On a Monday night in late September, it is pouring rain, the early overflow of Hurricane Joaquin. But inside a steel truck in the Fitch Lumber & Hardware Parking lot in Carrboro, you can’t hear a single drop, only the hiss of corn tortillas sizzling on the stove and the soft banter in Spanish between Roberto Villa, his wife, Fide Luna, and their younger cashier, Janeth Araiza. The only water in the air is the steam rising from the black stovetop. The smells of fresh tortillas, grilled vegetables and savory meat fill up the small space.
It’s dark outside, but the inside of the truck is shiny and bright from fluorescent lights on the ceiling that reflect silver steel floors and silver cooking appliances, lights that shine outside the truck and blind you if you stare for too long and make the dark puddles in the parking lot a blacktop glow. And even though it’s after 10 p.m., there has still been a slow trickle of customers, between the on-and-off bouts of heavy rain.
On any given night, there are at least two taco trucks to choose from for anyone in downtown Carrboro seeking fresh Mexican fare for a few dollars. Villa’s truck comprises just part of a growing Carrboro food scene that makes the downtown streets a little brighter.
Street vending has been a phenomenon in the United States since colonial times, and mobile kitchens have been in demand since Texas chuckwagons followed the hungry cowboys of the early 1800s. Chuckwagons evolved into pushcarts, then into the trucks of today in the 1960s, serving lunch to construction workers and urbanites on the streets.
Kathleen Dunn, an urban studies researcher at Loyola University of Chicago, said street vending was traditionally done by first-generation immigrants in larger cities.
Dunn said the 2008 economic recession caused people who might have become restaurant owners to become food truck owners instead.
“You start to get a whole array of people doing things the working class has been doing,” she said.
Some gourmet food trucks have gained meteoric popularity, such as Kogi BBQ, a Korean BBQ truck in Los Angeles that gained national acclaim and prominence in 2008. Ripples from this wave have been seen as far away as all over the Triangle, with brightly-painted trucks with social media-savvy owners peddling crepes, hot sandwiches and Asian fusion cuisine. They cluster at music festivals, at sorority-sponsored fundraisers and at “rodeos” on UNC’s campus.
But the trucks that line Carrboro’s streets after dark are a different breed. They’re simpler, more traditional, and they have largely kept their roots, steering away from the artsier, more gourmet trend growing rapidly in the food truck market. These trucks maintain a humble appearance, adorned by Sharpie-edited menus, laminated photographs of food and the occasional red-and-blue LED sign announcing TACOS.
English is not many of the chefs’ first language, though some speak it fluently and eagerly. Latín Grill regularly updates its Facebook page with new offerings, like melon horchata and free hot chocolate the first week of October. But most of these trucks don’t have an online presence, or even a name. Extensive marketing and branding aren’t often necessary with their large, diverse customer base of college students, second-shift workers, older couples and young parents with a child riding on their shoulders who learn about the trucks simply by sight or word of mouth.
That’s how Araiza, a senior at Meredith College in Raleigh, found her job as a cashier, she said — through a friend who worked with Villa’s brother.
“I like it, because I like food, obviously,” she said, laughing.
Roberto Villa is Roberto Villa Cazares in Mexico, where the common practice is to keep both the surnames, or apellidos, of both one’s father and mother, in that order. He came to the United States first on business for the Mexican Army, which he served in from 1993 to 1998. He was stationed in California and decided to stay, because, like thousands of other Mexican immigrants, he had something there he wouldn’t have been able to get in Mexico — a job.
He made $5 per hour working in an auto parts factory, but heard he could make $8 working in North Carolina, so he moved in 2000. Then, he became the owner of a restaurant in Mebane, also called Latín Grill.
Inspired by the many food trucks he’d seen on the streets of California, Villa decided to open his own in Carrboro in 2002. The restaurant, he said, mainly served platillos, or dishes, because that was what customers wanted, and he wanted to focus on what he felt he did best — tacos.
He purchased his first truck, which was equipped with a partial kitchen, from a seller in Ohio. He drove there with a friend and drove the eight hours back alone in the truck. The whole trip took a day and a night, he said.
El Centro Hispano, a Durham-based nonprofit serving the Latino community, taught him how to manage his business.
“I took business classes, business classes on restaurants and bookkeeping,” Villa said in Spanish.
Being the owner of both the truck and restaurant added up to a busy schedule. As the stress built up, Villa decided it wasn’t worth it.
“It was a lot of money, to pay employees, to pay other workers,” Villa said. “I didn’t like it. A lot of pressure, a lot of work.”
