Like any proud cook, Iris Cardona gets a thrill when people tell her they like her food.
Sometimes that praise comes in Spanish, sometimes in English. Other times it’s just a big thumbs-up from someone scarfing down tacos on the run.
Iris and her sister Floriselda operate a taco truck called Taqueria el Paraiso, which resides in the parking lot of a gas station at North Broad and Toulouse streets in Mid-City. They make tacos and burritos and baleadas, the bean- and egg-stuffed tortillas of their native Honduras.
“I cook for the people,” said Cardona, while forming masa into fresh tortillas by hand. “And when they tell me they love it, it makes me feel so happy.”
There was a time when taco trucks like Taqueria el Paraiso were unknown in New Orleans, and the nuances of their carnitas or al pastor-style pork, their asada or barbacoa, were foreign.
That time ended abruptly after Hurricane Katrina struck, 13 years ago this week.
In the years since, the numbers of trucks have fluctuated, and individual operators have come and gone. But today, the taco truck is a fixture of New Orleans food. They have greatly boosted the prospects for street food around the city, and they provide a tangible link to the changes brought by Katrina that continue to unfold here.
It all arrives wrapped in tortillas with a sprinkling of cilantro and onion, squirts of incendiary salsa verde and a smattering of Spanglish.
Hot meals in dark days
The Latino workers who rapidly arrived in New Orleans after Katrina carried the city’s early recovery on their backs. Taco trucks followed on their heels, providing worksite meals and a taste of home in what was then a strange, broken, sometimes hostile new land.
Taco trucks became a symbol of the area’s sudden demographic shift, and against the backdrop of Katrina’s convulsive trauma, that shift was not always welcomed. In 2007, Jefferson Parish officials outlawed taco trucks and swiftly cleared them out of the suburbs.
But in the city itself, the trucks have had a different trajectory. Like the workers they followed, many of the truck operators eventually departed, off to the next disaster zone or back to wherever they called home. But some made New Orleans their home, and along the way, the trucks gave New Orleans a taste of its own future.
The metro area’s Latino population doubled in the years after Katrina, accounting for 9 percent of the population by 2017, according to the Data Center, a New Orleans-based research group.
The impact on New Orleans food registers in more Latin American groceries, an expanding diversity of Latin American restaurants and a growing local fluency in their flavors. Taco trucks are part of this landscape.
Food trucks of a much great variety exploded in popularity around New Orleans in the post-Katrina years, serving everything from straight-up grilled cheese to deconstructed Creole soul. They have spread their range from spots outside Uptown bars and downtown hospitals to festivals and fundraisers.
The traditional taco truck, meanwhile, has been working its way into the mainstream. Many now have Louisiana license plates, and their operators display vendor permits from city hall. Some pay rent for their semi-permanent parking lot spots.
Their customer base has expanded to include every walk of New Orleans life. It turns out the appeal of quick, inexpensive, handmade street food extends to craftsmen on the job, almost-broke college kids, harried moms in a rush and white-collar professionals with a craving between appointments.
More than tacos
“Taco trucks,” or loncheras, serve more than tacos. Most list miniature taqueria menus, with burritos, tostadas and tortas, those gloriously messy sandwiches of smashed beans, chopped meats, avocado and crema and cheese on griddled loaves.
Over the years, their offerings have expanded and diversified. Some specialize in particular items based on a cook’s ability, nationality or customer demand.
One common weekend special is soup, served up in voluminous foam quarts, like the hangover-vanquishing menudo at Taqueria DF (for Distrito Federal, a name for Mexico City). This trailer has been parked in front of a laundry on South Claiborne Avenue (at Eagle Street) for so long it counts as a permanent eatery for a Hollygrove neighborhood with few conventional restaurants.
Many serve full plate lunches. See the tray of cheese-capped enchiladas with rice and beans at the Taqueria Sanchez truck, parked on the edge of Central City, under a great concrete swoop of the Crescent City Connection overpass high above.
The Taqueria Sanchez truck shares this rutted spot with another lonchera called Kitchen Cruise. With its English name and the images of Mardi Gras beads emblazoned along its flank, it looks like a NOLA-Mex hybrid. But this one still serves the traditional taco truck menu, and its gorditas, made on thick, toasty-crisp tortillas, are a specialty.
These two trucks both face a Home Depot just across Earhart Boulevard in Central City. Such stores have been the unofficial anchors for taco trucks since their arrival in New Orleans. The Lowe's across town on Elysian Fields Avenue is another example, with a band of trucks spread around its dusty periphery.
One is Taqueria Las Delicias, a trailer painted the color of a watermelon rind and parked between a canal and the city's old rock crusher yard.
Guys clad in safety-yellow vests unpack five or six at a time from crew cab trucks, and job site foremen in golf shirts pick up huge bundled orders to go. Some come for the tripitas (tripe, crunchy and strong-flavored) or the buche (pig stomach, chewy with a subtle sour flavor).
All the tacos come generously heaped with fresh cilantro and grilled onions, making the carnitas (grilled bits of pork) and al pastor (sliced pork mixed with pineapple) standout renditions.
A moveable street feast
The trucks’ locations have shifted as the city has changed, along with their role in it.
The trailer Taqueria los Poblanos, for instance, once staked out a spot near a Home Depot that cropped up in Mid-City in the early rebuilding years. After that store closed, Taqueria los Poblanos found a new berth about 2 miles away on South Broad Street (at Canal Street). Here, the little trailer functions as a walk-up food stand for the busy public transit routes that converge nearby. A specialty at Taqueria los Poblanos are sopes, formed to order like little palm-sized pies of masa with an outer lip to hold in a tower of toppings.
Back at Taqueria el Paraiso, the Cardona sisters regularly run specials. One day it might be mole, on another it could be grilled shrimp tacos with fresh mango or pineapple mixed in for sweet, juicy bursts inside those handmade tortillas.
Iris Cardona left her home in Honduras because of its dire economy and rampant violence. She came to New Orleans because some relatives had emigrated here earlier. Since then, she’s found much to love in her new home.
“It’s the people here, and the music, the festivals, the jazz,” she said, while grilling eggs for the next baleada. “New Orleans has so much.”
New Orleans now has taco trucks too.
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