Opinion

Felix Salmon

The taco-truck mystery

By Felix Salmon
March 13, 2012
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Why is the food at food trucks better than the food in restaurants, at least when it comes to tacos? It doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, on its face. Food trucks are much more limited in what they can cook, and Izzoz Tacos in Austin has to transport its slow-braised carnitas from an oven far away to its truck location every day: it can’t cook them on site.

I’m genuinely interested in your answers, but I have a few possible theories, none of which are particularly convincing.

One is that the limited space is a welcome constraint, a bit like the 140 characters on Twitter. You don’t ever see massive menus on a food truck (or a trailer eatery, as they’re known in Austin), and so they’re forced to do one thing and do it really well. But of course there are restaurants like that, too. There’s no shortage of taco restaurants in Austin, but they’re just not as good as the trucks.

Another possibility is that the restaurants just have too many balls in the air — they have to manage much more in the way of vendors and staff and rent and paperwork and so forth, and all of that ultimately distracts from the job of making great food.

It also seems to be the case that 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.

But if you have a better idea, let me know! Especially now that Izzoz is looking to open a restaurant.

Comments
28 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Wrong question.

“Why do people think the food at food trucks is better than the food in restaurants, at least when it comes to tacos?”

Posted by Escriva | Report as abusive
 

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on this, Felix?

http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2 012/03/12/the-reproduction-of-privilege/

It is undeniable that children from the upper quartiles are increasingly attending (and graduating from) college. They simply assume, from an early age, that this is their path.

Yet afterwards, we are seeing many college graduates floundering in the job market. Perhaps their grades and skills are unexceptional? Perhaps they always did just enough to slide by?

I wonder about the demographics of this group? Are they predominantly upper-quartile students who in the past might have skipped college entirely? Or lower-quartile students who have been economically marginalized at every step along the way?

Posted by TFF | Report as abusive
 

They do one thing, and they do it well.

Posted by GRRR | Report as abusive
 

For the same reason that a wine in an expensive bottle tastes better. Food trucks are hot these days, so you expect them to be better.

Posted by ucgoldenbears | Report as abusive
 

My thought, though I admittedly haven’t tried that many of the vendor trucks, is that the taste difference is a personal perception not unlike the dollar amount/wine taste relationships you’ve pointed out in the past.

I think it’s really nothing more than the fact that food trucks are trendy right now. In the down economy, a handful of chefs that would have otherwise opened traditional restaurants went the food truck route instead. This sparked a bit of a renaissance in the food industry, and now these trucks have been receiving a lot of attention from critical sources like the Food Network. And everyone knows that if a critic says it’s good, it’s good.

Or maybe it’s the diesel fumes?

Posted by spectre855 | Report as abusive
 

Damn you ucgoldenbears for beating me to it! (j/k, your version was much more concise)

Posted by spectre855 | Report as abusive
 

My take:

1) Shorter Prep/Serving interval. Most trucks set up for lunch then again for dinner there is a break were prep can be redone providing fresher ingredients.

2) Owner operators. Most trucks that I know of (Taco and others) are run by their owners. They know what kind of food they want to sell and make sure the quality is consistent. With a restaurant the owner take more irresponsibilities and sometimes leaves the food prep to an employee that just doesn’t have the same desire to keep the quality up.

3) Direct feedback. It might be easier in the truck to see if customers are returning and what they like or don’t like.

Posted by BottyGuy | Report as abusive
 

So Felix, if a restaurant were to deliver tortillas as you need them rather than all together then it should be as good as the trucks, right? (an idea for all the taco restaurants out there…).

I think it’s a combination of factors – the immediacy and short prep time, the freshness, the immigrant-ness, the specialization, plus the *setting* (look around you, the sunshine and the park have got to contribute to your enjoyment), plus the fact that “food trucks are hot right now” (and of course all the other factors *could* explain *why* they’re hot).

Each one factor could contribute a little to the advantage, and when you put them all together they add up to a huge wallop.

Posted by voodoobunny | Report as abusive
 

I don’t want to hear about Austin taco trucks, I don’t want to hear about Austin homeless 4G wireless hotspots, I don’t want to hear about SWSX, or whatever they call it, I do not like them here or there, I do not like them anywhere.

