By Erin Zimmer
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
You probably haven't been to Merlindia, let alone tried the indigenous cuisine (called Merlindian, naturally). But after a little thumbing around on your hand-held mobile device, you'll know when it's parked at the corner of 14th and T streets.
While most street vendors are tied to specific intersections or pockets of the Mall, the Fojol Brothers of Merlindia usually take a lap around the city before settling on a vacant parking spot and announcing the location on Twitter. "It's a traveling culinary carnival," they yell to pedestrians in popular hangouts (Chinatown, Dupont Circle, Georgetown), waving from the windows as they drive by, blasting playful circus music.
Some people shoot back what-in-God's-name looks; others seem to intuitively understand. The difference might have something to do with alcohol consumption, the four guys behind the kitschy venture realize, because weekend nights have been their prime business time. Wearing fake mustaches and bright gloves to match their psychedelic turbans, the Fojol Brothers (only two of whom are actually brothers) are something of a Generation-Y band of Merry Pranksters, selling biodegradable trays of curry.
The food is from Merlindia, a made-up land where the "Merlin" prefix adds a magical vibe to otherwise normal Indian cuisine. The hot dishes, such as chicken masala and palak paneer, range in price from $2 to $6 depending on portion size. The guys, between the ages of 26 and 29, also sell mango lassi popsicles and four kinds of "chips," each named after a brother's Merlindian handle. Will Carroll (a.k.a. Ababa-Du) inspired the Spicy Cyclones, a coriander-spiked Chex Mix that is dangerously addictive.
The four visited many Indian restaurants in the District before they hired a chef, who wishes to remain anonymous, to prepare the food. "Growing up in Adams Morgan, I ate all kinds of ethnic foods: Ethiopian, Salvadoran and definitely Indian," said Justin Vitarello (Dingo). "It just didn't make sense for the local cuisine to be so vibrant while the street food wasn't."
Vitarello hatched the idea for Fojol with his brother Adam (Gewpee) and good friends Peter Korbel (Kipoto) and Carroll. Besides finding the chef, the first step was to buy a vehicle. They settled on a 1965 former bread delivery truck that they painted and outfitted with a fridge, sink and food-warming system. Before they load the truck and rev the engine, the day's business begins with a tweet.
"Gearing up for another great weekend . . . will be out tonight rain or shine," they send to almost 375 followers on Twitter, the popular free Web service in which users can beam out real-time updates. Other than a few test runs during inauguration week, the street food project has been around only since late April, but Twitter has helped the brothers (whose username is "fojolbros") kick-start an interactive response.
Twitter allows information nuggets of 140 characters or fewer, including the boring ("too early, need caffeine") and the goose bump-raising ("a plane is landing on the Hudson"), to travel instantaneously among a labyrinth of loosely connected people. Since the cyber tool's inception in 2006, food-related tweets have remained some of the most common.
Why should we care about someone else's grilled cheese or milkshake, especially when we can't eat it through the computer screen? On one level, these updates do create a bunch of mundane noise. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) recently tweeted, "I get old style crunchy taco, and a chicken burrito supreme & Diet Coke at Taco Bell." But on another level, Twitter might be helping to redefine an entrepreneurial field, especially as technology emerges in tandem with a young culinary movement that includes an obsession with street food.
Nationally, efforts such as the Kogi truck of Korean barbecue in Los Angeles ("kogibbq") and the Creme Brulee Cart in San Francisco ("cremebruleecart") are using Twitter to spark a viral response and to post updates on changing locations, flavors and discounts.
This summer, the D.C.-area salad mini-chain Sweetgreen will launch a fro-yo truck called "Sweetflow Mobile." It has already registered for a Twitter account ("SweetflowMobile") and has tweeted about the truck's early stages, such as the paint job of retro neon stripes, to build anticipation.
For many people, Twitter still doesn't make much sense. A black hole of useless details, a world of faux intimacy, a time suck: those are all reasonable criticisms. But in the case of street food, Twitter becomes an agile, personable tool that's not tethered to a desk.
"Hyngry people, come see us on 14th btwn saint ex and marvin," Carroll tweets one Friday at 10:02 p.m. with the help of his girlfriend, Emily Williams, who works in Internet advertising.
"I may develop a circus language on Twitter that eliminates vowels," said Carroll, who is already playing around with the letter "y." Goofy, sure, but it's all part of building the Fojol brand. The adhesive Mario Brothers-esque mustaches he and the other brothers wear, for instance, match the curly facial-hair graphics on their Twitter page.
Each of the four brothers more or less has a station. For Adam Vitarello, it's usually the adjacent sidewalk, where he lets his arms go nuts as snappy electronic music streams from the truck. On a recent weekend, a cluster of women in flashy hitting-the-town attire walked by, demanding a picture with him.
Everything from the Fojol Brothers' truck is tasty and, as they'll point out, has been approved by many Indian customers, but it's more about the experience. Merlindia, wherever it is, sure sounds like a dynamic place. Not necessarily real, but generated by real people somewhere underneath it all -- much like Twitter.
Erin Zimmer is an editor at Seriouseats.com.