Forget everything you think you know about food trucks. During a year of traveling the country researching the topic, I stumbled upon a few truths: gleaming mobile kitchens run by trained chefs who have mastered Twitter can turn out disastrous food. Rickety carts with questionable permits might just turn out some of the best. The “roach coach” moniker doesn’t apply to the majority of this country’s mobile food operations any more than it does to the majority of this country’s restaurants (well, save for the “coach” part, of course). And no, Kogi did not invent the food truck. But they just might have reinvented its wheels.
At least they got the world to sit up and take notice. The L.A.-based Korean taco truck was repeatedly cited as a source of inspiration by food truck owners I spoke to during my travels, and in the time since Kogi rolled out in late 2008, the buzz around food trucks has reached fever pitch. Favoring quirk over pomp, talented cooks and critically acclaimed chefs are ditching the brick-and-mortar standard for kitchens on wheels, churning out incredible food for a new breed of diners more interested in flavor than fuss. Just in time for the biggest recession this country has seen since the Depression, this alternative to the traditional restaurant model proved to be a pretty smart business move for many talented cooks. What with rent or mortgage, tables and chairs, décor, front-of-the-house staff, a stocked bar, and additional labor, the average restaurant costs around $400,000 just to get the doors open. Most of the food truck owners I met across the country spent a fraction of that, more in the neighborhood of $20,000 to $50,000 to get up and running. Sure, there’s the disparity in profits to consider, but for the most part these truck chefs are still making a decent living, while reaping the benefits of being their own boss and creating the biggest buzz the industry has seen since the advent of quick-serves.
In fact, the interest in food trucks has become so widespread that in September of 2010 Business.gov, the U.S. government’s official website for small businesses, added a page titled “Tips for Starting Your Own Street Food Business,” with links to state departments of health, zoning laws, and business permits. Navigating the red tape is often cited as the biggest hurdle for wanna-be food truck operators, so many of whom are itching to get into the game that several cities are being forced to reexamine their mobile food vending laws to satisfy the growing demand. Cities such as Los Angeles, where food trucks have long been legal, have seen mobile food vendor applications quadruple in the past two years, along with complaints from restaurants facing new competition. In response, city council panels have been set up specifically to keep the peace, setting limits on the number of permits issued and establishing new regulations on a continual basis. In areas where street food vending has historically been something of a nonissue, the city governments are scrambling to come up with regulations, as well as decide exactly where they stand on the issue. Case in point, Boston mayor Thomas Menino: to get his city up to speed with his neighbors to the south, New York and Philly, he hired a new food policy director in 2010 and launched a “Food Truck Challenge” to test the waters, with a goal of permitting thirty to fifty trucks by summer of 2011. Similarly, in June of 2010, Cincinnati approved a Mobile Food & Beverage Truck Vending Pilot Program to create twenty designated food truck parking spots in the downtown area; within a month all twenty slots were filled.
Keeping up with the regulation changes, the cities jumping on board with the movement, and the cities slow to come around (looking at you, Chicago) is as dizzying as tracking each new arena the popularity of food trucks seeps into. For the fall season of 2010, Food Network launched the show The Great Food Truck Race
, a sort of street food take on the Amazing Race
. On user-generated sites like Yelp, beloved trucks from various cities are holding their own with big-name restaurants. The annual National Restaurant Association convention (the biggest show in the industry) now has a section of the showroom floor dedicated solely to food trucks, with equipment companies, graphics specialists, and truck manufacturers chomping at the bit to sell their services to the next Kogi. Needless to say, these mobile kitchens have come a long way since the chuck wagons of the Wild West, the construction-site lunch wagons of the mid-1900s, and even the taco trucks that started popping up throughout the country in the 1970s. Taking many forms—a custom-welded pig-shaped rig complete with giant snout, a gleaming carnival on wheels manned by a crew sporting fake moustaches and turbans—this new breed of food truck often stakes out regular spots to set up shop for the day, but more recently, with the advent of Twitter, legions of chowhounds are kept in the loop with updates of the truck’s travels.
But the food truck scene is not all gleaming mobile kitchens, newfangled technology, and accomplished chefs ditching fine dining for life on the road—time-tested global traditions continue with skewered chicken rotating over smoldering mesquite in a truck’s trailer bed on Hawaii’s North Shore, Czech dumplings and goulash simmering away in a tiny wooden cart in Portland, or a Sri Lankan immigrant swirling lentil crepe batter onto his mobile griddle in New York City.
