Fighting For Food Trucks

by Conor Friedersdorf

One of my favorite places to get a cocktail in LA is The Tasting Kitchen, where the whole bartending staff – and especially Justin – manage to make drink mixing into high art. Before ordering, there's a conversation about what exactly I tend to like, my mood that evening, and the homemade syrups and falernums they've recently concoted. Then they surprise me with some twist I've never had before. And so long as things aren't exceptionally busy, they're happy to explain the ingredients, how the drink is prepared, and why it tastes the way it does. If you're fascinated by the renaissance of the American cocktail, as I am, it's worth the premium you pay for a drink. And often you only need one.

The only downside to The Tasting Kitchen is its popularity. Its gotten a lot of attention lately in the national press, hence recent increases in price – it's the sort of place where I can afford to eat dinner once in a great while on a special occasion, but that isn't a viable food option if I just want a drink on a Thursday night. Of course, when you've finished your workday, ordered a cocktail, and chatted for an hour with your girlfriend and your favorite bartender, hunger happens. And lucky for me, the place is located on Abbot Kinney, which has recently become food truck central. Instead of paying $12 for some admittedly delicious wings, I can walk outside, survey the evening's offerings from three or four food trucks, and get twice as much food for $6 from an aspiring restranteur. And the fare is impressive: even Jonathan Gold, LA's answer to Frank Bruni, is on board.

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So everybody wins.

Except maybe The Tasting Kitchen, which misses out on an occasional appetizer order. Or maybe not. Maybe I'd go there less if there wasn't a nearby option for cheap, delicious food. I've told this anecdote partly to show that food trucks and brick and mortar establishments sometimes complement one another. In any case, it's a clear win for the consumer, for a lot of aspiring entrepreneurs, and for the cultural landscape of Los Angeles. So one of my pet causes is keeping the anti-food truck lobby from regulating them out of business.

Today I found out that the Institute For Justice, one of the advocacy non-profits whose work I most respect, intends to support food truck culture in a serious way, not especially in Los Angeles, but nationwide. They're starting in the Lone Star State:

El Paso, Texas, has recently made it illegal for mobile food vendors to operate within 1,000-feet of any restaurant, convenience store, or grocer.  The city even prohibits vendors from parking to await customers, which forces vendors to constantly drive around town until a customer successfully flags them down--and then be on the move again as soon as the customer walks away.

Thus, while people across the country embrace mobile vendors for the vitality and creativity they bring to a local restaurant scene, El Paso has decided to threaten vendors with thousands of dollars in fines and effectively run them out of town.  El Paso’s No-Vending Zone scheme is in place for one reason:  to protect brick-and-mortar restaurants from honest competition.  But economic protectionism is not a valid use of government power.

This issue strikes me as a promising one for a left-right alliance. You've got small entrepreneurs yearning to serve multicultural tacos and hot dogs with fancy mustard, avocado slices and arugula on them. And people like this to serve as the movement's face. Especially at a time when American jobs are less secure and permanent than ever, it seems to me that we need to let every aspiring entrepreneur thrive as best we can. And as I tried to explain in City Journal's last issue, that means ensuring our municipal laws fit the times.

The indispensable Ed Glaeser has more.