Column: He’s the food royalty of LA. He started with a taco cart. Let the street vendors thrive

When I first met Walter Soto in 2019, the Mexican immigrant parked his El Ruso taco cart in an industrial section of Boyle Heights, where patrons were as likely to be homeless people as foodies.

His quasi-restaurant was tiny – about as big as a restaurant’s walk-in cooler – and there were days when Soto, a jovial, red-haired giant who looks more like a DRY football coach than he does. to a chef, wondered why he quit his job as a construction foreman.

But by dint of rush and heart, Soto has become gastronomic royalty in Los Angeles. He quickly moved on to a bigger trailer in a nicer part of Boyle Heights. His Sonoran tacos – think greasy carne asada, succulent chicharrones, frenzied salsas, all slipped into flaky flour tortillas as small as the palm of your hand or larger than a basketball hoop – have earned it. acclaim in local, national and international publications and television broadcasts. .

Last year it even landed a spot on the latest edition of the LA Times 101 List, our annual collection of Southern California’s best restaurants.

Now El Ruso (“The Russian”) consists of three taco trailers across Los Angeles. The mother ship is the Minnie Winnie-sized one that sits in a parking lot off Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake with benches, potted plants, and a small kitchen-desk. The latter’s layout is modest – framed posters that have yet to be hung, a toilet, and a massive desk with a money tree standing on it. But for Soto, it’s his American dream.

“Here I can write checks,” said the 43-year-old, seeing workers pat flour tortillas with their hands. He then waved to his 6-year-old daughter, Suri, who sat in her office chair as she watched Barbie videos on YouTube. “When it rains, my daughter can be in a warm room rather than in a tent. To be here on Sunset, well, it’s an honor. i feel greatchingon [badass]. “

I can’t think of a better recent example than Soto of someone who took to the streets to find success. That’s why I wanted to check in with him at the start of this new year, in light of a December month that saw California bureaucrats launch the latest campaign against one of their oldest enemies: street food.

In east Los Angeles, county workers painted the sidewalk of a stretch of Whittier Boulevard red for a few weeks to prevent taco trucks that had been parked there for years. In Anaheim, city officials have partnered with the Orange County Health Care Agency to crack down on taqueros, tamaleros, fruteros, and hotdogueros that have driven the food scene in my hometown for the past few years.

In San Francisco, this paragon of madness awakened, police officers fined unlicensed food vendors in Union Square. TV stations captured public officials carrying coolers of tamales in city trucks as if handling hazardous waste.

For more than 140 years, Golden State authorities have repeatedly cracked down on street vendors through laws, raids, and campaigns demonizing them as a public nuisance, making vendors come back stronger than ever. It’s like that classic Mad magazine cartoon, “Spy vs Spy,” with the only victims being the entrepreneurs who are unlucky enough to get caught.

And it doesn’t matter if you have all the necessary permits, as Soto always has.

“Even though I have them, [code enforcement] can come and confuse you, ”he said. “Sometimes their job is not done to improve society, but simply to ruin people’s livelihoods.”

He remembered the time when code enforcement confiscated a Latina’s stall with two little girls selling fruit on the street from its original location in El Ruso. “They threw perfectly good mangoes in the trash in front of people,” Soto said with disgust. “Why go after her? It is unacceptable to do that. Have a heart.

So, for 2022, I urge the city and county governments of California to let street vendors operate hassle-free once and for all. Forget about legalizing them – just let them do their job and let customers decide if they survive or shut down naturally.

I have never accepted any of the arguments opponents make against street food. Hygiene? As a former food critic who easily ate at over 1,000 restaurants in his career, I have only had food poisoning in high end places. Unfair competition in brick and mortar spots? As someone whose wife owns a restaurant, I know success comes more with those who oppose the competition than with the whiners. Unlicensed sellers don’t pay taxes? Lots of multi-billion dollar companies either – but I haven’t seen authorities break into Amazon warehouses and throw inventory in dumpsters when the company hasn’t paid federal taxes. in 2017 and 2018.

In addition, street food slingers like Soto are the ultimate story of the state’s wealth. Some of the most iconic culinary figures in Southern California history – Carl Karcher of Carl’s Jr., Roy Choi of Kogi Korean BBQ, the King Taco and Guelaguetza empires – started out with carts or trucks that polished society disapproved. No other story better combines our love of food, capitalism, urbanism, convenience and innovation.

Politicians will claim that it is easier than ever for people to sell street food.

In 2018, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Safe Sidewalk Vending Act, which was supposed to decriminalize street food, discourage municipalities from targeting vendors, and make it easier for them to emerge from the proverbial shadows. Soto praised this development and believes that his fellow sellers should operate in accordance with the law.

“I am in a country that is not mine,” he said. “So we have to understand that sometimes we can be offended if we don’t leave a place clean or if we don’t move somewhere without the permission of the companies around it.”

He then repeated a saying attributed to former Mexican President Benito Juárez: El respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz. Respect for the rights of others is peace.

But Soto went on to point out that it was nearly impossible for immigrants like him to get on the right side of the law because of the costs.

The first small trailer I can remember cost $ 35,000, and he bought a pickup truck for $ 15,000 to tow it. Currently, the going rate for a new taco truck is $ 130,000. The only LA County licensed legal tamale cart currently costs $ 7,500 – an absurd amount few people will pay when they can make tamales at home, put them in a jar, and sell them in the trunk of their own. car.

And then come the many permits and fees required by municipalities.

“If people are selling without a license, it’s not like they’re doing it to willfully break the law,” Soto said. “Everyone has their reasons.”

I walked out of Soto’s office to place my order for chorizo ​​tacos and a dozen flour tortillas to go. Before the door closed, Soto offered a final thought.

put on Arellano, I needed a lot of strength to do it, ”he said. “Anyone who does this needs strength as well. They just want to make a living. To those who want to criticize street vendors, have a heart.