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Do you ever eat from a non-professional cook selling from the back of their van?

I may be risking food poisoning, but this middle-aged Chicana and her operation looked pretty clean and my curiosity about homecooked Mexican food got the better of me. And I had already eaten a Thai lunch.

Come what may, the food was very good. A big plate of "Barbecued" chicken in a pungent red chili paste with lots of dried bay leaves, penne in a creamy tomato sauce topped with a mound of dry cheese (cotijo?), a thin fiery tomatillo salsa and commercial corn tortillas. Everything tasted fresh and quite good.

She is a regular at this spot and told me that last week she had a shrimp/octopus/fish ceviche and tomorrow vegetarian quesadillas. I just happened to park behind her today!

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  1. Good chow can be found just about anywhere, so I never turn my nose up. Our favorite Mexican in LA was found at "taco trucks," which were exactly that: mobile trucks that parked to sell burritos, tacos and the like.

    1 Reply
    1. re: yumtothetum

      Yeah. Lots of times. Also unlicensed street vendors. Just use common sense like in a restaurant. If you notice things don't look so good, pass.

      IMO, licensed or not, some restuarants are riskier eating than some street vendors.

      The area I live in just sent out a newsletter saying they are cracking down on illegal food vendors who usually sell items like cooked corn, cotton candy, snow-cones (aka raspados), tamales and fruit.

      They urge to look for a visible health permit decal affixed to the cart. Otherwise to report the vendor.

      Right. Even though they give you a website to report the vendor pushing cotton candy, there's no clear place on the site to report it. Like I'm going to report my illegal food sources anyway .. I NEED my boiled corn, I tell you.

      At first I thought it might just be a greedy grab to collect fees for a license, which is why I checked out the website.

      However, they have programs in place to explain how to correctly to handle food to people of differenty ethnicities that don't speak English.

      My S/O is from Central America and as much as I love him, some of his food handling practices have me appalled. He will leave soup on the stove unrefrigerated for a week, for example. Yeah, I don't touch that, but it has loosened me up as far as some of the things that are or are not 'safe'.

      It just is the bad luck lottery to me. Doesn't matter if it is the home, restaurant (even the best of them) or street vendor. Something can always go wrong. Being perhaps overly cautious lessens the risk but doesn't eliminate it.

      And to add to the street food game, I now look for licenses. Surprising that even some REALLy small-time vendors WILL have a license.

      For me, I'm not going to pass up something delicious-looking not matter what the source. I've been eating safely for years. I guess if I ever get sick it would change my thinking. So far my number in the bad luck lottery hasn't been called.

    2. No doubt many people look on such vendors with trepidation.

      They have a right to their comfort zones, but I would miss many experiences (most of them good, all of them at least good for a dinner-table story) if I never ventured outside my own comfort zone just a little.

      I would have missed the best crabcake I ever ate (I can hear it now ... "Crab? Is he INSANE?"). I would have missed the best blue-cheese burger and good contenders for the best barbecue and the best pupusa. And, since I'm not any kind of a world traveler (sorry, Tony Bourdain) I would have missed eating fresh tacos, streetside, in a crowd of Hispanic working guys who were entirely too happy to be on their lunch break.

      Show me the next pupusa truck, or the next roadside slushie stand (I'll have the mango flavor, please) and if I ever do spend a day or two regretting what I ate, at least I'll have been a participant and not an onlooker.

      1. "Do you ever eat from a non-professional cook selling from the back of their van?" -- as often as possible would be the flip answer. And it's true. Some very delicious food is from the "Tamale Lady" or "The Taco Guys" or "The Crab Man" - unlicensed all. Why even Jim Leff writes a whole piece on "The Arepa Lady"!

        I drew the line at certain street food in some rather wild parts of the Phillipines, though. I couldn't communicate with the sellers and didn't feel comfortable enough to take a chance.

        Common sense must prevail in your decision. Make an informed choice and be prepared to ENJOY!

        1. Most definitely. Living and working the suburbs, I don't come across them often, but if I were to walk by a truck with someone selling papusa's, I would not even think it would be possible for me to walk by without buying one. When I watched Bourdain's old Cook's Tour show, I was so entranced by all of the open street vendors in the various countries. It seems like such an eaters paradise and I imagine it beats today's homogenized food court offerings.

          1. Of course!! I mean I've experienced wasting more money and time eating bad food at an established restaurant. There's risk everywhere, right.. It's all about the experience the food brings me. Food touches every sense and will strike something in me either way, sometimes bad but more often great. It's probably riskier eating at my in-laws, you know what I'm saying!

            1. Yeah.....once I was in Los Feliz and this dude was selling Tamales out of the trunk of his car.....my friend went to him before, so I just took the plunge....not bad...just home made stuff.

              1. For years I worked in mid-town NYC. There was a great food-stand called Robert and Elizabeth. They made the BEST steak, chicken, sausage subs, all made to order. Articles were written about how they put two kids through college from this truck and they were wonderful people. I would wait on line 30 minutes for one of their sandwiches and I would NEVER wait 30 minutes in a restaurant for a sandwich. Plenty of others in NYC come close to R&E.

                In suburban Ridgefield CT there is a hot dog guy who has the second best dog around (sorry i like super duper in ffd better).

                So put me in the caegory of yes with reservations, I am careful but will give it a try.

