaho. In the irrigated farm towns of the central Snake River Plain, Spanish-speaking populations have more than doubled in a single generation. It’s a demographic sea change in a once homogenous stretch of country, and with new communities comes new food. Today, the taco truck is as common a landscape feature as was yesterday’s burger shack.
The men and women who spend their days inside these mobile kitchens have their reasons. Each is an entrepreneur. Some are passionate about cooking. Others have simply never done anything else. Their lives are not easy, their days not short. They work semi-exposed to the elements, bundled against the prairie’s winter gusts and sweltering in propane-fired metal cages in summer. But they see opportunity, and they want what we all want: financial security, purpose in life and a really kick-ass hot sauce.
In their ubiquity and their pride, Idaho’s taco trucks are a sign of a changing America. They can be the targets of derision and scorn. But peek inside at a cutting board piled with green and white mounds of fresh-chopped cilantro and onion. Pop a tall bottle of Mexican Coke (made with real sugar!), and listen to a hot griddle sizzle with asada as the scorned lovers of a Mexican soap opera coo in each other’s arms on a small television perched atop a sunny dashboard. Take a seat in the shade and try to resist the taco truck’s charms. I dare you.
A kingdom for a truck
The Magic Valley’s prime taco truck territory stretches roughly fifty miles across, from Gooding in the northwest to Twin Falls in the south.
What’s in this place?
A major interstate traces the east-west path of the Snake River. In Gooding, the world’s largest barrel cheese factory can process 9 million pounds of milk into 500 pounds of bland cheese in a single day. There is sagebrush, alfalfa, redbrick schools and way more cows than people (cheese doesn’t grow on trees). Drive by one of the area’s massive dairy farms and pass through one of the dense and noxious clouds of methane that hover there, and that ratio looks unlikely to reverse anytime soon. But this is also a peaceful place under a wide open sky, close to the land and with an economy that has proven fairly resistant to the recession’s most severe fallout.
To Tony Perez, this is a kingdom. Perez owns El Toro Mexican Taqueria and his five trucks, each stamped with the eponymous stamping bull, encircle this land. His trucks are newer, bigger and painted bolder. And they do more business than his competitors. El Toro’s trucks are white (except for one all-silver edition in downtown Jerome), and they are detailed in Mexico’s red and green, right down to the painted menus.
Perez moved to Tacoma, Washington, from his native Guadalajara in 1986. He moved to Idaho eight years later to work at Garibaldi’s, his brother José’s Twin Falls restaurant. When Tony broke away to start El Toro, he did it with a single truck. Today, he is the Microsoft of the Magic Valley taco market. He buys a used truck every other year or so, and his El Toros are seemingly everywhere, a stamping black bull for every major town in four counties.
Perez’s brother, Ramon, runs El Toro #3 in Gooding, the territory’s northernmost outpost. Even as part of his brother’s dominion, Ramon enjoys a sense of autonomy. “I am my own boss here,” he said. “Except for my wife when she comes.”
Things in Gooding are quieter than at the other El Toro locations. Ramon shows considerable pride in his food, and his marinated meats showcase deeper flavors than at his brother’s or nephew’s trucks to the south. When a Hispanic family in a minivan pulled up and placed an order, Ramon burst into action. He buzzed around his kitchen, causing the truck to rock gently on its suspension. In the van’s front seat, a teenage girl was texting intently, blithely ignoring her little brother’s back seat provocations. Ten minutes later, dinner from Ramon was wrapped in plates and tin foil, and the family was on its way home.
In Jerome, Tony Perez tried a few locations—including the gravel parking lot of an abandoned pawn and gun shop—before he secured a spot on a busy four-lane stretch of Lincoln Avenue, across from the massive Wal-Mart Supercenter. It’s El Toro’s most prosperous location yet—on a good day here, Perez can sell twenty-five pounds of carne asada. His clientele is mostly Hispanic, but also “a lot of gabacho,” he said with a wry smile. During a sunny lunch hour last summer, business was brisk. The phone rang with orders. One young couple waited at the window, and while their toddler son hid between his parents’ legs, Perez and his wife Benita worked the kitchen. They griddle-fried small corn tortillas and swatted at the flies circling their platters of raw beef.
This is a truck for the rushed work week eater. The traffic on Lincoln Avenue is loud and unrelenting, and the tacos trend greasy, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on your mood’s appetite. Despite his success here, Perez doesn’t want to run trucks forever. His brother’s restaurants have four locations now, and he sees more of a future in brick and mortar than wheels and axles. As for the trucks themselves, Perez isn’t sentimental. “I’d sell them and open my own restaurant,” he said without hesitation.
