The food trucks of Los Angeles: Affordable destination dining


Visitors enjoy steak tacos at a food truck lot in Santa Monica, Calif. (Bret Hartman/For The Washington Post)
September 5, 2013

The sun has dropped behind the headless nude statues in front of Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and the cool ocean breezes have started to drift in, sinking the temperature at Exposition Park to a range that makes only dogs happy. Everyone who walks on two legs has either pulled out a jacket or crawled beneath a warm blanket.

As for me, I have neither a jacket nor a blanket as I wait for “Shaun of the Dead” to start as part of Street Food Cinema. Which explains why I’m standing in a long line outside the Perkup Mobile Coffee Truck, a vendor that sells a variety of brewed and espresso-based drinks using fair-trade, small-lot and locally roasted beans. All of which is great. But right now, I’d be a lot happier if Perkup would speed up its service. I’m starting to shiver under my light guayabera shirt, which had served me so well a few hours earlier under the hot California sun.

Details: L.A. food trucks

As the minutes tick by, each one feeling as long as a mandatory staff meeting, I have time to formulate a theory about food trucks and lines, and how both are symbolic of a Los Angeles that practically invented the idea of celebrity.

Without lines, I think, there would be a compromised sense of status. There’d be nothing for VIPs to cut as a way to flaunt their power. There’d be nothing to indicate which movies or which clubs have captured the public’s imagination. Even the lines of cars that clog Smog City’s famous freeways are an opportunity to express status: You need a sleek, eye-catching ride to help you suffer through the hours stuck in traffic

Lines, of course, are far less sexy when you actually have to stand in one, and I stood in a lot of them over the course of a week in Los Angeles, a city with one of the oldest and richest food truck scenes in the country. Trucks have something of a celebrity status here, fueled in part by the city’s easy access to television cameras, its love of good food and its moderate climate, which lures chefs to launch ambitious projects that can feed the public year-round.

Los Angeles County, with more than 80 cities within its borders, plays host to more than 220 gourmet food trucks, many with serious pedigrees. You’ll find one operated by a classically trained French chef who doubles as a judge on ABC’s “The Taste” (Ludo Lefebvre, who sells fried chicken from his Ludo truck). You’ll find another run by a pastry-arts graduate of the French Culinary Institute (Gigi Pascual of the Buttermilk truck). You’ll find one under the direction of a former Wolfgang Puck chef (Antonio Medina of the Gastrobus). You’ll even find the most famous food truck in all these United States (duh: Kogi BBQ).

Trucks here don’t fight for a few precious parking spots around a public square, looking to feed a concentrated cluster of hungry office workers. They’ve integrated themselves into the L.A. landscape, squatting next to museums, camping out near beaches, parking at shopping centers, feeding community gatherings and maybe even catering a television production crew.

“He’s trying to haggle for a couple hundred dollars,” Sumant Pardal, chef and owner of the India Jones Chow Truck, tells me right after negotiating a deal to cater a new TV show. “I’ll do it for $200 less, but why set my price wrong when I have a standard rate? We did ‘Californication’ or whatever it’s called. $1,500! They loved it!”

Self-contained events

Food trucks in Los Angeles regularly create unique, if temporary, dining destinations in a city already packed with the traditional brick-and-mortar variety. And just as important, they don’t need to be the star attraction: They’re often willing to play a supporting role in an attempt to build a larger community around them.

“The expectation is that there are going to be food trucks at every outdoor event,” says Matthew Geller, chief executive of the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association, which is largely credited with helping foster L.A.’s thriving scene.

Street Food Cinema is a prime example. On this Saturday night, hundreds have gathered on a long, narrow strip of grass to watch a pair of Edgar Wright comedies from the 2000s. Everyone and their dog, literally, is facing a giant inflatable movie screen. A palm tree in the distance appears to be growing out of the top of the pop-up theater.

