Our Favela Chic

EDIBLE ENTREPRENEUR

RUBENS LEITE’S TACO EMPIRE



Six trucks, two storefronts, and an HBO appearance

Written and photographed by Andy Cook

The morning sun beats down on a fleet of psychedelically painted trucks in a Claiborne Avenue gas station parking lot. They wait, generators humming, while their commander gazes on, quietly contemplating the day’s mission. It’s almost lunchtime, and Rubens Leite must decide where in this vast city New Orleanians are most hungry for tacos.

In November of 1992, Leite (pronounced LAY-tay) was working as a convenience store clerk in New York City. Having just left behind a life as an electrical engineer in his native Sao Paolo, Brazil, Leite was looking for his next step. Inspiration walked up to him at the cash register.

“I see this guy come in every morning to buy ice for his trucks. I thought ‘I can do that.’”

And so, over the next 13 years, Leite gradually built a fleet of nearly a dozen mobile food trucks, vending affordable street fare all over the five boroughs. Then in October 2005, a friend in New Orleans called him up.

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“He was with a construction company working at Tulane and Loyola. He said I should bring my trucks, the construction workers have nothing to eat.”

At the time, Leite was selling American fare from his trucks in NYC, and he brought the same with him when he came to New Orleans. He soon realized, however, that the bulk of his clients were Hispanic construction workers, hungry for more familiar flavors. Within months, he transitioned to a menu of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tamales, and never looked back.

At the time, Leite was selling American fare from his trucks in NYC, and he brought the same with him when he came to New Orleans. He soon realized, however, that the bulk of his clients were Hispanic construction workers, hungry for more familiar flavors. Within months, he transitioned to a menu of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and tamales, and never looked back.

As his business has expanded in the last few years, so has his workforce. Leite hand-picks his employees for their talents at particular dishes.

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“The secret to Mexican food is the ingredients need to be fresh,” Leite explains. “They can’t be from the day before. Even one day old, you can tell.”

So where can you find Leite’s comida fresca? His trucks are stationed at the corner of Claiborne and Louisiana, just feet away from Taco Party, his first restaurant. The trucks change location daily, but University Hospital, Chef Menteur highway, and the Naval Base in Algiers Point are common destinations. Leite also runs Benny’s Seafood on Van Trump Street in Gretna, and takes over the kitchen at Café Negril on Frenchman Street every night at 8pm.