| Photo by Mark Jones |
When I first heard there was a place where taco trucks go to get inspected, I hoped for a warehouse hidden on the West Side where men and women wear lab coats and sunglasses, and hold clipboards and blowtorches while smoking cigarettes. It would be a place not unlike David Hasselhoff’s secret KITT garage.
I braced myself for something slightly less exciting than this scenario. If not a Knight Rider warehouse, then perhaps there was a chance it might be like a foreign port o’ call where sailors come to settle various business dealings and discuss the arcana of the trade before heading out to sea. I’m still not sure why I hoped for any of this, especially the blowtorches, but the idea seemed too good to be true. On Monday I would find out. I had an appointment to speak with Amanda Wilson, the senior sanitarian of the Food Sanitation Division of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.
I met Wilson at Taco Truck Inspection HQ, also known as the Development and Business Services Center, a large building hidden in plain sight at the corner of South Alamo and Flores. I made my way through the front desk and found a cadre of sanitarians in the back at their desks going through paperwork and making phone calls.
Wilson sat down with me and went through an impressive list of paperwork that detailed all the rules, regulations, and guidelines governing “kitchens on wheels,” aka taco trucks. There are guidelines for other types of mobile vendors too, such as “corn roasters,” “foot peddlers,” “shrimp vendors,” and “sausage pushcarts,” but I stuck to the “kitchens on wheels,” the big boys.
I’m not saying the trucks’ food is going to be perfectly safe by any stretch, but there is a system in place. Here is a cross-section of some of the many regulations: All vendors must undergo an FBI background check. The truck must have a stainless-steel three-compartment sink for cleaning. The truck must have a minimum 25-gallon freshwater tank. I could further enumerate the details of Article IX of the Mobile Vending Code but I hope the point is clear.
A few of the non-health-related codes surprised me. Taco trucks can’t operate within 300 feet of a licensed food establishment, set up tables and chairs outside their truck, or play music while parked. These rules seem geared to keep taco trucks from competing directly with restaurants … the cowards. I joke, I joke…
As the interview concluded, I asked Wilson if any trucks were going to be inspected that day. I prepared to be blindfolded and led to a secret location in the back but quickly accepted the fact that the inspections are actually done in the parking lot in plain sight.
A wave of taco-truck vendors came in for inspection, and I shadowed two sanitarians, Lori Calzoncit and Jerry Treviño, as they efficiently went about their work. The first truck they inspected was named Froggy’s. I was curious if they were doing something new, like frog legs or frog tacos, but “Froggy’s” was just the name. Roger Casias, the vendor, passed with no violations. I asked if he was going to set up for Fiesta but he told me he had picked a spot near Kelly at Whitewood and Medina to establish himself. He was new to the taco-truck business and full of the sort of positive energy that precedes a new challenge. Listening to him talk about the potential of his southwest location reinforced the fluid nature of taco trucks. Like the wind, they flow from areas of high pressure to low pressure, creating their own taco homeostasis.
Happily, almost all the vendors came prepared to pass inspection, and the few that did not only had very minor changes that needed to be made.
A system is in place and it seems to work. An added bonus came when I learned of a well-guarded location where taco trucks are known to congregate before beginning the night’s work. Was this the “port o’ call” I had imagined?
To be continued.