The Origin Story Behind America's First Taco Truck

Americans are crazy for tacos in whatever form they take. They were introduced to the U.S. in the early 20th century, and today you can find them anywhere. What's harder to imagine is that the now-ubiquitous taco truck didn't appear until the mid-1970s in Los Angeles. 

It's believed that tortillas were eaten by the Aztecs, but it's conjecture as to whether they created the taco. We do know that street vendors sold tacos in Mexico City in the 18th century, and when Mexican migrant workers began to immigrate to the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century, their wives brought along their native cuisine, including recipes for tacos and tamales. These resourceful women sold their tasty fare to street workers from wagons and pushcarts, which were called "loncheros" or lunch boxes. A few decades later, when car culture consumed Los Angeles (a major hub for Mexican immigrants), the loncheros took to the road and sold lunches at construction sites.

But the story of the taco truck really starts in 1969, one immigrant worker, Raul Martinez, made a life-changing decision. Martinez and his wife Lupe found their way from Mexico City to Los Angeles, where he got work as a dishwasher and then later as a butcher. Lifelong soccer fans, Martinez and Lupe attended matches in MacArthur Park. When they discovered there wasn't any place nearby to buy food, they brought their own grill and cooked carne asada tacos to enjoy during the match. Once the soccer players got a taste of the Martinez's tacos, he had the notion of selling them from a truck.

From an ice cream truck to an empire

In 1974, Martinez purchased an ice cream truck, which he transformed into a taco truck. Martinez ignored his friends' warnings that such a crazy idea would never work, and he, Lupe, and his father took to the streets of East Los Angeles, selling soft-shell tacos al pastor, a staple in Mexico City but apparently not really sold in L.A. before.

At midnight, Martinez parked his taco truck, dubbed La Güera (slang for a blonde woman), outside a popular bar in the Latino neighborhood of downtown L.A., and on that first night, Martinez sold $70 worth of al pastor tacos and his (now famous) sweat-inducing salsa. La Güera was a smashing success, and sales increased to $150 per night.

Six months after the launch of his taco truck, Martinez had amassed enough cash to purchase a small building that would serve as a kitchen for his taco truck business. It also eventually became Martinez's first actual restaurant, which he called King Taco. In 1978, Martinez purchased another property, named King Taco #2, and turned it into an order-to-go restaurant.

Today, 22 King Tacos are still in operation and taco truck culture only continues to grow in the U.S. Upon his death in 2013, Martinez was lauded for his innovation, his charity to the East Los Angeles community, and his promotion of Mexican food and culture. Sadly, the original taco truck, La Güera, perished in a fire, but Martinez's culinary legacy lives on.