Downtown taco carts bounce back

Salt Lake City residents’ appetite for outdoor eats stays strong

(Ed Kosmicki | Special to The Tribune) The TDR (TacosDonRafa.com) taco cart at lunchtime, June 16, 2021 near the old Sears store on the corner of 8th & State Street in Salt Lake City.

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Business is heating up for Salt Lake City’s downtown taco carts, which dot the area around 800 South between State and Main Street, near the old Sears building.

Over the past year, some of these carts have struggled to remain open, according to food service workers and regular customers. But despite sweltering early summer temperatures, street taco mainstays like Toro Tacos and Tacos Don Rafa have been on the street serving a steady stream of delicious meals.

On Main Street, between 700 South and 800 South, Claudia, an El Rey del Taco employee described the cart’s pandemic struggles while preparing fragrant meats, spices and toppings and assembling incoming orders. Antonio, a regular customer, helped translate.

During the height of the pandemic, she said, the El Rey del Taco cart was closed for almost a month and the business turned its focus to catering. Antonio, who also works as a cook, recalled looking for the cart but being unable to locate it.

“I’ve known them for a while,” he said. “I always come and grab something to eat. There were a few weekends I came... and they were not here.”

By definition, food carts transported by a separate vehicle and, as a result, usually set up at a single location or within a small area. (Food trucks, on the other hand, are self-contained vehicles and can more easily travel to several locations per day.)

Tacos Don Rafa, which claims to be the oldest taco stand in Utah, has been such a reliable presence that it appears on Google Maps and has its own parking. As recently as two weeks ago, Antonio drove to 800 South and Main Street only to find that El Rey del Taco had already closed for the day, its customary location empty. Pandemic struggles had forced the cart to reduce its hours of operation. But now, Claudia said, things are getting busier.

Julio, who has spent the last seven or so years working at the Tacos y Mariscos cart, agrees.

During the pandemic, he says, “a lot of people stopped going out,” but as new COVID-19 cases in Salt Lake County have declined throughout the new year and transmission has remained low or moderate, this trend is beginning to reverse. Now that summer has begun, more potential customers are strolling the city streets and business has picked up.

(Ed Kosmicki | Special to The Tribune) Javier Shanchez (center) prepares an order in his taco cart Torro Tacos at lunchtime, June 16, 2021 near the old Sears store on the corner of 8th & State Street in Salt Lake City.

Jeffery Oaks, Food Protection Bureau Manager at the Salt Lake County Health Department, has comforting news for those who love street food: the vast majority of outdoor food carts have survived the pandemic, though they may have limited hours of operation as business slowly returns to normal.

According to the Salt Lake County Health Department, which inspects and licenses mobile food vendors operating in the area, there were 56 food carts with active permits pre-COVID. As of June 2021, this number has dropped to 42.

The decrease in renewed food cart permits this year is largely attributable to closures of “indoor venue carts,” not quintessential downtown vendors like Tacos Don Rafa. Indoor venue carts operate inside event centers such as the Salt Palace, which spent the last year shuttered and did not renew its carts’ permits.

The number of permit-carrying food trucks — which were also less affected by COVID-related restrictions on indoor dining — actually increased during the pandemic, from 304 to 323.

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