Call Me Street Food libertarian & The Rats of El Toro

Call me Street Food libertarian was originally posted to the Art of the Possible blog by Angelica aka Battlepanda.

I am, as I’ve said before on my own blog, a big fat cheerful statist. In general, I am less about throwing off the yoke of government and more about adjusting the boot on the neck so that it’s not too uncomfortable. I acknowledge that a certain amount of running roughshod over individual rights is regrettably necessary for the optimal function of society and all…

But now, Big Government has really gone too far.

Bacon-wrapped hotdogs banned on the streets of L.A.

I say this injustice cannot stand. The Man will have to pry that crispy treat from my cold, greasy fingers.

OK, I admit, I lied. I am an East-Coast girl and so have actually never had a bacon-wrapped hotdog before in my life. But really. It’s a hotdog wrapped in bacon and then grilled until crispy and you eat it on the streets! How can it not be the kind of pleasure that makes life itself worth living? Can we really call ourself a free people if we deny the right to indulge in such a glorious food in the name of…

In the name of what, exactly? Why are the street vendors of L.A. getting thrown in jail for selling bacon-dogs anyhow? It’s apparently because they have to be grilled, rather than boiled or steamed, the only two cooking methods allowed for pushcarts in L.A. That raises its own question. What’s wrong with grilling food on the streets? The authorities never seem to give a straight answer even though the article (admittedly one with a very pro-dog slant) is thousands and thousands of words long. The police officer interviewed by the reporter trots out a parade of bull that is truly spectacular. Hotdog grease could splatter onto clothing displays? Um, make them move two meters so that this is not an issue anymore. General unsanitary condition of some of the vendors he has seen? Well, that’s not a cooking method issue!

Even worse. In the comments to this unusually well-written and entertaining article, some guy claimed that in Chicago, street vendors are not allowed at all. Can this really be true?

This entry was posted on Friday, February 15th, 2008 at 12:40 pm

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The Rats of El Toro was originally posted to the Art of the Possible blog by Angelica aka Battlepanda.

David Z of No Third Solutions wonders why, if I am such an adamant street-food libertarian, I won’t see the injustice of government oppression in general and let the scales fall from my big-fat statist eyes.

Well, we won’t have to go very far to find the answer. Let’s just stay within the food service industry. As I have stated in the street-food libertarian post, I love street food and I think loosely-regulated street food is just about always the very best kind and I oppose all but the most minimal regulation on hawkery. However, let me just tell you a little shaggy-dog story that illustrates why in general, I am definitely pro government-mandated health and sanitary regulations and inspections.

When I am not busy being a journalist or blogger, I tend bar just a couple of nights a week at a “Spanish” restaurant just a couple of blocks from my apartment here in Taipei. Let’s call it El Toro. Chef Charlie’s paella is inauthentic but delicious. The place is lacking in style. Old posters from the Spanish tourism bureau graces the walls spackled to look Mediterranean. But El Toro considered a genteel mid-range restaurant and people go there for first dates or for Mom’s birthday. That sort of thing.

The restaurant is also home to the feistiest, most brazen rats I have ever seen in my life. As soon as the chef goes home for the night, the kitchen is their playground. I have nicknamed the most humoungus rat of them all “Theodora”. I have seen Theodora galump up the stairs at last call while customers still lingered over their drinks.

The staff at the restaurant puts down glue boards and occasionally those will snare a young rat. But not the bigger ones. Not Theodora. “It’s no use going after her,” said Charlie, “she’s grandmother-grade.”

I’ve talked to the bar manager about professional pest control. He shrugged his shoulders. The owner thinks it cost too much to get the pest guys in, he said. He got an estimate — $4000 New Taiwan Dollars, or roughly $120 USD for every visit. It’s true prices are generally lower across the board here in Taiwan, especially for services, but keep in mind the average tab for two at El Toro could easily be $45 USD or more.

If there are restaurant health and sanitation inspectors in Taiwan, they’ve never made it out to El Toro. Because if she is faced with the prospect of getting shut down, or even an unfavorable rating that had to be prominently displayed, there is no way the owner would have baulked at paying $120 USD or many multiples of $120 USD to get the rats out.

Of course, I still eat at El Toro. I love Charlie’s garlic shrimp, and I’ll fight Theodora herself for the last morsel of his meatball abondigas. As with the street food I regularly eat, I know that I’m taking a risk and the tastiness is worth it. However, I feel bad for our customers who are under the illusion that just because they’re sipping red wine from a sparkling glass, there aren’t rats running through the kitchen. Moreover, it doesn’t have to be this way. With mandatory food safety inspections, El Toro will probably shape up rather than be shut down.

I suppose in theory there could be some third-party inspection firm who can certify the sanitary condition of restaurants. But in practice, this have not happened.

I have a simple rule of thumb for when government intervention is necessary — is it a pressing need that is not met by the market? In this case, the name of the market failure is asymmetrical information. With street food, those who indulge are under no illusion as to the risks they are taking and thus there is less asymmetrical information and less of a case for intervention.

Oh, and David. If you are ever in Taipei, swing by and I’ll see that you get a beer on the house.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 3rd, 2008 at 12:31 pm 

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