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As the nearby church bells toll the noon hour, customers start to congregate around the Pachamama Sud food truck. Two men sip Argentinian beers at the counter, munching on chips and guacamole offered by the owner, Nanou. Another customer bellies up to the colorful truck, only to look confused by the menu. Nanou explains the difference between a taco and a tortilla, handing him a taste of her famous sweet potato fries as an amuse-bouche.

Pachamama Sud is turning the city, one Marseillais at a time, onto the flavors of Latin America, a foreign land for so many in spite of Marseille’s rich multiculturalism. From Argentinian empanadas to Peruvian manioc balls and Mexican smoked chicken tacos, the menu invites customers to “travel with their taste buds,” explains Nanou. “With no passport required.”

How did an Algerian Marseillaise launch a halal Latin American food truck? Her camion is actually a spin-off of the brick-and-mortar Pachamama Sud, a restaurant owned by her sister and her brother-in-law, Samir. After working as a chef at Santo Cachón, one of the city’s few Peruvian restaurants, he was the one who turned Nanou onto Central and South American cuisine.

The initial plan was to partner together, but Samir preferred to focus on the restaurant. However, he happily taught Nanou his recipes for dulce de leche, corn tortillas and the like. But when it came time to apply for a food truck permit, the first-timer hit a roadblock. Though Marseille is home to France’s first food truck – a wood-fired pizza oven on wheels launched in 1962 – the city has always been cagey with regards to permitting.

Back in the day, pizza truck owners would light other pizzaïolos’ vehicles on fire. Now, it’s the pizza makers against the rest. “The Fédération Nationale des Artisans Pizza en Camion Magasin [the national pizza truck union] are threatened by the growing trend of food trucks,” explains Nanou. Even Marseille’s Michelin-starred chef Alexandre Mazzia had a back-and-forth battle to launch Michel, his food-truck venture.

“I was lucky to find someone at city hall who liked my concept,” Nanou says. She finally launched in the summer of 2020, after a year of red tape. She rolled into her location, a coveted spot at the Place Sébastopol market last October, tucked between a poissonière and a stall selling North African décor – and mere blocks away from the elementary school she attended as a kid.

Pachamama Sud’s menu spans across Latin America with a bit of fusion thrown in. Tacos are spiced with chipotle, coriander and piquant tomato salsa – their homemade tortillas are reason enough to visit. Empanadas are stuffed with cumin-scented beef, olives and raisins, or chicken spiced with aji amarillo, a Peruvian yellow pepper sauce. Hearty appetites will love the Mexican and Peruvian burgers, punched up with purple potatoes, chimichurri and avocado.

While Nanou preps at her house, her cook, Victor, makes everything fresh-to-order in the truck’s tiny kitchen. This allows her to devote her full attention to the customers – taking orders, chatting, even thoughtfully handing a can of Pony Malta, a Colombian malted soft drink, to a stroller-toting customer since it’s “good for breastfeeding.”

For dessert, or a sweet breakfast, order the coulant dulce de leche, a moist cake topped with sweetened condensed milk. To encourage customers to continue their Latin American journey in their home kitchens, Pachamama Sud sells canned chipotles, black corn and other traditional foodstuffs they cook with, sourced from the closest Latino market 62 miles away.

“I love the proximity I have with my customers,” Nanou says.

Though unintentional, Nanou’s truck has been well timed for the Covid-19 era. Marseille’s lockdown has banned in-person dining for over six months. Some spots are doing takeout, but the Pachamama Sud restaurant has remained closed due to less foot traffic in the normally nightlife-heavy Cours Julien and to avoid Uber Eats’ elevated delivery fees.

Conversely, the truck is open, offering up flavorful food with a side of human interaction, which we so desperately need in this time. Among her regulars are two older gentlemen who swing by each morning for their café. It is a ritual that she treasures as much as they do.

“I love the proximity I have with my customers,” Nanou says. Their friendliness and appreciation is what gives her the drive to wake up at 5 a.m. each morning to fetch her truck and the strength to continue after being told by a passerby that her truck wasn’t welcome. She even had a local pizza truck call the police after staying 20 minutes over her allotted permit time. “I’m so confident of my food that I’m not afraid,” she adds.

In spite of the bumps of being a business owner, the effervescent entrepreneur truly loves what she does. Beforehand she was a nursing assistant and a teacher who worked with kids from broken homes. “I’ve always taken care of people,” she explains. Now, she is doing so with food.

And she happily caters to all. Some customers come seeking familiar flavors, like the woman who backpacked across Peru or the American who lived in Los Angeles decades ago. But most Marseillais are discovering, and delighting in, a new cuisine. “It’s a nice change from the pizza trucks,” says the guy beside us after biting into his taco.

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Published on February 22, 2021

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