The Street Vendor Blues
One of the best parts of wandering the streets of cities like New York and San Francisco is the jaw-dropping diversity of street food, an industry which has virtually exploded over the past decade. In addition to the regulars, New York now has the popular Schnitzel Truck and Sammy's Halal, while San Francisco has recently added the Magic Curry Cart and a newly popular Crème Brulee Man. Austin, too, is dotted with parking lots of food vendors, one of which was recently featured on Bobby Flay's Throwdown. Hell, even Mario Batalli has a mobile gelato stand these days.
But Houston doesn't have the hot dog sellers, pretzel guys, or mobile pho carts. No falafel trucks, jerk chicken stands, or kebab units. No late-night Italian sausages, barbecue, or arepas. [Sigh.] Street food is fast, convenient, affordable, and usually delicious. So why aren't there more sellers in Houston? Yes, we have the occasional bar-roving tamale hawker and an Indian unit or two, but where are the rest? Why can't we get a plate of perfectly steamed Pad Thai handed to us through the window of a truck?
Despite the city's strict regulations -- and the cost of meeting them - taco trucks have dominated Houston's street food scene. The mobile Mexican units have become popular, if not a bit trendy. Somehow, though, street vendors cause generally reasonable people to turn up their noses in disgust, consumed with the false assumptions that food carts are unsanitary and unregulated. Not true -- the city actually takes great pains to oversee cleanliness, making the inspections intimidatingly rigorous.
But are the regulations so strenuous that they deter would-be vendors? Most of the standards are a welcome way to ensure food safety, but some are annoying -- or downright ironic. Street vendors, for example, must be at least 100 feet from any seating area, yet must have notarized proof of a usable restroom within 500 feet. The tiniest of carts must have a massive vent hood. And vendors are never allowed to be on a sidewalk. Jason Jones of Haute Texan Tacos says that actually "the biggest problem is that there aren't really any decent pedestrian areas for street vendors in Houston." Jones, who recently put his truck up for sale, goes on to explain that a fire code which prevents propane-powered businesses from selling anywhere downtown or in the Medical Center takes away a street vendor's two largest pedestrian areas.
Other obstacles? Powerful restaurateurs don't want the competition from street vendors, consumers don't appreciate them, and city officials make it difficult to get questions answered and inspections scheduled. Sean Carroll of Melange Creperie says that "Anyone looking to start a mobile food service business in Houston should expect to be on the sidelines for six months at the very least." While he certainly didn't expect a new business to be a cinch, Carroll has been unpleasantly surprised by the associated cost and headaches. Vendor and inspection fees add up. Still, he has admirably run his business by the books, obtaining a costly single-event permit for every day he's been in business and working toward his full-time license, a process that has put his cart, process, and supplies through meticulous inspections. Carroll's cart is now certified sanitary and deliciously gourmet. And while the inspections have taken longer than anticipated, he expects to be fully functional in front of Mango's Café in the next week or two.
When asked to address Houston's street food dearth, Health Bureau Chief Patrick Key disagrees with the notion that Houston isn't street-food-friendly, pointing out that the city currently has about 1,000 licensed mobile units, most of them taco trucks. Other mobile carts, he says, "just haven't worked out here for whatever reason," citing the summer's heat and winter's chill as possible explanations. Key also points out that his team recently granted licenses to two new cupcake trailers and that "more and more of the brick-and-mortar restaurants around town are drawing up plans for mobile units as well." While that's a tempting idea, it's not quite the same as rooting for the little guy.
Unlike other major cities, Houston just hasn't been the warmest of climates for street vendors yet. What would it take to change that? Sean Carroll says, "They'd have to create a special zone or change the laws. It's just not in the cards currently." Our ethnic and economic extremes make the Bayou City an ideal setting for street meat -- yet our culture can't seem to support it. And that's a crying shame.