It’s a daily culinary performance that plays out across Los Angeles: Top food truck chefs whipping up gourmet meals in spaces no bigger than a restaurant’s stockroom or walk-in freezer.
But even as the trucks have become a popular staple of the local food scene, with Twitter followers and long queues, they have been lagging behind restaurants and even sidewalk food carts in one important category — health safety, a Times data analysis found.
About 27% of food trucks earned lower than A grades over the last two years, according to a Times review of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health data. By comparison, slightly less than 5% of brick-and-mortar restaurants and about 18% of food carts fell below that mark.
More than 4% of food trucks inspected this year were forced to close — a rate three times higher than regular restaurants, the analysis shows. The health department has closed more than 70 food trucks this year, most of which were allowed to reopen after passing follow-up inspections.
Experts say food trucks face unique challenges to stay sanitary. Workers must do their jobs in confined spaces — typically less than 8 feet wide by 20 feet long — and trucks often lack the equipment of a full-sized restaurant.
That can lead to more cross-contamination, USC accounting professor Ruben Davila said.
“If I serve you and I also prepare the food, there’s a little bit of a problem right there with health issues, potentially,” said Davila, academic director of the Food Industry Management Program at USC.
Storage temperature is also more difficult in mobile cooking, so it must to be closely scrutinized to make sure ingredients don’t spoil, he said.
Truck owners must also deal with the elements that come with being on the street rather than inside a building.
Inspectors look for health issues that pose a risk associated with food-borne illness outbreaks, including improper storage temperatures, contaminated equipment and poor personal hygiene, according to the health department.
Some food truck purveyors run a tight ship.
Housed inside a black and chrome rig, the La Estrella taco truck typically parks in a gas station lot at Normandie Avenue and West Adams Boulevard in South L.A. In the window sits the familiar blue A.
To keep their truck in good shape, the La Estrella crew cleans at the end of each night and the owner comes by to make sure everything is in order for the next day.
“We like to be ready so we don’t have to get ready,” employee Rigo Torres said. “If we’re ready we don’t have to worry about inspection at all.”
On a recent evening in Pico-Union, Eunice Soto, 23, waited in line for the Tacos Tamix truck with its hard-to-see B grade posted in the window.
Soto wasn’t surprised about the lower grades of food trucks and said it wouldn’t stop her from gorging on late-night grub.
“I mean, it’s kind of iffy, but it’s good,” Soto said. “I’ll probably still keep coming here. As long as they don’t have anything lower than a B, I guess it’s OK.”