The food truck future
Business on Lincoln Avenue is good, but no matter how busy the Wal-Mart gets, no matter how many trucks he sends into southern Idaho’s prairies and plains, Tony Perez isn’t going to get rich selling tacos here. Even pushing a truck into the moneyed Wood River Valley, as he’s been talking about for years, won’t drastically alter his balance sheet.
But in Los Angeles, where the rise of the gourmet food truck has been one of the biggest urban trends of the past decade, the millionaire taco truck owner is no fantasy.
The proof is Roy Choi, the law school dropout who started Kogi, a small fleet of Korean Barbecue taco trucks. In his first year selling $2 short rib tacos and $5 kimchi quesadillas, Choi took in $2 million. According to TIME Magazine’s Joel Stein, the average Kogi customer spends just $13 per visit. But Kogi’s four trucks serve 3,000 people a day, and all those tacos add up.
While Choi sails, the generation of diverse, up-market food wagons that he helped spawn has learned to be more than just taco-savvy. Whether they sell ice cream or escargot, these vendors have redefined traditional marketing methods. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are central to their promotional strategies—fans and followers armed with iPhones find out what their favorite truck is serving, where it’s parked (legally or otherwise) and maybe even who else they might find there.
There is an essential social aspect to all this. From the blustery edge of a small Idaho farm town to the center of the Los Angeles megalopolis, waiting in line, eating outside at park benches—these are communal experiences. In a restaurant, we don’t usually interact with our fellow customers. At a taco truck, it’s basically mandatory.
A home in Wendell
Doña Luz’s horchata—the sweet drink she makes from dried white rice and a mysterious and beautiful combination of spices—tastes like some forbidden nectar. It tastes like it should be reserved for sacred holidays and ladled ceremoniously from ancient wooden bowls. Luz makes hers from scratch. She keeps it in a stainless steel bowl packed in ice under the counter in the kitchen of her small white truck on the hard-pack dirt lot of the Wendell Elevator Company.
It’s the Magic Valley’s smallest taco truck, and in it Luz prepares some of the territory’s most exceptional street food. She grills meats for her tacos, burritos and incredible homemade cornmeal sopes. A sope is sort of like a tamale, but deconstructed and more versatile. Luz’ come piled with chopped fresh tomatoes, avocado, onions and cilantro.
We cook best for the people we love. This is why we are nostalgic for the food we were fed as children. What has ever tasted better than what your mother or your grandfather fed you when you were little more than a sponge for their love?
Luz has something of the universal mother about her. She wears her dark hair in a long ponytail, her smile is wide and when she laughs, her whole body laughs. But mostly she wants to feed you. Her food is consistently fresh, her truck is clean and her customers loyal. Arns Terrazas is one of the regulars at her truck. “You come over here and eat one time, and you’re addicted,” Terrazas said with the upbeat resignation of a junkie on a new drug.
Terrazas settled in Wendell by way of El Paso, Texas, and speaks an easy, flowing Spanish. When he first found her, Luz was parked in a narrow lot on Main Street, across from a Laundromat and in the shadow of a U.S. Bank. “She was getting beat up over there,” Terrazas said. When Luz went looking for a new spot, he acted as her de facto agent and helped her secure some much better real estate, just off Exit 157 on Interstate-84, in the shadows of the town’s towering grain elevators. The property owners “were really nice about it,” he said, even letting her use their electricity for free.
In her new spot by the grain elevators, Luz is doing much more business. She is open seven days a week (usually—being your own boss has its advantages) and in the fall and winter she cooks traditional soups like posole and menudo. Still, she would like to make more money. “She makes a good-enough living to stay here,” Terrazas said with a shrug. “But she could make a better living somewhere else.”
On a late summer evening, the patio table next to Luz’s truck is a good place to sit. As the sun sank on the prairie, a cattle truck rattled over the railroad ties and its cargo mooed from within. Inside Luz’s kitchen, the Rolling Stones played from a small trebly boom box. She hummed, and her knife made sharp knocks against a plastic cutting board as a radish fell into a stack of pink-rimmed coins.
Luz has had eight children. She lost two, and the other six are scattered throughout California, Mexico and southern Idaho. Some winters, she visits her family in Colima, Mexico, a historic Spanish settlement not far inland from the beaches of Manzanillo. She stays there for a few months and sells food from a street corner business that is at once very much and nothing at all like the one she runs in Wendell. Does she like it there? Yes, very much. When she returns, it is for her children and to cook for her customers. Cooking, she said, “is my passion, the one thing that keeps me going.”