Southern California’s latest foodie trend has the region atwitter. Lines form long into the night at the latest hot spot for edible treasures, while wily entrepreneurs outdo each other by parking at the best spots. But not everyone is happy. Brick-and-mortar restaurant owners fume that their pop-up rivals take away business; county health officials quickly enact regulations, and politicians push laws to regulate or even ban the vendors from city limits — but not without sparking a public uproar.
Such a scenario has dominated Southern California for the past couple of years as food trucks — whether traditional loncheras or their luxe cousins — increase in popularity. But the same mobile phenomenon overtook Los Angeles more than a century ago, spurred not by tacos but tamales, and the vehicles of choice weren’t trucks but, rather, horse-drawn wagons. They’re long forgotten, nearly invisible even in the local history books, but these pioneer tamaleros were crucial ambassadors for the growth of Mexican food here — and in a region wedded to transit, their movable feasts laid the tracks for drive-thrus, lunch trucks and our insatiable fascination with easy-to-find, affordable grub.
Tamales were a natural to become L.A.'s first street-food fad, given their utilitarianism, cheap pricing and irresistible taste. The origins of the city’s tamale sellers remain murky, although newspaper accounts place them as far back as the 1870s, and by 1880, a Los Angeles Herald article commented, “The experience of our Eastern visitors will be incomplete unless they sample” a Los Angeles street tamale.
They dominated downtown by the 1890s, specifically from the old plaza near what is today Olvera Street southwest toward 6th Street, between Temple and Main, blocks that attracted itinerant men, new residents and laborers looking to waste their week’s earnings in the many saloons. As dusk fell, an army of 2-by-4 pushcarts and wagons wheeled their way through this Tamale Row, setting up shop until last call and beyond.
On the menu was everything from popcorn to pigs’ feet, oyster cocktails to sandwiches, but the majority of them hawked tamales prepared elsewhere and kept warm in steam buckets. Competition spurred innovation — wagons transformed into portable kitchens with functioning stoves (some illegally tapped into the city’s gas mains and water pipes) and featured counters so that as many as eight people at a time could dine around the wagons. One enterprising tamalero even rolled around town in a two-story giant, the top level his sleeping quarters.
By 1901, more than a hundred tamale wagons roamed Los Angeles, each paying a dollar a month for a city business license. Their popularity spurred others in outlying cities to follow their example. In 1906, Sonoran immigrant Alejandro Morales began selling his wife’s tamales from a wagon he commandeered through Anaheim. Morales, a ditch digger by trade, grew the concept into a restaurant, then a tamale factory, then Alex Foods, a multimillion-dollar empire now known as Don Miguel Mexican Foods.
“I never saw our original tamale wagon,” says Michael Morales, Alejandro’s grandson and president of XLNT Tamales, a Southern California classic that spun off from Don Miguel long ago and still uses the original 1906 recipe. “That was before my time.” Asked if he knew its fate, Morales laughed and said his grandfather “probably burned it.”
It wasn’t just Latinos who operated tamale wagons — African Americans, European immigrants and whites also partook in the industry. In 1905, even the YMCA opened a temporary tamale wagon to raise funds so it could send a boy’s track and field team to compete in Portland, Ore.
“Strangers coming to Los Angeles,” reported The Times, “remark at the presence of so many outdoor restaurants, and marvel at the system which permits men … to set up places of business in the public streets … competing with businessmen who pay high rents for rooms in which to serve the public with food.”
Not everyone appreciated those first loncheras. L.A.'s press sensationalized any fight, quarrel or theft committed around the eateries, leading to a perception in polite circles that they weren’t safe (typical headline: “Says the Tamale Wagon is a Nursery of Crime”). As early as 1892, officials tried to ban them; in 1897, the City Council proposed to not allow tamale wagons to open until nine at night at the behest of restaurant owners who didn’t like their crowds. Four years later, Police Chief Charles Elton recommended they close at 1 a.m. because they offered “a refuge for drunks who seek the streets when the saloons are closed for the night.”
Los Angeles school trustees constructed kitchens at the city’s high schools (including the first prep cafeteria in the country at Los Angeles High) in 1905 to offer healthier lunches after having “long waged a crusade against the tamale wagons,” according to the Herald. And in 1910, 100 downtown businessmen signed a letter asking the council that tamale wagons be prohibited because they didn’t reflect well on the district.
The tamaleros fought back with their most powerful weapon: their fans. In 1903, when the council tried to outlaw them altogether, they formed a mutual-aid society and presented the council a petition with the signatures of more than 500 customers that read, in part: “We claim that the lunch wagons are catering to an appreciative public, and to deprive the people of these convenient eating places would prove a great loss to the many local merchants who sell the wagon proprietors various supplies.”
They also found an ally in Councilman Fred Wheeler. In 1920, he offered an impassioned defense in council chambers when tamale wagons once again faced the ax. “The tamale put Los Angeles on the map,” he thundered. “These wagons are almost an institution of our city. Cabrillo and his sailors are said to have found them here when they landed. Drive these wagons from our streets? Never!”
Wheeler convinced his fellow councilmen to spare the tamale wagons that year but wasn’t as lucky in 1924, when a resolution booted tamaleros from the plaza. They continued as usual, though, a move that sparked The Times to quip, “Those lunch carts have more lives than the eighty-one incarnations of Methuselah’s nine cats.”
By then, the wagons sold more than tamales — the massive wave of migrants from central Mexico over the previous 20 years had introduced other Mexican delicacies to the city, such as barbacoa, menudo and tacos. But their era was waning. “They belong not to the new order of things,” The Times editorialized in 1924. “They were born of the pueblo — they perish in the metropolis.”
The plaza, of course, transformed into Olvera Street, as a new generation of Angelenos wanted a more refined Mexican culinary experience than that offered by the chaos of Tamale Row. As the automobile grew in popularity, Latino families loaded up their trucks and drove through East Los Angeles selling food before settling in downtown, the precursor to today’s loncheras.
By 1929, when Samuel C. Wilhite received a patent for a “Tamale Inn” — a tamale wagon shaped like its eponymous snack complete with awning, rows of windows, and even steps — there was no need for it. He parked it on Whittier Boulevard and named it the Tamale, where the structure still stands, although it’s currently a beauty salon. The last tamale wagon on Southern California’s roads belonged to the Morales family: their Tamale Wagon, a legendary sprint car that captured the minds of race fans for decades.
But tamaleros, of course, never disappeared. They’ve continued in Southern California’s barrios ever since the tamale wagon’s heyday, clandestinely hawking their masa miracle from coolers, car trunks, even pushcarts, to the masses, the deliverers of our eternal sacrament — our birthright — of cheap, glorious street food.
Arellano is the author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” which will be published in April.