Villa likes working in the truck, where he is one-third of the staff, much better.
“Something like this is very small,” he said. “It’s easier…less busy, less stress. You don’t think as much.”
The restaurant closed in 2009, though Villa and Luna continue to work at Costa Azul, a Honduran and Mexican restaurant in Durham, during the days.
Owning a taco truck has its advantages.
“It’s a very small business, so it is easier to keep serving healthier, fresher food,” Villa said.
Having several food trucks on the streets on weekend nights might seem to add up to a lot of competition, but there’s also a demand. Roberto Garcia, who owns a truck that parks next to Wings over Chapel Hill on Carrboro’s Main Street, said that’s why his family, which has been in the taco truck business for 26 years, decided to come from Houston in 2004 to operate trucks in Durham and Greensboro, and then in Carrboro in 2011.
“In Houston, there’s a lot of competition, extreme, extreme competition,” Garcia said. “Back in 2000, the Hispanic community (here) was big, but there wasn’t as much food.”
It’s a profitable business also, Villa said. His truck is cash-only, like 72 percent of all food trucks, according to research by Mashable’s Stephanie Buck, and like most of Carrboro’s trucks. But that doesn’t seem to deter customers. Villa said he makes more money with the truck than he did at the original Latín Grill. It’s also a good deal for his customers, a large portion of whom are college students, he said.
“We help people,” he said. “The food is not very expensive, and the customers like it, they like it because with five dollars, they eat well. This is good for their budget, because students don’t have a lot of money, and they look for something cheap and good.”
Five dollars or less goes a long way at Latín Grill — customers can buy a pupusa filled with refried beans, seasoned pork and cheese, or a torta, a grilled sandwich with meat and vegetables. There’s also an array of taco and burrito selections, both the expected ones — steak, chicken, pork — and the ones not available at Taco Bell or Chipotle, like lengua — cow tongue. A truck down the street offers pork stomach, or buche. There’s also elote, a popular Mexican street food — corn on the cob on a stick, rolled in sour cream, butter and mayonnaise and speckled with orange chili powder and other spices, and horchata, a traditional Mexican drink made from rice and sweetened with cinnamon, in Styrofoam cups.
The cups are stacked, laid horizontally and stored on a shelf near the truck’s ceiling, which are nearly spilling over with other supplies — Styrofoam plates, rolls of aluminum foil, spoons in blue cardboard boxes and forks in red ones.
The meat is stored in refrigerated drawers below the counter, which has square silver cubicles on top for the vegetables — peppers, onions, lettuce — not unlike a Subway counter.
With its gleaming surfaces, the truck’s interior completely contradicts the “roach coach” stereotype. The state of North Carolina now requires food trucks to pass health inspections, just like brick-and-mortar restaurants, and post their latest health inspection grades in the window. Latín Grill has a grade of 96.5.
On another night — any night, really, when Villa and his staff are running their truck — steak is sizzling on the stovetop, and Villa pours a steaming scoop into a folded tortilla he holds in his other hand, then adds lettuce and onions and places the completed taco on a Styrofoam plate. He reaches over and grabs another tortilla to fill with a different kind of meat while Luna continues flipping. Both Villa and Luna are no taller than 5-foot-5 and seem to fit well in the scaled-down kitchen.
With his heavy brow under the brim of his baseball cap and his succinct speech, Villa projects a serious image in the kitchen. His motions flow efficiently, wasting no time as he moves around the little kitchen between the tasks he knows so well.
He runs his business efficiently as well. On days the truck operates, he takes cooked meat he has prepared during his day working at Costa Azul, freezes it and reheats it for customers that same night.
The meat comes from Cliff’s Meat Market on Carrboro’s West Main Street, a three-minute walk straight down the street from where Villa parks his truck. The vegetables come from a distributor called Cisco, and he purchases the rest of the ingredients from Sam’s Club or small Hispanic tiendas.
Villa’s businesslike manner dissolves when he talks about Mexico. He spent two years back at his family’s home there, from 2009 to 2011, visiting his family on their ranch in the state of Puebla.
“There is more freedom,” he said of Mexico. “You live calmer… there, on our ranch, you don’t have to pay rent, you don’t have to pay for water, you don’t pay bills and you live beautifully.”
He spreads his arms wide.
“The air is free.”
The air in Puebla isn’t contaminated with smog, like in southern California. But after he retired from the Mexican Army, Villa chose to stay in the United States where he was stationed because he knew he wouldn’t be able to find a job in Mexico to support his family.
