Around lunch time on a mid-October day on Des Moines’ east side, just past the gleaming and gold domes of the state Capitol building, a white truck stood in a parking lot of cracked and weathered concrete. Taqueria Jerez was inscribed in black letters on the side. The air smelled faintly of livestock and rendering meat in the industrial part of Grand Avenue.
At Taqueria Jerez, two-dollar corn tortilla tacos were made to order, filled with the classic asada, pastor, chorizo along with soft cuts of lengua, tripa, or cheek meat. Each taco was served by a woman in the truck with a light but impacting garnish and a choice of salsa. Across from the plastic benches in front of the Taqueria, the owner, Salvador, worked under the hood of his pickup truck.
Salvador and his family came to Des Moines from Chicago in 1993. He works for the city and has been running Taqueria Jerez on the streets of Des Moines for 20 years. There’s been a great deal of change in the two decades he’s spent parking his taco truck in different locations in the east Grand Avenue neighborhood. The downtown area in general has transformed drastically. “The Buildup” is the term Salvador used to describe the proliferation of new buildings and businesses in area since the turn of the century.
According to Salvador, his clientele is diverse. “I might not see you again for three or four years,” he said. But for the two decades that Taqueria Jerez has been open, it’s occupied different patches of cement in the span of a couple miles. This neighborhood — just a little north of the East Village area of the city’s downtown and extending out into the east side of the city — contains a particular density of Mexican and South American eateries and the densest Latinx population within the city.
Like many of the taco trucks around the city, Salvador’s serves a diverse base of customers, but in particular services members of this population in particular industries — 24.5 percent in manufacturing, 22.9 percent in service and food, 15.4 percent in education and healthcare — who live and work near his truck. He’s still serving the people who have always been eating at it.
In 2015, it became legal to operate a food truck in the downtown area of Des Moines. Overnight, the market that Salvador had operated in for 17 years had been altered. People still stop to eat buy his tacos, but not as many as before the law changed.
The first considerations of allowing food trucks to set up shop in metered parking spaces in the Des Moines downtown area came in early 2015, long after the food truck trend had proliferated in larger cities and true to the deep Midwest’s reputation for lagging behind the cultural moment. While many of the blocks in other towns and cities hosted ice cream trucks, the only food truck many of the residents of Des Moines and its suburbs saw was Schwan’s, which dispenses frozen meals.
For the most part, the food trucks that existed in Des Moines were taco trucks occupying sparse plots of real estate within Des Moines, but never the metered spaces of the downtown area, which kept them away from a dense area of insurance and finance corporations along with the people they employed.
The food critic Jonathan Gold remarked upon the proliferating variety of food being sold from trucks on the side of streets in an article for Smithsonian Magazine in 2012. It was a trend in food service that had been gaining in popularity in larger cities since the mid-aughts. Gold connected the trend back to its roots in Los Angeles, where taco trucks have long been plentiful and consistently delicious. He saw the general economic devastation of would-be restaurateurs and diners alike in 2008 as partly a catalyst for the food truck’s current trendiness. The food truck boom in the popular imagination drew upon a deep culture long cultivated in cities like Los Angeles and New York.
By the time Gold was commenting on the contemporary food scene’s new obsession, rooted in its working class legacy, the absence of of any food trucks within the downtown area of Des Moines was becoming glaring. As new luxury apartment housing, renovated lofts, and millions of dollars were poured into the revitalization of a downtown area that aspired to the cultivation of a “creative” class of professionals, it lacked this very visual signifier of urbanity.
On a Monday night made of freezing rain and soupy mist at the frigid end of February 2015, four City Council members stated their objections to a pilot program that would allow food trucks to operate in metered spaces around downtown Des Moines. These objections were raised in spite of the Iowa Restaurant Association’s approval of the plan, which would require a $225 permit. Prior to this, the only permits available for taco trucks like Taqueria Jerez — legally classified as “transient vendors” — cost $550, and a new permit had to be obtained for each location the truck parked. This new permit would be charged in addition to the traditional one.
One of the most prominent council members to object to the pilot program was Joe Gatto. Gatto is also the owner of Baratta’s, a local Italian restaurant with several locations in the downtown and south side area of Des Moines including one that offers lunch and catering services in the State Historical Society building.
He claimed that allowing food trucks to operate downtown would create unfair competition for businesses that serve lunch while also paying property taxes. He called the pilot program a “Pandora’s box free-for-all” and demanded that the food trucks only be able to operate outside of regular restaurant hours.
The council meeting occurred the same month that Des Moines Register columnist Daniel Finney called for Gatto to be voted out after evidence surfaced that the councilor used his influence to get out of a speeding ticket. Gatto remains a member of the council and was recently denied funds from a city-administered block grant to improve the south side Baratta’s location.
Other council members echoed Gatto’s general point that allowing food trucks into the downtown area would somehow rob traditional restaurants of a meaningful amount of revenue. They also opposed the trucks on “aesthetic grounds,” generalizing them as “unsightly transient merchants” while citing traditional restaurants as stabilizing forces.
Despite these protests, the pilot program was approved by the council and food trucks began to appear in the downtown area for the first time that summer. Gatto abstained from voting because of apparent conflicts of interest. As little as $900 in licensing fees alone would allow the food trucks to operate downtown.
Allowing food trucks downtown seemed destined to happen, not just to save Des Moines the embarrassment of lagging yet again in nationwide cultural trends, but because of the money that had already been spent preparing the trucks before the council’s approval. Zachary Mannheimer, then-executive director of the Des Moines Social Club — an arts and entertainment venue that serves as a critical waypoint in the ongoing revitalization of the downtown area — and now principal community planner for McClure Engineering Co., had already sunk thousands of dollars into food truck preparation.
