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Aug 19, 2006 08:53 PM

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!