updated 7/2/2007 3:35:46 PM ET 2007-07-02T19:35:46

For proof that Hurricane Katrina is transforming the ethnic flavor of New Orleans — and creating altogether new tensions — look no further than the taco trucks.

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Lunch trucks serving Latin American fare are appearing around New Orleans, catering to the immigrant laborers who streamed into the city in search of work after Katrina turned much of the place into a construction zone.

The trucks are a common sight in barrios from Los Angeles to New York, but controversial in a city still adapting to a threefold increase in Hispanics since Katrina.

Officials in suburban Jefferson Parish recently banned the trucks as eyesores and health hazards. New Orleans officials said they welcome the new business, but promised to make sure the number of vehicles does not exceed the municipal limit.

The mobile luncheonettes are operated mostly by Mexican and Central American families.

“I’m looking for an opportunity. That’s why I left my country, and that’s what led me here,” said Maria Fuentes, 55, who came to the United States from Mexico a decade ago and settled in New Orleans after the storm. “This is the first time I’ve owned my own business and my dream is to have traditional restaurants, not trucks, all over this town.”

The six-wheel vans have Spanish names emblazoned on their sides like “La Texanita” and “Taqueria Buen Gusto,” and, like street vendors in Latin America, serve such dishes as carne asada, or grilled steak, pork and chicken, garnished with sliced radishes and diced cilantro.

Beverages include tamarind- and guava-flavored drinks, often in the old-time bottles that require an opener, just as in Latin America.

The trucks usually park on street corners in areas with heavy construction activity, attracting laborers and native New Orleanians alike.

“It’s better than Taco Bell. I can tell you that,” said Michael Gould, 53, who lined up at Fuentes’ truck during a recent lunch hour.

Still, the Jefferson Parish councilman who restricted the trucks characterized them as unwanted residue from the hurricane.

“We’ve been trying to handle blighted housing, FEMA trailers, abandoned housing,” said Louis Congemi, whose zoning ordinance takes effect this weekend and is expected to clear the parish of taco trucks. “This is just one more thing we’re trying to get under control to make sure we bring our parish back to normalcy.”

Congemi added: “You have to be concerned about the cleanliness of these vehicles.”

Louisiana state records show licenses for about 40 taco trucks in Jefferson and Orleans parishes. They are inspected annually, like all street vendors.

“They’re up to speed with their licensing,” department spokesman Bob Johannessen said. “We haven’t received any sort of complaint about food quality, anything that would indicate a public health concern.”

New Orleans officials said that because of the Jefferson Parish ban, they will watch the number of trucks that move to their city and will enforce rules limiting the number of food vehicles to 100 on non-festival days.

Nevertheless, “I’m more than sure it is welcome in the city,” said David Robinson-Morris, a spokesman for Mayor Ray Nagin. “It is providing a service, and it is a part of our sales tax revenue.”

New Orleans has seen its Hispanic population rise from 15,000 before the storm to an estimated 50,000 now, according to the city. The city’s overall population has dropped from about 450,000 before the storm to about 250,000 now.

In the months after Katrina, the mayor created a furor when he was quoted as saying: “Businesses are concerned with making sure we are not overrun by Mexican workers.” In his subsequent re-election campaign, however, he praised Hispanics for their work ethic.

Fuentes operates her truck with daughters Karina, 31, Carolina, 20, and business partner Pedro Reyes, 57. They said they rise every morning at 4 a.m. for prep work, then set up shop at the corner of Canal and Robert E. Lee boulevards by 8 a.m.

Their workday ends at 6 p.m., after they have cleaned up the mobile kitchen for the next day.

It took $52,000 in savings to start the business, including $25,000 for the used van. Fuentes said the start-up costs have recently been paid off, and now the family is saving for their first restaurant without wheels.

“That’s what they call the American Dream, isn’t it?” she said. “I really like the people here in New Orleans and we want to live here and have our business here.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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