More than a dozen food trucks are parked nearby. Their offerings range from the personal (the Steel City Sandwich truck, whose owners hawk items from their Pittsburgh home town) to the tongue-in-cheek (Trailer Park Truck, which puts a gourmet spin on such blue-collar favorites as Frito pie) to the mercifully functional (hello, Perkup coffee!). There are trucks selling Brazilian fare, beignets, barbecue and Hawaiian shave ice. There’s not a cheap kebab vendor in sight.

Before the first feature has started, I’ve eaten my way through a Frito pie (a caloric joy ride of seasoned Angus beef, applewood-smoked bacon crumbles, onion strings and house-made cheese sauce), a half-rack of fall-off-the-bone spare ribs (from the Rollin Rib BBQ Joint truck), a plate of Wachos (a signature mess of waffle fries topped with seemingly everything rich and fatty from inside the Lobos truck) and a slice of chocolate “pizzertz” cookie from Mercedes Binge.

The coffee will do more than keep me warm. It will keep me awake after that pileup of Americana cooking, as sleep-inducing as Ambien. (Did I sneak in a late-night snack of beignets fresh from the fryer and dusted with powdered sugar? Does Vince Vaughn play the same character in every movie?)

Even before Simon Pegg confuses a zombie attack for a drunken come-on in “Shaun of the Dead,” I’m already smitten with Street Food Cinema. The event pulls together several of my favorite things in life: food, music and movies. Oh, and dogs, both large and handbag size. But more than that, I’m taken with the organizers and their genius at creating a self-contained event that doesn’t rely on someone else’s business to generate customers. Nor does it poach diners from brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Hunting down dinner

This is a common theme about food trucks and Los Angeles: The vendors have learned to create their own opportunities and their own events or to ingratiate themselves into an existing landscape in a way that complements the activities around them instead of threatening them. I’m thinking specifically about the Let’s Be Frank trailer in the Helms Bakery district, a retail and restaurant complex carved out of the bakery’s historic buildings in Culver City, which date from 1931, when bread was delivered directly to your door. (Bread trucks = the original food trucks?)

Five days a week, Let’s Be Frank sits outside a brick-and-mortar restaurant, with no apparent ill will between the two establishments, which have carved out their own niches. Let’s Be Frank was originally launched in San Francisco by a pair of street-food fans, including Sue Moore, the former “meat forager” at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse. My Frank Dog is a juicy, snappy, natural-casing link stuffed with grass-fed beef from cattle never once injected with hormones or steroids. Topped with a tangle of caramelized onions and a drizzle of spicy Devil Sauce, it’s a reminder that not all hot dogs are created equal. Some are not junk food.

Equally important, once you’ve finished your dog, you can experience the ’60s and ’70s via the antique light fixtures at Rejuvenation or browse through the Library of Congress-esque collection of art books at Arcana. In short, you won’t waste an afternoon chasing some food truck to a neighborhood with few other attractions.

I mean, seriously, who flies all the way to L.A. only to hop into a rental car and travel even more in laborious pursuit of a food truck? Okay, I did, but it was a mistake. A costly mistake. Once, after I’d checked a truck’s Twitter feed and plugged that day’s location into my GPS, I was led to an “Omega Man”-like section of downtown, dwarfed by monolithic skyscrapers that reinforce the individual’s utter insignificance against such corporate titans as Bank of America, AT&T and KPMG. The ultimate slap came when I paid for an hour of parking at an underground lot: $35.

Only one truck can inspire such stupidity: Kogi BBQ, the chef Roy Choi Korean fusion operation that’s widely acknowledged as the godfather of modern food trucks. I’m not sure that my kimchi quesadilla and short-rib tacos were worth the parking surcharge, but they came close — particularly the quesadilla, a gloriously sloppy set of griddled tortilla triangles packed with Jack and cheddar cheeses and caramelized kimchi. I knew that I shouldn’t eat the whole thing, but I did.