                1. Here in the US I eat from street vendors, carts, and trucks when I find a place that looks or smells good. A long line is usually a great indicator of good and safe food. In Bangkok the best food I had was from street hawkers. Absolutely fantastic stuff is to be had. You could tell at a glance whether the food was sanitary or not. In South America I took my chances a few times, it depended which area and what the food was. I got ceviche once where the fish were alive in a cooler and every half hour one was prepared. It doesn't get fresher than that and this guys stand was very clean and no fish smell. In most of Africa and all of India I wouldn't touch any steet food. Sanitation seemed to be unheard of.

                  1. I'm all for any type of street food, but I would just like to point out that taco trucks are licensed, like mini-restaurants, and are not really comparable, health-wise, to people selling food out of their cars, for example. They have sinks with hot water and the whole shebang in there.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Chowpatty

                      Where I live, some taco trucks are licensed, some aren't. Some have proper electric and water connections, some don't. Some are year around and some are seasonal. Some have put in covered ramadas and even restrooms. But I will try almost anyplace once.

                      And the best tamales I've ever had came out of a cooler in somebody's trunk.


                      1. re: Phoo D

                        Some of the best tamales i ever had were when a couple of young kids, maybe 9 and 11, came into a Mexican cinder block bar just outside Kelly AFB in San Antonio, selling them out of their cooler 3 for a buck. Apparently, their mom had just made them in their house nearby. Wow. Wow.

                    2. I used to buy my tamales from a guy in the supermarket parking lot. He was there after I came back from my evening bike rides. Dirt cheap, tasty and never a problem.

                      1. Gods yes. The best tamales in town are to be had from little old Mexican ladies selling them out of a cooler in a shopping cart.

                        1. I've been hestiant to post this because it might reveal exactly where I live, but one of the BEST things about my new neighborhood is our Tamale Lady that sells out of the back of her Minivan. It seriously was a joyous day in the Dommy household when we found her. Living on the westside, we've always moaned about the lack of street food available...

                          And then one night shortly after we moved in, I heard a horn. I jokingly told SO to go investigate because it might be a Tamale Guy. A few minutes later, he came running back in the house with a massive smile and a handful of Tamales and a Mayo Corn!! I let out such a squeal that the next door neighbors heard (And our units are NOT attached... LOL!!)

                          The Mayo corn was awful, but the Tamales, Green, Red and Mole were good (The green, the best of the bunch, will knock you on your @$$...) Then one Sunday morning, we heard the honk and they had come by with Birria!!! And it was AWESOME.

                          Like all street operations, you can get a sense on how the food is packed, handled and such to know if it's sketchy or not. This couple really takes care with their tamales and they are TOTALLY homemade (We talk them and I think scare them a little with our praise and gratitude, especially when it comes from SO, a 6 ft well built Irish guy... :))


                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Dommy

                            man, i wish i had some one bring roadside birria to my street

                          2. I wouldn't call these canteen trucks non-professional cooks. Most of these cooks that I've encountered are just as good as any restaurant you'll visit.

                            1. we always look for the trucks! havn't had a bad meal yet...from the MIT campus to Portland, OR and even outside a Colorado Rockies game there was a lady selling burritos out of a cooler...the best food local lovingly made food...no middleman!

                              1. Thanks, don't know why I was so squeamish this past weekend. Possibly because I had a very bad case of food poisoning at the first of the year from either a restaurant chicken mole burrito or all the cleaning products I inhaled before moving out of my Rockridge flat.

                                I forgot that the best bbq I ever had came from a guy with an oil drum cooker outside of an Oakland transient hotel at the outskirts of (but not affiliated with) a blues festival. Meat so tender, it was worthy of the gods!

                                1. I used to get steamed crabs from a truck on the Linden Blvd service road in Brooklyn. It was a mile down from Coney Island Joes. There was another cat that used to sell steamed shrimp off of the Int.280 W. entrance from Fish House Road in Jersey City. I think a hot dog truck took it's place.

                                  1. Some of the best grilled chicken I've ever had was from a decidedly unlicensed pickup truck parked by the side of the road in rural Portugal.

                                    The guy had a jumbo plastic trash can filled with raw, marinated whole chickens, ready to be grilled, and a bunch on the grill already. He was doing pretty brisk business, so I figured maybe it was safe. The grill itself was just a wire rack set up over coals in a halved oil drum. We bought a whole chicken (there was no other option!) and he cleavered it into pieces and handed it to us, wrapped in paper. Combined with a bottle of orange soda (from another plastic trash can), eaten sitting on the ground by the side of a river in the summer sun, it was heavenly -- mmmmm!!!

                                    Funny thing was, I got horrible food poisoning a week later from a seemingly ultra-clean seafood restaurant that had been highly recommended. Just goes to show...

                                    1. BEST tamales *I* ever had were bought from a niƱa in a gas station in pretty much the middle of nowhere about half way down the baja california peninsula. We did a little dance where we figured out whether or not I was asking if they were heated or spicy--the old picante vs caliente conundrum. Turns out they were both and yummy too.

                                      When I lived in Mexico for a month, the advice from my hosts was simple. Never eat from a place with nobody there and look for the places with a crowd. The Locals know what's okay and what isn't. Some of the best Carnitas I had there were in a place that was PACKED but looked like it had been an auto body shop the week before.