I’m posting an essay I wrote for my Food Writing project this past semester. It’s about food trucks, and what makes them exciting. Enjoy.
The Portable Kitchen
About a month ago I spent a day wandering down the long expanse of quirky shops and occasional restaurants that is Melrose Avenue in fabulous Los Angeles. Melrose is like a condensed version of the rest of town. Like all of LA, Melrose has become more corporate in recent years and now sports a huge two-story Urban Outfitters to prove it, but it still has giant thrift stores mixed with shops that make their own clothes and even a Mario Batali restaurant. Melrose also lays claim to Paramount Studios and Fairfax High School, so on a regular basis the street plays host to teenagers and “industry” moguls. The edges of the trendy area are lined with Mexican groceries and 99 Cent Stores with big pink neon signs.
Dusk was beginning to fall and gradually the stream of cars thinned out, leaving the street for occasional visitors on the sidewalk. My friends and I had spent the day trying on $200 handmade tutus, watching androgynous male shopkeepers prance around in 6-inch heels, buying $2 pins advertising the January release of Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace, and were dragging our tired feet back toward our cars to head home, shopping bags in tow. The setting sun set our stomachs to growling, but our part of the street was only made up of expensive shoes and comedy revues.
As we neared an American Apparel store with a shopkeeper in the window struggling to dress an awkwardly posed mannequin; Grace didn’t even comment on her favorite shop. Her new white leather sneakers with gold studs along the top were far too diverting. But not diverting enough that we didn’t notice an imposing black van pull up in front of the store, proclaiming across the back, “Glowfish: The Food Truck of Japanese Festival Cuisine,” and “Okonomiyaki.” Despite tired feet and several shopping bags, I began to quite literally jump and dance at the prospect. Okonomiyaki, scrumptious Japanese vegetable pancakes, are rarely seen outside of Japan, but their rarity is not the main reason why I was jumping. We had found a food truck.
Food trucks are an anomaly that originated in primarily Mexican parts of Los Angeles as a quick way to serve tacos and burritos to busy locals. In recent years, LA’s food truck scene has expanded from the occasional “roach coach” serving questionable tacos in neighborhoods where the gourmet refuse to trod, to providing a plethora of options including everything from Vietnamese Banh Mi on French baguettes with pickled radishes at the Nom Nom Truck to Build-Your-Own Ice Cream Sandwiches at CoolHaus. This distinctly entrepreneurial movement has sparked a huge cult following. There are smart phone apps entirely devoted to the epic quest for the food truck, showing their locations as reported by the never-ending Twitter feed. Truxmap.com even partners with Google to turn those Twitter feeds into an interactive map that lets you find the nearest truck in seconds. FindLAFoodTrucks.com consolidates them all into one page. Foursquare.com calls them “legendary,” and awards a huge amount of points to anyone who finds one.
But despite all these disparate methods for finding them, food trucks are best when you see one from across the road at lunchtime and know you have to go over and see what’s being served right then, because in an hour the truck will be gone and you won’t be able to get those $5 fries covered in parmesan cheese, sriracha, and truffle oil. Remember when you were a kid and the ice cream truck pulled up outside your house playing some sort of whimsical ditty on a 100-degree day? Take that concept, delete the chintzy music and put an entire full service kitchen with a trained culinary staff inside. Also add a name in stylized letters on the side of the brightly colored truck. The sense of surprise and, oddly, achievement one feels from these happy accidents is fantastic. The experience is akin to finding something you love that has been lost in the corner of your closet for a year.
In the average American restaurant, an extensive menu is expected. But a restaurant-on-wheels has different restrictions. Food trucks are uniquely suited to doing one thing and one thing well. Unlike a ground-bound restaurant with a store front and regular customers, the mobile nature of the food truck allows owners to focus on one thing they love and nothing else, specializing in ways rarely seen outside of Asia. Are you a master of tapas, tiny Spanish plates of dates wrapped in bacon and fire-grilled octopi, but don’t have the capital to buy a fancy building with a liquor license and a wine cellar? Start a food truck and park in front of a wine bar. Are you passionate about shaved ice? Chocolate? Are you an “Egg-Slut”? Do you love imaginative grilled cheese sandwiches more than anything in the world? Is washing dishes your least favorite thing? Do you make “Tortas 2 Die For”? All of these are good reasons to start a food truck.
Years of trucks that served only tacos and burritos set a precedent that could easily be exceeded and improved. Food trucks were actually not very interesting to anyone outside of Mexican neighborhoods until about 2010. Unfamiliar food cooked in a moving vehicle by unfamiliar people was and often still is a scary concept for most potential customers. Street food has been a popular concept since the invention of streets, but particularly in LA it was only eaten and sold by minority populations until recently. Chuckwagons and lunch carts were popular in the 1920s, but fell out of fashion around the time the car finally won out over the more efficient railed streetcar. Unlike the walking populous of New York, the majority of the Los Angeles middle and upper classes were convinced that any food coming out of a vehicle wasn’t going to be as good as that from a “real” restaurant and didn’t spend enough time outside of their own cars to care about anything street-mounted; particularly not anything like a hotdog or an ice cream bar that they could buy at the grocery store. And for some intangible reason, the average consumer was convinced that the food was sure to be contaminated in one way or another. But as long as they’re regulated like any other place that serves food, there is no greater likelihood that something ordered from a food truck will give you food poisoning than anything else you eat.
