By Blake Richardson
Someone painted a giant mural over the brick walls of the garage — a field of grass and rocks under a light blue sky. It looks like it’s been there forever and probably took months to paint.
But it’s hard to pay much attention to the mural because the old school bus in the parking lot is captivating the crowd of customers.
Blue and purple string lights resembling glow sticks snake around the outline of the bus, which is covered in light blue paint — even the windows.
There’s an opening on the right side of the bus where a line of people wait for a late-night meal from City Bus Burritos and Tacos.
A menu boasting treats like tacos and quesadillas overhangs the opening to the food truck, where a couple of workers take orders and prepare food under florescent lighting that poses a stark contrast in the dimly lit parking lot. The young locals wait for food while watching a Spanish soap opera on the small TV that hangs on the side of the bus.
City Bus is just outside the earshot of music blasting down Franklin Street blocks to the right. The song ‘Pumpin Blood’ by NONONO comes from Chapel Hill Tire’s parking lot, where a crowd surrounds Mexican food truck Monterrey.
If the City Bus workers look past the line of customers, they can see the flashing lights of a small sign in the distance. Up close, the word “taco” on the sign becomes clear, and it lures pedestrians to Mexican food truck Taqueria el Tejano.
Chapel Hill and Carrboro are dotted with food trucks, from the Parlez-Vous Crepe truck, to donut truck Dough Broughs, to a truck that’s the brainchild of Sup Dogs and Pantana Bob’s. But the most competitive market is arguably the late-night taco. In a town where it seems at least one restaurant goes out of business each year, these trucks thrive despite the concentrated competition.
‘GOOD FOOD, GOOD SERVICE’
Mac is the owner of City Bus, but he won’t tell you that. He wouldn’t even share his last name.
“I don’t like titles,” he said.
The bus may look playful with its glowing lights, pictures of food and seemingly endless handwritten menu items. But Mac is dedicated to business. Even when it was too early for customers to start forming a line, he was busy working on a screen that was barely visible when looking up at him seated inside the truck.
“Good service, good food,” Mac said. “That’s what I want.”
It’s Mac’s outgoing, kind personality that makes City Bus the favorite food truck for Winston Pace, a Carrboro resident and part-time UNC-Chapel Hill student.
“He’s a real character,” Pace said. “He’s just awesome.”
City Bus came to Chapel Hill in 2011, but Mac said he’s been in the food truck business for about 10 years. City Bus has taken off, drawing a crowd of young students and the occasional older Carrboro resident.
“You can ask the people everywhere about City Bus, and they’ll tell you good food, good service,” Mac said.
City Bus brings a spicy flair to its food. Bottles of the bus’s sauce — one red and one green — sit on the metal windowsill of the truck with a plate hanging above. The words “our sauce is very spicy, hot hot” are written on the plate in red ink.
The homemade sauce is another standout for Pace. And he likes that he can customize his food.
Mac is proud of City Bus’s unique taste.
“People want to eat something different,” he said.
A FAMILIAR NAME
Hans Vargas, one of two people working at the Monterrey food truck, goes to work at 6 p.m. on a Friday.
He doesn’t finish until 3 a.m.
Vargas works the same hours on Saturday. For each of the three taco trucks, these are two of the busiest nights each week.
“It’s food for students,” Vargas said.
Drunken students, to be exact. Vargas said most of Monterrey’s customers stop by the food truck after a night out at a Chapel Hill bar. Most are happy, some are flirtatious, but all are hungry for Mexican food.
With fresh green paint, flashing lights and menus with light-up borders, Monterrey is the most polished looking of the food trucks. The vehicle is even equipped with a stereo to blast music.
But Vargas said the food sets Monterrey apart.
“Everything is fresh,” he said.
The food at Monterrey is restaurant-quality because Monterrey did not start out as a food truck.
Monterrey began as a Chapel Hill restaurant in 1996 and later opened a second location in Carrboro. The food truck is the newest addition to the business, and it can be found about halfway between the two restaurants.
The food truck offerings, which are prepared at the restaurant beforehand, are just a sample of some items on Monterrey’s menu.
Vargas has been working at Monterrey’s food truck for six months, and he has seen the business prosper. In fact, sometimes the truck gets so busy that four workers cram inside instead of two.
On slow nights, the truck brings in revenue by renting the spots in Chapel Hill Tire’s parking lot — free for customers, but $5 for everyone else.
While City Bus is Pace’s favorite, he comes to Monterrey at least three times each week to grab some food after work. He enjoys the variety of items on Monterrey’s menu.
“They also sell chips, which none of the other ones do,” Pace said.
But Vargas said the competition doesn’t affect Monterrey too much because the other two trucks draw more customers from Carrboro.
“It’s too much taco trucks,” Vargas said. “Only in Chapel Hill is only one.”
Taqueria el Tejano is the fifth truck that 23-year-old owner Roberto Garcia’s family has operated.
Garcia is from Houston, Texas, and his family opened a food truck called El Taquito when Garcia was 5 years old. The family moved to North Carolina when he was 9 years old and started selling the food at night to people working in factories and tobacco fields in Henderson.
The right side of the metallic truck is covered with pictures and colorful signs describing items on the menu. A collection of colorful Jarritos sodas in glass bottles rest against the window of the truck. Positioned at the front of the nearly empty Wings Over parking lot, Taqueria el Tejano radiates light.
“We have our own style, our unique flavor,” Garcia said.
This truck is Victoria Garcia’s favorite. The Carrboro resident comes once a week for a corn taco with lime, lettuce, tomato, cheese and other toppings. She pairs the treat with a Jarritos soda. She prefers the truck because of the quality of the meat.
“It has no fat,” she said while sitting at the small wooden table propped next to the truck. “And it’s juicy.”
Roberto Garcia’s mom prepares the food at home each day for her son to sell at night. The family recipe traces back to Garcia’s grandmother, giving the food truck an authentic flavor of San Luís Potosí, the Mexican region that Garcia’s mom is from.
Taqueria el Tejano draws a wide variety of customers, including students, residents, visitors at nearby hotel and Tar Heels fans going to catch a game.
Roberto Garcia’s favorite part about the business is his interactions with a wide array of people — from the friendly conversations to a “thank you” at the cash register.
“Good food to people, that’s always good to see,” he said.
COMPETITION OR CAHOOTS?
Pace has a theory that the three food trucks are in cahoots.
“I have always wondered if they had connections to each other in any way, or if it’s some sort of taco mafia going on,” he said. “That’s a true mystery of the town.”
Do they buy supplies in bulk together to make food cheaper? Or coordinate sales to fix the competition? Pace doesn’t know, but he likes to think there’s something.
If there is a conspiracy between the owners, they’re keeping it well-hid. Mac seemed to hardly notice the competitors nearby.
“I don’t know about what they serve,” Mac said. “I care about mine.”
Vargas also did not seem worried about competition because Monterrey is the closest to downtown Chapel Hill.
Victoria Garcia suspects early restaurant closing times allow the food trucks to thrive. Because they’re the only places open, the three trucks can dominate late-night business.
“I love other restaurants,” she said. “But I’m not hungry before 9 p.m.”
Each truck caters to its niche — a group of loyalists who decide which truck they like best and keep coming back. Those customers allow each truck to prosper.
“Everyone you ask will have a different favorite,” Pace said.
Roberto Garcia said he appreciates the competition.
“It makes you want to be better,” he said. “Makes you want your service to be better, your food to be better.
“So it betters you as a person and as a business owner.”
Edited by Ryan Wilusz