Written by Kon-Tiki Taco
This wholly American tale is about immigrants and the earlier-arrived, people sharing food traditions while others tinkered with concepts of mobility.
Where did the taco cart come from? It somewhat depends on who you ask, the chosen definition of a "taco cart" – and perhaps even whether or not you consider tamales a cousin of the taco. And keep in mind too that taco vending is a product of immigrant entrepreneurialism, the crossover of cuisine from the new culture to the established one – plus a mechanical invention.
What does this have to do with mobile taco cart catering of today? Everything.
Because it was tamales that were first sold by street vendors in the 1870s, with early Mexican and Chinese immigrants pushing carts by hand to sell their foods wherever they could find customers. There was pushback – not by taco caterers (who didn't exist then, unlike today) but by traditional restaurateurs and citizens who seemed threatened by the people and the cuisine. But attempts to regulate those vendors had an opposite effect of legitimizing and popularizing them – such that the product line shifted to tacos by the 1930s. The workforce expansion into war industries in the 1940s created massive factories, so of course "taco caterers" in the form of food carts and food trucks expanded with them to feed hungry workers.
The carts themselves reportedly date back to 1872, when a Providence, Rhode Island sandwich-and-coffee maker cut windows into a covered wagon. From those openings, he sold his products to workers at the local newspaper, people who worked round the clock and needed meals on a different schedule from that of restaurants. In nearby Worcester, Massachusetts a manufacturer started producing different models of what were then called "lunch wagons." They had a style that more modern taco catering companies and event producers could respect: A 1892 model came out fitted with silver carriage lamps, brass spittoons, fine mosaics and plate-glass mirrors.
Fast forward to 2008 – we're skipping the whole thing with Taco Bell teaching most of America what Mexican food sorta kinda by-some-stretch-of-the-imagination is – wqhen Los Angeles-based entrepreneurs came up with Korean-style meat fillings in traditional taco shells, selling them with the help of social media (i.e., an enviable Twitter following). The modern food truck – distinguished from a cart by having its own motor to turn the wheels; technically speaking, food carts are trailers pulled by something else – was born, and the whole occasion of eating out has been transformed.
What's interesting is that in each of these stages of mobile food purveyance development there was some resistance; but over time taco carts could not be stopped. That's what happens when something makes sense, tastes great, is insanely popular – and when it allows creative chefs to improvise and actively go out to find their markets. Only in America, folks.