The taco-truck mystery

By Felix Salmon
March 13, 2012

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjS6nLsSVE0[/youtube]

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.

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