A California dispute: Is this a taco truck or a restaurant?

TURLOCK, Calif. — A philosophical question: When does a taco truck become a restaurant?

Mariscos Camino Real opened two months ago with a food wagon and seafood-only menu in an empty lot next to a small car dealership. Owner Ignacio Ochoa went to the Planning Department shortly after with ideas for improvements, including a concrete pad and heavy canopy tent under which patrons can eat. No concrete and no construction, he was told.

So Ochoa and his partner, Rudy Yanez, put down brick pavers, planters filled with small palms and ficus trees, a fountain and a 24 foot-by-40 foot collapsible outdoor-event tent. Ten stone tables with custom tile tops were installed. Two speakers were hung high in the tent rafters. The men spent $80,000 and ended up with a polished outdoor eating space on a patch of leased land.

City officials weren't exactly charmed. "We went out there for another call and saw it," said Debbie Whitmore, the city's planning director. "The reaction was 'Oh, my God!' It grew beyond how it was described to us."

"Our goal was to change perception," Yanez said. "All taco trucks are not the same. It's not filthy. There's space to eat."

Tension between taco trucks and government in California isn't new.

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