In selecting the carts, trailers, and trucks that appear in this book, I traveled to areas with a high concentration of street food (with a couple of exceptions for stumbled-upon lone stars in New Hampshire, Kansas City, and even Marfa, Texas). Arriving in cities like Los Angeles and New York, which are nearly drowning in food truck options, I set about with copious notes in hand, consulted with area experts, and did a lot of walking and a lot of talking, with the principal goal of finding trucks and carts that were (a) serving delicious food, and (b) run by people with a story to tell. (In fact, I found so many fantastic eats that I included the extras as Side Dishes, which are sprinkled throughout these pages.) These meals on wheels turned out to be some of the best food I’ve eaten in my life, more memorable than multicourse tasting menus served in the ivory towers of haute cuisine, and the people behind these foods were often more inspiring than any “celebrity chef.” For the street cooks who are first-generation Americans, their livelihood is a connection to their community, their cart or truck serving as a hub for conversation and, of course, eating; they are also a sign that a particular region of India, Eastern Europe, or Mexico has arrived in the States, with its definitive foods in tow. And for the young American cooks striving to make a name for themselves, the common thread is the same: with passion, commitment, and hard work, anyone can scrape out a living serving delicious food—no restaurant needed. Los Angeles, California
By most accounts, Los Angeles is ground zero, the historical entry point for taco trucks on American soil. Brief history lesson: L.A. was actually a Mexican territory from 1821 until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848. And even though the U.S. took control after the war, Mexicans reestablished themselves in L.A. in a big way after the Revolution of 1910, with an influx of immigrants larger than any Mexican migration up to that point. The Latino community has grown steadily since, and now accounts for half of L.A.’s population.
By the mid-1970s, East Los Angeles was the bull’s-eye of the city’s Latino community, with the highest concentration of Mexican immigrants in the country. Suddenly the landscape was dotted with tables topped with hot plates set up along the road, makeshift carts selling freshly cut fruit and corn, and delivery trucks outfitted to turn out tacos and more. With the taco truck industry in L.A. ballooning, regulations had to be enforced. The L.A. County Department of Public Health started the permit process in the late 1980s, requiring sanitation licenses and inspections similar to those a restaurant faces. Immigrants concerned about their own legal status, not to mention their truck’s, continued to operate off the books. As of 2010, the department has 3,820 licensed trucks on record, but Erin Glenn, CEO of the Asociación de Loncheros, an advocacy group for and of taco truck owners, estimates that the number is closer to 7,000. “Clearly, they’re not all registered,” Glenn says. “But our concern is to assist as many as we can. Taco trucks are part of the landscape here. Outside of being traditionally Mexican, it’s traditionally Angeleno as well.”
In 2008, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance stipulating that a food truck couldn’t park in a spot for more than an hour at a time. The Asociación de Loncheros organized a march to draw attention to the case, and with the help of a volunteer legal team, the ordinance was found unconstitutional the day before it was to take effect. Some of the longstanding taco truck owners have said, off the record, that the recent attention L.A.’s food truck scene has received thanks to the influx of gourmet trucks has brought unwanted scrutiny from the county and city. Some would say that’s a good thing, but regardless, the divide between L.A.’s traditional taco trucks and the new concept trucks roaming the streets is fairly vast, and it isn’t all based on competition. In fact, the target market has little overlap—one audience develops a taste for a taco truck out of convenience and routine, while the other actively seeks out a roving truck using social media, with the thrill of the chase adding up to at least half of the flavor. “There’s this guerilla-style revolution taking place with all of the new concept food trucks popping up, but it’s important not to forget that tacos came before Twitter,” says Javier Cabral, an East L.A. native and creator of the food blog Teenage Glutster (www.teenageglutster.blogspot.com). “I mean, they’re cool to try, but when you need it, the O.G. taco truck will always be there. It will never be roaming, it will not have anything over $5, and it will always be reliably delicious.”
Still, the success of Kogi, the undisputed juggernaut of L.A.’s new breed of food trucks, not only spawned a legion of imitators (Kalbi BBQ, Bool BBQ, Don Chow Tacos, and even Calbi, a partnership truck with the Baja Fresh corporation), but it also opened the floodgates to an alternative for chefs without the dough for a traditional restaurant. Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize–winning food critic for the LA Weekly, estimates he’s been eating off trucks roaming his city for thirty years. While he tends to get more excited about discovering a new regional Mexican truck than some slick new fusion truck, he understands the business behind the boom. “If you’re an interesting young chef who wants to get his ideas out, you can slave away on somebody’s line and hope one day to enrapture enough people to invest in your concept,” Gold says, “or, you can figure out a concept and have your vinyl stickers plastered on a food truck and roll out for a mid four figures. You decide.” Taco Truck Starter Guide
With an estimated seven thousand tacos trucks to choose from in L.A., you could eat at a different one every day for twenty years and never have to repeat a meal. So where to start? This list, for one. It’s a carefully curated selection of trucks that have carved out a niche for themselves with one or two specialties, usually menu items that represent the region of Mexico the owner hails from. Once you start to associate the names of towns plastered on the trucks with the food likely to be inside of them, you’re on your way to decoding the system.Aguascalientes