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive
 

You, the introducer of “Blind Wine Tasting” parties has to ask this question?

Tacos are a cheep, street food. Bratwurst, BBQ etc. are similar. As such, they are examples of “less is more”. What gives you high quality flavor is a high turnover of the same items being cooked. Call it a “historical singe”. By this, I mean the meat cooking flavors the grill.

If you go to a Korean BBQ you’ll get the same thing. The fourth or fifth round of kalbi/bulgogi/etc tastes better than the first, because of the build up singed meat and spice on the grill. (That is, of course, if you can keep the waiter from swapping out the grill every 10 minutes. The restaurant want to control the smoke, quality be damned.)

In a restaurant, they want scrubbed pots and pans and clean cooking surfaces to which they can add subtle spices, which discerning patrons appreciate. So they hate to be smokey. A taco truck or a BBQ stand doesn’t care about smoke, in fact, they call it advertising.

As the person who introduced the idea of blind wine tasting parties and then worked out why less expensive wines do so well, doesn’t this make sense? I have to thank you for the “blind wine tasting party” idea. It has become a regular part of my dating cycle and it has paid dividends brother.

Posted by newyork1 | Report as abusive
 

Are you hitting the strip malls and hole-in-the-walls? I live on the edge of a California town with a Spanish name, and can find all kinds of good tacos. They are places where I might be the only non-Hispanic though. Perhaps “white people” feel safer at a truck gathering.

Posted by john_on_i10 | Report as abusive
 

( I make that comment because I think “dive” where I find the good tacos, and not “restaurant.” See also: http://tinyurl.com/72gdd7o )

Posted by john_on_i10 | Report as abusive
 

I would guess it’s related to the work on ambience and expectations. In food, see the work by Brian Wansink at Cornell – he wrote Mindless Eating. In a nutshell, eat the same food in different atmospheres and you experience a real difference in taste & quality. You expect an experience from a taco truck and the food meets those expectations. You expect a different experience in a restaurant. If the tacos in a restaurant were given the “ambience treatment”, you might think they were fantastic. The ambience treatment might be to create a seemingly authentic place, like a storefront tacqueria, or it might be to “elevate” the food with fine china, descriptions of the luscious preparations, garnishes which are fussed over and which meet expectations of cleverness, etc.

We live and experience in contexts.

Posted by jomiku | Report as abusive
 

I have experienced this myself for a particular restaurant in New Haven, and I have a theory.

In fact, I’ve gotten better (to my taste) tacos from two tacquerias in the new haven area (shout out La cosinita downtown and Tacqueria Mexicana in West Haven to anybody in the area) that do not operate trucks, but of course, the tacos at both places are made and served fresh to order.

But there is one restaurant, where I’ve had their truck tacos, and they have been almost as good as my favorite tacquerias, but when I ordered tacos in their restaurant I was terribly disappointed.

What I think is that their truck on the docks has a clientele of 90% immigrants and a 10% foodies who know where to get a good cheap lunch, while their clientele in a suburban strip mall sit down restaurant is 90% white tequila drinkers.

On the docks I paid $3 for a plate of 3 small but actually good tacos. In the restaurant I paid $10 for a plate of 3 larger tacos with rice and beans that wasn’t much different from what I might have been served at a Chi-Chi’s.

Posted by GnomeoZurich | Report as abusive
 

The taco in particular is optimized for truck production. By and large, the taco is the best thing you’ll get off a truck, unless the truck has its own special thing. I’m primarily talking about Mexican taco trucks, and more particularly East L.A.-style tacos. Fresh, fast, simple. Eat right next to the truck, never take the chow home or to some other location.

In my experience, however, the taco trucks reach a threshold of quality, or an upper limit of quality-to-price ratio. If you want better you have to the little flash grills that get set outside bodegas, or go to a party where there’s nothing but carne asada or chopped tongue on the menu — and even-fewer-balls-in-the-air analysis. The trucks, meanwhile, trade off a little bit of quality for mobility and price.