Calling off the chase

The truth is, I tracked down other trucks during my time in Los Angeles, like Tacos el Gallito at the corner of Venice Boulevard and South La Brea Avenue. I wanted to sample a modern taco truck that can trace its lineage to the construction-site loncheras, which have reportedly been serving Southern California since the 1960s.

History aside, my lengua and chorizo tacos were models of economy and flavor: seasoned meats, roughly chopped onions and cilantro on fresh corn tortillas. I was also handed what amounted to a small condiment bar of garnishes. I could add a squeeze of lime, a sliver of radish, a transparent layer of pickled onion or a splash of green or red salsa. I could even bite into a blistered pepper if the mood struck. It was a Yucatán taqueria crowded onto a single paper plate.

Sometimes I would stumble onto a food truck while headed elsewhere, like the time I drove past a park in Culver City and spotted the Green Truck, an all-organic operation with a solar-powered commissary and a fleet of vehicles that run in part on recycled vegetable oil. Like Let’s Be Frank, the Green Truck predates the celebrated Kogi BBQ. Unlike Kogi BBQ, though, neither of the older vendors was an early adopter of Twitter, a fatal obstacle to their immortality in the history of food trucks. Regardless, I’d eat the Green Truck’s Kale-Yeah salad any day of the week, perhaps as an antidote to Kogi’s kimchi quesadilla.

Fortunately, this running around has become unnecessary. The Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association rendered the pursuit moot in January 2010 when it started scheduling trucks to vend from seven private lots around Los Angeles, allowing each truck to appear at a site once every four weeks. Like clockwork, the lots instantly become pop-up food courts each week.

On Tuesday nights, for example, the parking lot beside the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica fills with trucks, a gathering that’s a beacon for both families and the food-conscious. Children play on the grass behind the museum, while adults sneak off to a bar at the nearby Victorian, a 19th-century house converted into a special-events space, where bands set up in the basement for the event.

“There are kind of two groups” at the Santa Monica gathering, says Peter Crest, a Boston transplant who launched the Roll’n Lobster truck in Los Angeles in 2012. “There’s the foodies that follow the trucks; then there’s people that aren’t quite aware. . . . Maybe they’re not as patient as the foodies because they don’t know the industry. But you joke with them a little bit: Well, go find the maitre d’. ”

Leave it to a food truck operator from Boston to tweak the pretensions of those Angelenos still tied to a stuffier idea of dining. Those diners, however, are becoming relics, as two trends appear to be hardening into permanent realities — a soft economy that leaves little disposable income for higher-end restaurants and an unrepentant taste for the casual lifestyle, from morning till night. Life is a beach.

Bringing water to the desert

Food trucks, of course, can be found at the beach, too. One Thursday night in mid-July, as vacationers wrapped up a day of sunbathing and sand volleyball, eight trucks rolled up to a lot just steps from Mother’s Beach in Marina del Rey. Despite a Marriott across the street and condos as far as the eye can see, Mother’s Beach is something of a food desert, at least in terms of sit-down restaurants.

“I used to live in Marina del Rey,” says Geller of the mobile food vendors association. “The funny thing about Marina del Rey people is that they always complain that there’s nothing to do, but they won’t leave Marina del Rey. So something like this [event] worked out really well.”

On this particular Thursday, people wandered from truck to truck examining menus, occasionally dragging reluctant pooches that had inevitably found some juicy morsel on the blacktop. Children were clamoring for soft-serve ice cream from the Melt truck. Adults were devouring the lobster roll from Cousins Maine Lobster. (Yes, there’s more than one lobster truck in L.A.) Some were taking their meals to covered picnic tables with a view of the marina. A few may even have boarded the water bus to nearby Burton W. Chace Park for a free outdoor performance by the Marina del Rey Summer Symphony.

What no one seemed to be doing was swimming. That may be because the water at Mother’s Beach has a reputation for a high bacteria count.

So it would seem that food trucks can attract people to water, but they can’t make them swim.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires ingesting more calories than a draft horse.
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