Remember when a food truck was a giant van transporting groceries to your local supermarket? Or a Meals-on-Wheels delivery service for the ill or disadvantaged? Or a Good Humor traveling freezer, driven by a genial fellow in a crisp white suit, bells jingling to let the neighborhood kids know that ice cream would soon sweeten their summer day? Or a mobile Mexican kitchen parked in or near the barrio to offer the locals a fast round of tacos or burritos, minus the home clean-up?
Now, you go to the corner of 11th Street and Division, South of Market, and see an entire dedicated lot with a banner that reads “StrEat Food” and around a dozen trucks parked within the rectangle, offering a wide selection of edibles — ethnic, fusion, even good ole burgers and fries — that is quintessential melting-pot fare. On a balmy Los Angeles night, you attend the First Friday art walk on Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Venice, and find the street lined with more varied and exotic food trucks than one could imagine — and it looks like they’re all doing more business than the area’s galleries, bars, and cafes combined.
The proliferation was slow and steady for a while, almost unnoticeable — like a plant growing but only truly visible via time-lapse photography. By the time I started spotting the occasional truck outside the Mission and East Los Angeles and realized that they weren’t simply selling tacos, it was already a done deal. It was a full-on wave when my epicurean pal Andrew and his wife, Linda, alerted me to the Fort Mason Friday night phenomenon, Off the Grid — a regular weekly party with 30 or so food trucks, plus food tents, dessert carts, a cocktail bar, a wine bar and beers, as well as D.J.s and live bands. It’s reached the point where the truck brigade also pops up at various days, times, and locations in San Francisco, including Civic Center, U.N. Plaza, and Fifth and Minna Streets. And StrEat Food Park at its SOMA location is open for lunch service seven days a week and for dinner every night but Sunday.
As far as Bay Area truck cuisine goes, it’s as multicultural as one might expect, with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Nepalese, Burmese, Malaysian, Indian, Persian, Moroccan, Caribbean, Salvadorian, Peruvian, and, yes … Mexican variations. American food? It ranges from Cali to Creole and beyond, including the requisite burgers and pizza, different types of barbecue, and chicken wings (some of the latter from a business known as Cluck It Up, which is one of my favorites from among the collection of clever truck names). Bacon lovers get at least two targets for their passion: Bacon Bacon and Bacon Mania. Coffee, tea, or kombucha? There are beverage trucks to slake many kinds of thirst — tapioca beads optional.
Developing in a hotbed of celebrity culture, the Los Angeles food truck scene has, as expected, launched a few stars into the culinary heavens, foremost among them being Roy Choi — the visionary chef behind the gourmet Kogi BBQ Taco Trucks that helped get this movement rolling with a fusion of Korean and Mexican street eats. Called the godfather of food trucks, Choi has seen his career trajectory fictionalized in director-screenwriter-actor Jon Favreau’s delightful film Chef — a warm-hearted and comedic mix of foodie movie, road picture, and unlikely success story. It’s fun and even a bit uplifting, although it will definitely make you hungry.
If your stomach does indeed growl and you happen to be in Los Angeles, I recommend that you check Twitter for the whereabouts of one of Choi’s fleet of Kogi trucks, go to where it’s parked, and chow down on one of his signature Kogi tacos or burritos. I happen to be partial to the chicken burrito. After a bit of research, I can tell you that it consists of chicken that’s been marinated in a ginger-soy concoction, grilled until the juices are caramelized, then wrapped in a flour tortilla with a mix of hash-browns, scrambled eggs, shredded cheese, chopped onions and cilantro, romaine lettuce, and cabbage tossed in Korean chili-soy vinaigrette, some sesame seeds, and, as the coup de grace, one of Choi’s secret sauces.
With grub like that and many other options, is it any wonder that so many people seek out the food trucks? If this is truly a revolution in dining, and the proprietors won, so did the customers — as long as they don’t get run over by their favorite new restaurants.