Food & Drink

How One of LA’s Most Iconic Food Trucks Is Surviving the COVID Era

The owner of shrimp taco/ceviche specialist, Mariscos Jalisco, in Boyle Heights tells us how he’s getting by during the shutdown.

ceviche
Mariscos Jalisco | T.Tseng / flickr
Mariscos Jalisco | T.Tseng / flickr
Raul Ortega is the chef and owner of Mariscos Jalisco food truck in Los Angeles. As told to Jamie Feldmar.

For nearly 20 years, Raul Ortega has parked his food truck, Mariscos Jalisco, on a stretch of Olympic Boulevard in Boyle Heights. His tacos dorados de camarones (crunchy shrimp tacos) are the stuff of legend across Los Angeles -- Jonathan Gold once described driving many miles to line up for them, calling Ortega “a rock star among taco chefs.”  (The truck is also justly famed for its spicy aguachile and ultra-fresh ceviche.) 

The taco business has been good to Ortega -- over the years, he’s been able to expand his fleet to four trucks, and add a sit-down restaurant in Pomona. But the citywide order in mid-March to temporarily shutter all restaurants for dine-in service has affected all aspects of food service, including taco trucks, a staple of Los Angeles street life. We spoke to Ortega to hear more about how Coronavirus restrictions are affecting his livelihood. Here’s his story, in his own words:

We’re lucky, we’re still here, still serving. The day everything happened, it took me by surprise. I was afraid of being completely shut down. It’s a little easier with a truck, because we’re already outside. We’re still serving in Boyle Heights and Pomona. But we have another truck we park downtown that we had to close. It was near all the stores in the Garment District, but since they’re closed, we have no business there.

Mariscos Jalisco
Raul Ortega (left) | Mariscos Jalisco

The first two weeks were really bad. Our sales went down quite a bit— probably 60%. I gathered my people, my staff, and told them: worst case scenario, we might only get half of our paycheck. I didn’t know what was going to happen, I said they might shut us down completely. Laying people off was my main concern -- I can’t let these people down, everyone has a family, has to pay rent and buy food. They were all happy to help however they could.

Fortunately, in the third week, things started to pick up, and I didn’t have to do that to anybody. It’s not as crowded as before, but people are coming. I think it’s because we have a unique item -- there aren’t a lot of people doing shrimp tacos and ceviche. People will drive in from all over the city for us. We’re doing okay, thank god, and I didn’t have to lay anyone off. 

Now, it’s takeout-only, and the Health Department says we can’t let people eat in front of the truck because of social distancing. So people take it to their cars and eat there, or they just leave with their food. Most people are pretty aware, they’re very good about it. We try to enforce that people wear masks when they order, but there are rare incidents where the customer doesn’t understand, or they want to eat right there. It’s tough, but if there’s a person with no mask, I still serve them. I don’t want people getting upset and arguing or starting a fight. It’s easy for a situation like that to escalate, and we’re very vulnerable sometimes. So I prefer to not make a big deal. We have our window, we have our masks, and we just try to comply with everything ourselves, to be careful. 

We’re all wearing masks and gloves in the truck; I buy big boxes of them for everyone. I tell my whole staff -- even before Corona -- if you’re sick, don’t come in, just stay home. We’re cleaning, we’re taking precautions, and so far it’s been okay. 

We normally rent a dining room in front of the truck, but it’s closed now. I got lucky with my landlord --  I’ve been paying half rent for the past two months, and he’s happy with it -- he actually called me first, to say that I should come talk to him if I was having any problems. He’s been very good to us, and I appreciate it. 

Our menu stayed the same -- it’s always been small, and we’re still offering everything, at the same prices. In those first two weeks, a few of my suppliers were having trouble filling orders. People were buying food like crazy, stores were selling out. But it smoothed out after the first few weeks --  let’s hope for the best for everyone. 

I just hope that in the next few months, everything goes back to normal. I’m just hoping. I mean, I understand that even when things settle down there will be restrictions. We gotta do what we gotta do. Up until now, it hasn't been as bad for us as other people that lost their jobs, we still have ours, so we’re okay. We can afford to keep going like this for a little -- we get a lot of support from our customers. We’ll just have to see.

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Jamie Feldmar is a contributor for Thrillist.