You could soon be seeing lemons at your favorite taco stand instead of limes. The price of limes has risen sharply in recent weeks and may continue to climb, forcing your favorite taquero or pho place to reconsider the endless supply of lime wedges that we so often take for granted with our soup or tacos.
At my local taco truck, Leo’s Tacos in Historic Filipinotown, they’re still using limes with no immediate plan to change. But at the restaurant Ricos Tacos El Tio in Inglewood, lemons replace limes when it makes financial sense. “We had lemons last week but this week we have limes again,” said Daisy Canal, noting that sharp price swings also occur with items such as radishes and avocados.
For Albert Alebrijes, owner of Alebrijes Grill, the choice to use lemons for a month or so every year is a simple one. “This time of year, we switch to the lemons because the difference in price is so high,” he says. Limes, he says, are offered as a courtesy to the customer, whereas other ingredients are more indispensable. “If the price of onions goes high, I have no choice. I have to buy the onions.” Alebrijes says he’ll revert to limes when the price, currently at about $50 per case, returns to around $30.
Ebb and flow is a natural function of the produce market — prices change as things go in and out of season. But what happened with the price of limes in the spring of 2014 was unprecedented, when the price of a case skyrocketed to around $100 from $15. The reported reason for the spike was a combination of natural (weather, disease) and unnatural (extortion at the hands of drug cartels).
The U.S. is almost entirely reliant on Mexico for its supply of limes, with 98% of consumed limes coming from south of the border. That means that any hiccup in the supply chain can have an outsized effect on prices.
“It’s not like lemons, where we have big California producers,” says Michael Rand of West Central Food Service. He speculated that labor shortages leading up to Semana Santa, or Holy Week, could contribute to price fluctuations.
The price of limes currently stands at around $52 to $55 per 40-pound case, according to a USDA market report on Monday. That’s more than double the price from a month ago, when it was between $21 and $23.
A March 6 report by Andrew Flores of produce distributor Pro Act hints that prices could rise even higher as tight supplies continue through the month.
“We are advising customers to avoid running lime ads for March due to unpredictable quantity and lack of commitment from growers,” he writes.
The price of lemons, which currently hovers between $22 and $25 per 38-pound bushel carton of medium-sized fruit, becomes attractive to restaurant owners once limes exceed a certain price point.
Jennifer Feltham, co-owner of Sonoratown in downtown Los Angeles, has no plans to change anything on the Sonoratown menu.
Lemons, she says, “have a totally different flavor. I see lemon more as pure acid: bright, tart and citrusy. Lime has a second note to it. It has a musky, mysterious component.”
Sonoratown, she says, faces the same issues with other produce — green onions and avocados, for example, the price of which can vary wildly.
She says that Sonoratown will weather fluctuating prices as it always has. “We grit our teeth and continue to do the same work we have done, and hope for better times.”
But making substitutions based on price isn’t something she wants to start doing. “Every single ingredient is indispensable,” she says. “The things that go on a taco can never change.”