In an op-ed published in the Register before the council’s final vote, Mannheimer advocated for the creation of “food truck zones” that would allow for the vendors to operate without any friction in designated areas. He acknowledged that Des Moines had several fine food trucks already, but argued it was a problem they weren’t allowed to operate downtown. The creation of new licensing fees and a limited allowance of the trucks throughout neighborhoods didn’t exactly seem to fit what he was advocating for, but it appeared to be the most that the council would allow.
Mannheimer also led the creation of a Des Moines food truck association with the grandiosely titled the Legion of Food. This legion was planned as an informal union for food trucks, but its website has expired and the organization now seems totally inactive. As conditions changed for food trucks and new attacks were levied, the vendors would be on their own.
The initial decision to allow a downtown food truck pilot program would not be the last time the vendors would come under scrutiny from the council. As the program was extended to officially allow food trucks to operate downtown, Gatto and the rest of the council shifted their focus to the food trucks operating outside of the area.
In May 2016, Gatto told the council there were problems with the food trucks that operated in the eastern and southern parts of the city. Claiming to represent the complaints of his constituents, Gatto reportedly claimed that “these people,” in reference to the food truck operators, “are open whenever. Their trucks are staying there [overnight]. Their garbage is everywhere in my alleys. It’s late at night, they’re using the alley to go to the bathroom in.” No evidence was presented by Gatto to support these claims.
The council went on, under Gatto’s charge, to propose stricter rules for food trucks operating outside of downtown. Under the proposed change, trucks like Taqueria Jerez would be forced to close at 10:30 p.m. instead of 1:30 a.m. and the owners of the property that’s rented out to the food trucks would face a $550 fee, essentially a penalty that would work to incentivize property owners to stop renting to them.
This was odd for several reasons, chiefly that many food trucks, like Salvador’s Taqueria Jerez, had operated in the same area for years without any issues. (Because Salvador works for the city, he adheres to strict rules of conduct for his business.) The new regulations would also specifically apply to food trucks outside of the downtown area that were almost exclusively run by Latinx food truck owners.
The food truck owners fought back immediately. At the following council meeting, Des Moines Latinx advocates led by Mary Campos of the city’s Civil and Human Rights Commission vigorously protested the new proposed regulations and successfully prompted the council into retreat. At the time, councilman-at-large Skip Moore defended the regulations by claiming it was a “misconception” that these proposed regulations were targeted at the Latinx community and that he hadn’t realized that so many of the food truck owners in this area were Latinx, a claim that seemed ignorant at best and disingenuous at worst.
The battle over regulating Latinx food truck owners was a local manifestation of a nationwide war — nominally centered around immigration policy, but also about to what extent Latinx people could be considered Americans and what their rights should be in general. A few months after the proposed ban was scrapped, Marco Gutierrez, the co-founder of Latinos for Trump, issued a warning to MSNBC viewers: “My culture is a very dominant culture, and it’s imposing and it’s causing problems. If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have taco trucks on every corner.”
East 14th Street, a long thoroughfare stretching across eastern Des Moines, is the major artery through the district Gatto represents. The southern portion of this road can be generally described as an auto mile filled with cars and trucks for sale by various dealers. Every mile or so you’ll see a truck advertising tacos, burritos, and tortas.
The flat concrete in front of a nondescript office building just off this road is occupied by Tacos Talpa, a white taco truck run by an middle aged man named Teodoro who spoke with a soft, lilting voice. The silver fillings in his mouth gleamed when he smiled. He hails from Guadalajara in central Mexico, but has lived in the United States for 40 years, 20 in California and another 20 in Iowa, where he came seeking a higher quality of life.
For years, Teodoro was a crane operator, a good construction job he had to leave when it became too hard on his aging body. He started Tacos Talpa with the help of his wife in 2017. Despite the startup costs and licensing fees, a taco truck is still an appealing way to make a living as a Mexican immigrant in America. Salvador, the owner of Taqueria Jerez, helped him navigate the regulations involved with getting the truck up and running.
Despite the council’s abandoned attempts at regulating taco trucks, new ones are showing up on the east side of Des Moines all the time. Trucks like Teodoro’s Tacos Talpa; Gorditas Las Tios, a unique truck that sells gorditas made of flour and corn just north of Tacos Talpa; and the long green bus located at the corner of East 14th and East University that advertises tacos, burritos, and tortas have all been started in the past year.
The growing trend of taco trucks in eastern Des Moines is happening while the food trucks that flocked to downtown in 2015 are leaving. In 2016, West Des Moines began the process of allowing food trucks to set up shop throughout the suburb. The rapid growth of craft breweries in the area and new drinking venues like The Hall that lack kitchens of their own have found the trucks to be a good way to provide food to their customers. The lack of the licensing fees food trucks have to pay to operate downtown and the built-in customer base at these businesses make the suburbs an undeniable draw. In 2017, 16 food trucks applied for the permits needed to operate downtown. By the end of April, only nine had applied this year.
The fluctuating food truck market and the push and pull between Des Moines and its suburbs stand in stark contrast to the steady growth of taco trucks on the east side. But even though taco trucks offer a stable and autonomous way to make a living for many people, it’s difficult work that requires long hours. Teodoro wants to retire soon, but still works six days a week and has generally made only enough to pay his bills.
“It’s just the way it is,” Teodoro said. He has hope though. In a country that has provided him with opportunity in its own limited way, his taco truck has given him further control of his future.