Villa said he enjoys cooking and bringing Mexican flavor to Carrboro.
“Mexican food is very flavorful,” he said. “It’s an art.”
A love of cooking led Elvira Martinez to open a truck in Carrboro as well. Martinez and her husband, Eladeo Callatano, own another truck named Latín Grill, which occupies the same parking lot as Villa’s truck Thursday through Sunday night, per an arrangement they worked out.
“I love it; I love it,” Martinez said in Spanish, her warm smile reaching her eyes. She is standing in the parking lot, chatting with two friends, an older Latino couple, while her three female employees cook and serve inside the truck. “We like it, and we thought it would be good for the family, also.”
With this business, Martinez can spend more time with her two sons. She echoed Villa’s statement that managing a mobile restaurant is a lot of responsibility.
“It’s not easy to have a business,” Martinez said. “But the people come, they come.”
UNC senior Alli Clayton and her husband, who is Latino, frequent Carrboro’s taco trucks. Clayton said Villa’s is their favorite.
“It’s something that we really support,” she said. “It’s one of the closest things you can get to authentic — sometimes you really just want a taste of Mexico, or El Salvador.”
She said they especially love chatting with the other people in the parking lots, and with the cooks, most of whom have Mexican roots. She said her husband, who is from Chile, has learned more about Mexican culture here in the States than in his home country.
“That’s always a treat,” she said. “We’re always getting tacos. You just never get tired of it at all.”
She said she’s seen the trucks grow in number in the past few years, and that they’re always discovering new ones. On any night, there are usually at least two trucks to choose from, and more on the weekends, for fresh Latino fare.
One of the newest is Tacos El Niño, painted in bright red and green, spent its first night in a lot on South Merritt Mill Street on Cinco de Mayo of 2015.
Villa said he likes serving the community of Carrboro — there’s not a lot of racism, and there’s also the warmth of a large Hispanic community.
“The people that live in Carrboro are good people,” he said.
According to the 2010 census, Carrboro was 13.8 percent Hispanic or Latino, compared with North Carolina’s 8.4 percent. Marcos Luna, who said he opened a truck further down the street in 2001, said he decided to open his truck because he noticed a growth in the population.
Villa said the town’s music-related events and other festivals help him get more business as well, bringing more people on the streets, and he also has participated in the cultural festivals El Centro Hispano hosts.
Carrboro Board of Aldermen member Bethany Chaney said Carrboro’s openness is helpful to food trucks, in terms of trucks being welcome both at events and in parking lots.
“We actually have some property owners that are willing to have trucks park in their parking lots at night, when they’re not using them,” Chaney said. “When you have open, private parking, it certainly makes it convenient. I don’t think Chapel Hill has that with Franklin and Rosemary Street.”
Chapel Hill only has one food truck on its streets — the Sutton’s Food Truck next to the bar Pantana Bob’s. However, Chaney said Chapel Hill’s neighborhoods, including Southern Village, are inviting to food trucks.
“I think the food truck movement is growing in general, and they’re going to events, not just sitting on a street corner,” she said. “It can be that your favorite truck may not be there because they’re at the Haw River Ballroom.”
But Carrboro has a natural market for food trucks, anyway, Chaney said.
“Clearly there are a lot of night owls in Carrboro, folks that are getting off second shifts and such,” she said.
On another night, a clear night, four cars sit in a row on the side of the parking lot, their windows fogged up from the humidity. Three dark-haired girls count coins in their hands under the light of someone’s iPhone flashlight, speaking softly to each other in Spanish. The Ordones cousins, Suzy, Claudia and Sylvia, haven’t gone to this truck before; they usually go to one closer to Franklin Street, they said.
Inside the truck, Villa wears a black ACC baseball cap; Luna an olive green bandana.
“Can I get a steak burrito?” someone else asks at the window.
Villa scrapes a tortilla off the stovetop with a silver spatula. He folds it with one hand and scoops steaming meat, cold lettuce, refried beans and cheese into the pocket.
This time of night, after 10pm, is slower, he said. Wednesday nights are the busiest; Mondays the least. He doesn’t know why. The windows are open tonight, and the night breeze is fresh, calming, but this kitchen is anything but sleepy, filled with clanking metal and laughter.
Luna is leaning out the front window, wide-eyed and laughing, talking with another customer, a tall, younger man speaking Spanish with a neat beard and dark hair tied in a knot.
A few minutes later, Araiza passes a stack of three plates wrapped in aluminum foil through the truck’s window, and one girl stands on her tiptoes to receive it.