(Olympic Blvd. between McBride and McDonnell Aves., Los Angeles)
The demand for suadero and al pastor at this four-year-old operation eventually outgrew the truck, so once the sun disappears and the street lights flicker on, a sturdy card table goes up on the sidewalk just in front of the rig and the real show begins. In a giant vat heated from a serious tabletop burner below, hunks of beef brisket simmer in bubbling fat, juiced with lime and seasoned only with salt. Just next to the suadero, a towering rotisserie spit turns a cone-shaped assembly of al pastor, layers of pork fat alternating with thin slices of the meat itself, seasoned with onion, lime juice, salt, and adobo, the sauce of canned chipotles. Gas-powered flames lick the sides as it rotates, caramelizing the pineapple juice running down the sides. The meat is carved to order, falling onto tiny tortillas, and the crowd that gathers throughout the night alternates between the tart al pastor and the oil-slicked suadero, comfortable that they don’t have to choose between the two.Cemitas Poblanas Junior’s
(Olympic Blvd. at Rowan Ave., Los Angeles)
Okay, so the name game might not actually apply here. It’s true that the Pueblan owners specialize in cemitas—toasted sandwiches of meat, avocado, chipotle salsa spread, an herb called papalo, and Oaxacan string cheese on a sesame seed roll—but that isn’t actually the star of the show. Seek out instead the mulitas and memelas, the former a taco sandwich of sorts, made from two corn tortillas topped with cheese, slathered with beans, smashed together around your choice of filling (go for the chicharrón, crispy pork skin that adds a bit of salty crunch), then thrown back onto the griddle with a good dose of oil to crisp up. The memelas are actually a Oaxacan classic, similar to sopes and huaraches, but the masa is stuffed with lard-cooked beans before it’s flattened into an oval, tossed on the griddle to toast, and then topped like a tostada. This truck is unique, using yellow masa for the memelas, giving them an earthier, whole grain–type heartiness. El Gallito
(3800 E Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles)
There are a dozen Gallitos in this local chain, but this is the only one with a taco truck parked outside, the ultimate proof that food served out of a truck can completely surpass the same food made in a brick-and-mortar kitchen. For many of the truck’s patrons, the draw is the outdoor patio anchored by a central bar and a stage that hosts live bands on weekends (banda bands, no less; louder, wilder, and more dastardly youth-oriented than a reserved mariachi). But for those who think with their stomachs, it’s the lure of the goat that brings them to this truck. Birria de chivo is the specialty here, and the traditional Jaliscan goat stew lives up to its reputation, the shredded meat as tender as a ripe tomato, with a heady perfume of smoky roasted chiles mingling with toasted cloves and fresh oregano. Fold a few forkfuls into a warm tortilla, sprinkle on chopped white onions and cilantro, give it a good squeeze of lime, then dip the end into the cup of consommé alongside, being careful not to lose the mother lode in the broth. Now repeat.La Isla Bonita
(4th St. and Rose Ave., Venice)
Venice Beach is known for a few things, among them meatheads with more muscles than brain cells and fortune-tellers whose crystal balls are as weathered as their shtick. But a legend among lunchers is tucked a couple of blocks away from the beach: Antonio Gonzalez’s twenty-five-year-old “Beautiful Island” taco truck, hand-painted with an aquatic theme that could earn it a cameo in The Little Mermaid. The décor is a good clue as to the specialty, and Antonio’s success supporting eight kids with his truck is a testament to the quality. With plenty of turnover, the seafood that stars on tostadas and in cocktails is bought fresh each morning, always disappearing by the 4 p.m. closing time to ensure the same routine the next day. Sea bass works on a slightly different schedule, marinating in salt and lime juice for twenty-four hours before meeting up with tomatoes, onions, and cilantro for the ceviche tostada. Bigger appetites reach for giant Styrofoam cups of the campechana, a seafood cocktail with the chilled tomato flavor of gazpacho, the tangy heat of serrano chiles and lime juice, and a medley of shrimp, sea bass, octopus, crabmeat, and imitation abalone (standard throughout L.A., as the real stuff is incredibly expensive). Most of the lunch crowd lingers around the truck, apparently anticipating the need for round two, but even those who grab and go never quite make it to the beach without stopping for a few bites.Mariscos 4 Vientos #3
(3014 E Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles)
There’s such a festive vibe around this seafood truck that you’d think you stumbled onto a birthday party. Actually, everyone is just excited to find ocean-side classics on a street with no ocean in sight. Up first are the delicious tacos de camarón: plump shrimp tucked into a tortilla and fried into a crispy pouch, then doused with a garlicky red salsa, elevating the crunchy taco to excellence. Save room, though, because the shrimp get put to yet another use in tostadas de aguachile, a take on ceviche that relies on both the heat of chiles and the acid of lime juice to “cook” otherwise raw shrimp. Here, the large, split shrimp are impeccably fresh and briny, tossed in their tangy marinade with slivers of red onion, then piled onto an avocado-lined tostada. About the only way the meal can get better is if you become enough of a regular that you can do what the genius next to me did: hand a six-pack of Corona to the guy in the truck and have it handed back as micheladas, beer spiked with limey hot sauce, each bottle garnished with a fresh shrimp.
Excerpted from Food Trucks by Heather Shouse. Copyright © 2011 by Heather Shouse. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.