A Portable Feast

In the world of the lunchero, the food is hot, the drinks are cold, and the turf wars are downright dangerous

The day begins early at Hialeah Distributors. The sun has risen a half-hour ago, casting the sky in pastels, while the breeze below smells of cinnamon and fried chicken and rot. The men gathered in the parking lot are luncheros. They drive the lunch trucks known affectionately as "roach coaches," more than 30 of which are currently lined up along the warehouse's façade. The dull oceanic drone of engines accelerating and decelerating fills the air and mingles with the sound of dogs yapping from nearby kennels.

The clay-color warehouse extends east to west along the length of the block, forming an assembly line of suppliers to serve these mobile restaurateurs. The drivers carry gray plastic trays of ice to be dumped into the storage holds of their trucks, which already are packed with soft drinks, juices, and milk. A lunchero grabs at prepackaged sandwiches from a four-tiered cart on wheels. His fingers express an odd mixture of grace and carelessness, like the legs of a tipsy ballerina. Onto the rear oven shelves of his vehicle he tosses chicken croquettes, breakfast tortillas bursting with bacon strips, and medianoche sandwiches bathed in garlic.

Other drivers stock up on candy bars, cupcakes, and chips. Some stop at the next outlet along the row of businesses supplying luncheros, Mis-Postres Bakery, for flan, arroz con leche, and pasteles de guayaba, or continue east, entering Los Viñalesos Catering, where 130 different kinds of sandwiches await. At the eastern end of the warehouse building is G.A. Catering Repair and Sales, specializing in the repair of the road-battered coaches.

Here in the lunchero capital of the world, the morning bullshit session occurs exclusively in Spanish, and the tenor of the talk is machista. Selin Aguada, who has been driving a lunch truck for nearly half his 36 years, pulls up alongside three compadres. Aguada's blue-green eyes are set off by his skin, which shows the leathery effects of many days spent outdoors. His hair is brown, combed back, and neatly trimmed. He wears gray shorts and a short-sleeve work shirt with his first name stitched over the heart. Aguada swings down from his truck to exchange gruff pleasantries. One of his fellow drivers produces snapshots from a recent trip to Cuba: two nude and seminude island prostitutes. The packet of pictures travels from hand to hand as Aguada and his friends rate the girls. The photos finally disappear back into a white envelope, and the banter begins to die down as the men make their final preparations before heading out.

Aguada pats down the ice in the side compartment of his truck. Using a damp rag, he wipes the Plexiglas oven windows and steel countertops. A few yards away, the outbreak of a minor argument disturbs the feel of communal labor. A heavy-set driver with a crew cut tells another about a new stop he is investigating. The other, taller and wearing an identical haircut, claims a prior association with the company that owns the site. "Cabrón, I better not find you there!" yells the departing driver.

"Now you're seeing how luncheros fight," Aguada notes.

His tone is light, but life as a lunchero is no joke. The hours are long, the work is arduous, and the competition brutal. With an increasing number of trucks vying for customers, turf wars are a fact of life, as are robberies. Here on the fringes of the food-and-beverage industry, life has something of a frontier quality: unregulated, wild, self-made. And it's this edge, along with the promise of untold (and untaxed) riches, that draws men like Aguada into the fold. "It's a lot of work, but you're your own boss and you live all right," he says, swinging into the cab and firing up his roach coach.

There are two basic types of roach coaches. California-style trucks, named for the state in which they initially flourished, consist of a pickup truck whose bed has been fitted with a special shell, usually covered with a shiny skin of quilted aluminum, which stores prepared food. The second variety are larger, UPS-type trucks or converted buses, equipped with full kitchens.

According to state figures, 430 licensed California coaches and about 200 other modified food-vending vehicles are on the road in Miami-Dade County. Add hot dog carts and ice cream trucks to the list, and the number of food-on-wheels operations more than doubles. But providing a more precise estimate of mobile food vendors is impossible, because hundreds skirt state health inspectors and yearly licensing fees.

While the State of Florida has three departments overseeing mobile food units, it does not have the manpower to keep tabs on every entrepreneurial genius who decides the trunk of his Toyota was specifically designed to house an eatery. Trucks can go anywhere their drivers take them, so inspectors must rely on legal operators ratting out illegal ones, or wait for the rare complaint from a patron before attempting to track down an offender. The state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has only twenty inspectors overseeing hundreds of California trucks in Miami-Dade County, not to mention the dozens of commissaries from which they buy food.

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