City Paper is not for tourists
Two lonely pupusa trucks are parked on an access road behind the Rite Aid on University Boulevard, just a few blocks from where they once thrived in a lively Langley Park neighborhood. I’m yammering away with Angel Ramirez, owner of Taqueria La Fiesta, about the difficulties of mobile vending in Prince George’s County when the object of his fear appears—a Prince George’s police officer. The lawman urges both trucks to leave before a second officer arrives, in about 15 minutes, to give them a ticket for illegal street vending.
That’s all the warming Ramirez needs. Both he and his sister, Reina Ramirez, owner of the neighboring La Miguelena truck, quickly break down their portable kitchens and beat a retreat. They’ve fought enough court battles over these $500 tickets to know they don’t need another. Reina Ramirez estimates she’s received a ticket a week since late November, when Prince George’s County began cracking down on the mobile pupusa and taco trucks in Langley Park. She even had her truck towed in April, which set her back another $450.
This crackdown, fueled by business and residential complaints, has killed off one of the tastiest, most intense food cultures in the entire metro area (“Gone With the Vend,” 5/12/2006). For years, police looked the other way as a dozen or more trucks lined the intersection at 14th Avenue and Merrimac Drive, illegally hawking horchata, tacos, and handmade pupusas hot off the griddle. These trucks were the closest thing you could get to the home cooking of El Salvador, where many of their customers came from. Now the trucks have scattered. One parked along New Hampshire Avenue recently had a “For Sale” sign in its window; others have
set up operation in Montgomery County, where street vending is legal. And some, like Angel and Reina Ramirez, have decided to play a cat-and-mouse game with police in hopes of staying alive in a county full of hungry Latinos.
These days, hunting down a good pork-and-cheese pupusa—or a decent Salvadoran-style taco stuffed with juicy carne asada—requires the tracking skills of a bloodhound. You’ll find pupusa trucks behind gas stations, hiding beside a tire store, or parked next to a barber shop. Some
of these trucks are Langley Park refugees—but many others were never gutsy (or perhaps foolish) enough to vend there in the first place.
La Frontera No. 2 is a ramshackle, rust-red truck parked along a lonely feeder road off New Hampshire Avenue near Fox Street. Its owner, Ana Ruth, speaks no English (and my Spanish sucks), but despite the language barrier, I determine that her truck used to do a brisk business among the Latinos who live in the apartments that line 14th and Merrimac. I’m Ruth’s only customer today, and it shows. Her carne taco is noticeably smaller than her competitors’, and it’s sprinkled with cilantro that has long ago lost its color and aroma. It seems as if Ruth has been forced to stretch her ingredients to the breaking point.
La Frontera No. 1, another Langley Park refugee, has no apparent relationship to Ruth’s truck. This shabby red-and-white vehicle, owned by Veronika Lopez and Adiel Reyes, presently cops a squat in the parking lot next to Tire Depot Express at 649 University Boulevard East in Montgomery County. The couple pays a monthly fee to the tire store for the spot, which only means more money out of pocket for Lopez and Reyes. It also means fewer customers. “It’s not fair,” says daughter Jocelyn Lopez about the forced exodus from Prince George’s County, “because my parents sell a lot more food in Prince George’s.” If the world were fair, they would be selling a lot more of their anything-goes beef taco, a messy, spicy collision of grilled carne asada, avocado, diced tomatoes and onions, hot peppers, radish slices, and cilantro.
With the demise of Prince George’s mobile vending culture, you’d think pupusa trucks would simply relocate to Montgomery County, where they can peddle their plates without worry. But it’s not that simple. Former Gaithersburg restaurateur Olga Reyes opened her Las Americas taqueria and pupuseria last year next to the Sunoco station at 8875 Piney Branch Road. She explains to me a few of the county’s many requirements: Owners must obtain a mobile vending license, their trucks must pass Health Department inspections four times a year, a certified food service manager must be on premise at all times, and each vehicle must have a stable “base of operations” that provides potable water, sewage, restrooms, and other services. The Sunoco serves as Reyes’ base, for which she pays a tidy $1,400 a month.
Montgomery County’s demands, no doubt, have weeded out some of Prince George’s more fly-by-night trucks, not to mention those merely cash-strapped operations. Reina Ramirez’s La Miguelena truck definitely falls into the latter category. She says she’s already fallen four months behind on her mortgage since the county’s crackdown last fall; shelling out more cash simply to sell in a less-inviting territory doesn’t appeal to her.
Yet the fact remains: Montgomery County is the new home of Latin street food, a title Prince George’s seemed only too happy to relinquish. Sabor Latino, located behind the Chevron at 8550 Piney Branch Road, sells one of the best tacos around—a dense, meaty number called the “mixto,” which combines finely chopped beef with diced lengua and just enough onions and cilantro to lighten things up. Those looking for a good pupusa should visit La Preferida, which is camped outside the Cut Creations barbershop at 6900 New Hampshire Ave.; the high-tech truck serves up a cheesy revuelta that packs a small-but-satisfying kick. But its cornmeal pancake pales in comparison to the one at Las Americas, where Olga Reyes’ plump creation conceals a rich, smoky filling of mozzarella and pork loin. If you can find a better pupusa around, I’ll buy it for you.
Prince George’s County Councilmember Will Campos, whose district includes Langley Park, says he has not given up his fight to entice those trucks back to the county. Two years ago, Campos attempted to create special vending zones within his district, but after failing to garner enough support, he withdrew the proposal. Campos’ fellow councilmembers felt it was bad policy to legalize mobile vending in only one area of the county. Yet Campos admits that the very subject is a “seriously controversial issue,” pitting influential businesses and residents against an ever-growing Latino community. People have told Campos, he says, that taking up the cause of these entrepreneurial curbside Latinos would be “political suicide.”
And yet Campos continues. He says it will take more time to bring together the warring parties, but it’s time that Reina Ramirez doesn’t have. Ever since that cop hassled Ramirez and her brother, her truck has been MIA at its old spot on University Boulevard, and I haven’t seen it elsewhere in the county. It would seem as if Ramirez has committed her own form of suicide—killing off her 10-year-old business.
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