At sardine-can events like Staples Center concerts, the occasional immigrant family would sell greasy bacon-wrapped hotdogs with grilled onions to hoards of hungry late-night patrons in parking lots, but LA really didn’t have street food except for the occasional burrito truck. We even had a food truck in my hometown. Judith’s Foods has driven around La Canada since I can remember, but was only ever frequented by Mexican yard hands and housepainters. I can say with absolute certainty that I have never eaten even a bite of someone else’s taco from that truck. The stigma against these unknown variables along with the terrifying journey into the other kept food trucks out of the mainstream for a long time. But then the Kogi Truck tried an experiment. They decided to combine the lower class with the upper class to create an enticing new combination of gourmet and grungy. A couple of Korean guys with a passion for barbecue got together, bought a taco truck, and started serving tacos like none the world had seen. By parking themselves in front of clubs and bars, they were able to easily corner the late-night drunk-food market, and the mythos of Kogi grew from there to include five trucks and two restaurants. Kimchee quesadillas anybody?
It was only once food trucks started serving gourmet fusion cuisine that they became trendy. And trendiness is everything in Los Angeles. LA, for all its quirks and subcultures, can be rather homogenous, latching on to one idea and sticking to it with all of its might. What is popular is very important to a cosmopolitan Los Angeleno. A city so connected to the movie industry has to be aware of trends at all times. But it isn’t just that. Gourmet food trucks brought street food to a street culture. By expanding their radius of operation to service the greater Los Angeles area rather than just small Mexican neighborhoods, food trucks made it possible to eat well anywhere they happened to park. Being popular gives the trucks a social mobility previously not afforded to them, and a niche that no one even knew needed to be filled. That niche is specifically catering to the upper and middle class’s love of the trend.
But like all food trends, the food truck was impossible to keep contained in one city. Truxmap hosts maps for cities from Vancouver to Baltimore. I had a smoked salmon and dill crepe from a truck I found in Dublin. Beloit, Wisconsin even has its own burrito truck, Tacos Gonzales. Utilizing a classic food truck tactic, they park at the farmer’s market early in the morning to feed hungry shoppers breakfasts and brunches of hefty burritos, tiny tacos, and huge, incomprehensible quesadillas bursting with beans and various types of marinated meats. This is the traditional food truck, a simple institution without the potential for pretension inherent in foodie endeavors like Garlic Scapes, a truck dedicated to garlicky delights. During the fall, I go down to the market every week and eat tacos doused in spicy salsa for breakfast. As a college freshman far from cosmopolitan LA, the food from that truck was one of the few things that kept me feeling connected to home.
It is impossible to separate Los Angeles from the car. Getting around in LA is nearly inconceivable without one, but the food trucks, being mobile themselves, make it possible to briefly eliminate the customer’s perpetual vehicle. If a truck parks outside of your office building every Friday, you can just walk outside to pick up a mandarin chicken burrito, a decadent French onion grilled cheese sandwich, or Hawaiian raw fish salad.
This impermanence fits the city culture perfectly as well. One day you walk out of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to find The Buttermilk Truck, and the next time you go to LACMA Komodo Food is across the street, a lizard crouched on the side of the truck, lying in wait for you. Bringing that diesel-powered delectation to the popularity-conscious consumer was entrepreneurial genius.
But what is perhaps even more brilliant is the pricing. I have never paid more than about $10 for a single item at a food truck, and all of them have cheaper options. Even The Lobsta Truck’s rolls don’t break $15. In LA, going out to eat somewhere that’s trendy can often be an expensive endeavor. A foodie on the prowl can easily spend all their money on pricy food at eateries like The Farm of Beverly Hills, Ciudad, and even Lemonade, an upscale cafeteria-style joint in the basement of an office building. Food trucks are places where you rarely order more than one item, and if you do it’s probably a cheap appetizer or sauce like the $2.50 tomato soup shots sold at the Grilled Cheese Truck. At Glowfish, ordering more than your portion of steaming cabbage pancake is inadvisable simply because of the sheer quantity of food. The most expensive item on their largely do-it-yourself menu was $10.
The side of “The Food Truck of Japanese Festival Cuisine,” proclaims, “Consumed With Joy,” and when a business makes claims like that before you even order, you know they either know what they’re doing, or are desperate for customers. Since this was a gleaming truck with a very professional looking paintjob and a brushstroke fish as its logo, I knew we were in for a treat the moment we walked up to their window. Scents of teriyaki, cabbage, and seaweed wafted from inside and were blown away in LA’s exhaust-fume tinged air. As my friends and I mulled over the menu, the guy at the window engaged us in playful banter, asking about what we’d bought and saying, “Have any of you tried okonomiyaki before?”
Had we tried okonomiyaki? Well, a friend of mine who studied abroad in Japan used to sell okonomiyaki at school, but neither of my companions had ever had the privilege of eating the custardy, griddled pancakes full of cabbage, egg, and whatever else your heart desires inside them. He briefly explained the concoction, and asked for my name. Stumbling clumsily over my words as I ordered caused him to call me Dizzy Lizzy and sing Beatles lyrics at me about the way I rock and roll.
I ordered a combination they called the A1: pickled ginger, scallions, shrimp, bacon, and bonito flakes with Japanese mayonnaise and teriyaki sauce. The window guy asked us what we had bought that day, and the cook ended up liking Grace’s white and gold studded shoes so much he gave us free garlic soybeans. Grace was completely out of money after her shoe purchase and so we were very grateful for the gift.
Despite being street-mounted, the service at food trucks is rarely fast. They make you wait just like any restaurant. The Kogi Truck has hour-long lines stretching out from each one of their five trucks at any given time for just this reason. Most trucks don’t have quite the same following, but that says nothing about the quality of their food. The food coming out of those tiny kitchens is often worth waiting that hour for. Glowfish, no exception, took a while. But as I opened my little plastic container with Dizzy Lizzy scrawled across the top and “Illumination in every bite” printed on the Glowfish branded label, the smells of shrimp and teriyaki and the bonito flakes dancing in the night breeze, made me grin as widely as I had that all that day.