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January 5, 2011

Industry Standard: Insider info for those who dine out

My Louisville food industry wish

What would I like to see happen in the local restaurant industry this year? It’s a no-brainer: We need more street food options.

What is “street food”? It’s ready-to-eat food purchased from a street vendor, usually in a busy public space. Street food can come from a cart, a truck, a trailer or a stall. It’s fast, it’s cheap, it’s convenient. Done properly, it’s tasty and wholesome. Due to space constraints, it’s often highly specialized, allowing the vendor to concentrate on a handful of dishes executed repeatedly, and therefore to near-perfection every time.

What do we currently have? A few hot dog carts hang around downtown and near a couple of suburban home-supply marts. Las Gorditas, Pat and Esperanza Costas’ fabulous gordita trailer, parks at Eastland Shopping Center, Bardstown Road and Watterson Trail on weekends. Reinold Febles has made a stir recently with El Rumbon, his Cuban food trailer circulating biweekly between auto dealership parking lots around Oxmoor Center. A few others have come and gone, and I’m sure I’m leaving out lesser-known taquerías-on-wheels out Preston Highway and in Southern Indiana. But really, that’s about it. Why?

CNN recently named Portland, Ore., “World’s Best Street Food City 2010.” I have a feeling Anthony Bourdain might have a thing or two to say about that, but anyway: What do they have that we don’t? Vision. Years ago, Portland’s leaders decided to encourage the cultural and economic expansion that inevitably comes with the street food trade. They relaxed their interpretation of the food code. They lowered mobile food licensing fees. They amended regulations so food trucks and carts could fill entire parking lots (“pod lots”) downtown, often with common eating areas akin to a food court in a mall. The result has been astonishing.

“But wait,” some will say, “what about cleanliness? Sure, the dirty hippies in Portland might be fine eating dreadlock soup sold from the back of a pickup truck, but we don’t go for that around here. Harrumph.”

To that, I say, look at the success of the Bardstown Road and Beargrass farmers markets. How many of you love to go to the markets on Saturday mornings? You’ve had the omelets there. It’s the same basic principle. Good, wholesome food can be prepared safely, on site, and in a clean environment without being required to have a certain number of hood vents, a certain type of tile floor and four sinks. Did you know that if you want to license a food truck in Louisville, you’re required to have a plumbing plan designed by a master plumber?

It’s not only that the regulations are strict and prohibitive, they’re murky — some might even say opaque. Frankly, they are nearly impossible to even discover. Visit the Metro Louisville Department of Health and Wellness website and try to find out about mobile or food venue regulations. I dare you. Or, if you’re bored, call them up and ask about the regulations. Wait two days, call back, and ask a different person, and you’ll get a different answer.

Let’s get it together, people. Call, e-mail or write your Metro Council person and say we want the benefits that come from a vibrant local street food scene. Street food vendors hire workers and pay taxes and licensing fees, too. It doesn’t have to be this hard, and it’s the next logical step in consolidating our burgeoning status as a mecca for foodies. Come on, all you deregulation fans, free-market wonks and Rand Paul supporters — join us, the Louisville foodies, and demand sanity in our street-food licensing requirements and operating regulations.

Besides, why should the dirty hippies have all the fun?

Marsha Lynch has worked at many Louisville independent restaurants, including Limestone, Jack Fry’s, Jarfi’s, L&N Wine Bar and Bistro, and Café Lou Lou. She now works for her alma mater, Sullivan University, as sous chef at the Gardiner Point residence hall.