I conducted an informal review of taco trucks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn a while back and found them wanting (trying to hard). I also contrasted trucks in L.A. and trucks in New York, although I didn’t come to any meaningful conclusions:

http://www.scpr.org/blogs/economy/2011/1 0/21/3661/visual-aid-food-truck-business -nyc-edition/

Posted by mattdebord | Report as abusive
 

I think it’s because the owners of the trucks are the cooks. They are closer to the food. And they are first generation usually, so they cook better.

But, I always remember this restaurant in Novata, CA that used to be extremely popular with families. They had “pretty good” tacos, but the big draw was that their prices were the best for miles. Always packed.

Then, one night, somebody (maybe a homeless guy) looked in their dumpster and found piles of carcasses. Carcasses of dead cats and dogs. This eventually got reported to the police, who called in the health department. It turned out that the restaurant owners had some connection that picked up the dead animals at the various animal shelters/pound facilities in the SF Bay Area and brought them to the restaurant where the staff would butcher them. The families in ritzy Marin had been eating cat and dog tacos for nearly ten years.

The restaurant re-opened “under new management” but nobody went. It was a bit of a flap. Always surprised me that it never hit Saturday Night Live.

Posted by EllenJHunt | Report as abusive
 

A few years back, when I was working in NYC, I used to get felafel sandwiches from sidewalk carts pretty regularly. It certainly seemed to me that some of the best falafel in the city was at these carts, but this was not absolute: quality varied, and there were a few felafel joints in the city, mostly in Brooklyn, that were quite good. But the better carts gave better value, good food for cheap, because they have almost no overhead relative to a fixed restaurant. And yeah, the owner was usually also the cook, making food fast to order and in just his own way.

Posted by Moopheus | Report as abusive
 

I would be more concerned with your ability to pick taco restaurants.

Posted by pessimist2 | Report as abusive
 

“By and large, the taco is the best thing you’ll get off a truck, unless the truck has its own special thing.”

Breakfast burrito for me. It could be something about breaking my fast.

Posted by john_on_i10 | Report as abusive
 

You are hungrier when you eat at a truck … Food tastes better.

Posted by FDum | Report as abusive
 

You are hungrier when you eat at a truck … Food tastes better.

Posted by FDum | Report as abusive
 

I think it has more to do w/ smell (eg, half of what you taste is what you smell). In a restaurant, you’re usually far removed from the cooking process.

At a taco truck, you’re only a few feet away from the cooking al pastor.

Posted by tomolesnevich | Report as abusive
 

Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognition #1: I am a well-known and highly respected financial journalist.

Cognition #2: I’m getting my lunch from an effin truck.

Relief of Cognitive Disequilibrium: Mmmmm, these truck tacos taste so much better than the restaurant ones.

Posted by KeithOK | Report as abusive
 

Because the guy who cooks them and hands them to you is the guy you are giving your tips to, with no middleman (*cough* Mario Batali *cough*) to siphon off the direct incentive to put a smile on your face.

(Full disclosure: I live a few blocks from Izzoz and am a regular customer.)

Posted by melior | Report as abusive
 

Felix, you are such a funny and charming man.

Of course this age-old question will not get settled by you posting it on a blog. Why not set out to answer it for yourself by traveling to a few places known for food trucks and seeking an epiphany?

Los Angeles has been all excited about a mobile Korean taco truck for some time now. Portland is getting famous for its “pods” of trucks that soon may even serve wine and beer. And if you go to Albuquerque, you could write a whole article just by going around asking people, “I heard there used to be a truck called Dave’s Not Here, what’s that?”

Posted by SelenesMom | Report as abusive
 

The taste of a taco is inversely proportional to the distance between the grill and the mouth.

Posted by mfooz | Report as abusive
 

For me, the key is street-style tacos. Street tacos are so much better than tacos Americans typically eat. Fewer sit-down restaurants serve authentic, street-style tacos, but when I’ve found ones that do, they’re as good as from a truck.

Posted by NealCampbell | Report as abusive
 

Food trucks are cool particularly the ones with great recipes and organic ingredients. Finding good tacos can be hard but the way it is cooked and served is how it is redefined.

Posted by elpollorey | Report as abusive
 

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