Yesterday I happened to catch an episode of WBUR Boston’s “Here and Now,” in which the hosts posed the question “Is the food truck revolution slowing down?” to LA Times food critic Jonathan Gold. Although Gold didn’t provide a definitive answer to the question, he did say that he thought they were starting to run the course of a typical hype cycle—with everyone, including him, first thinking the new fad is the “second coming,” as he noted, and then starting to slow down once copycats hit the market.
I suspect that food trucks will continue to be around for a while—who doesn’t love them?!?–but I have to agree that the creativity that seems to characterize the best of them—think fusing together interesting combinations—has given way to a lot of pedestrian copycats disguising plain, old (usually unhealthy) fast food options as something cool because it comes from a truck and is therefore inherently cool.
As Gold pointed out, many food trucks began as a stepping stone for young chefs who couldn’t afford to open their own brick and mortar restaurant because the investment in a food truck, while still substantial, can be far more affordable. They also tend to provide a way for chefs to explore a level of creativity that might not be possible in the restaurant world, Gold said. If a new combo doesn’t work, you can quickly throw the food baby out with the boiling bath water.
Like many food freaks, I love the concept of the food truck, but I have to admit to often finding myself discouraged in their presence because I can’t find something new and interesting that I want to try, particularly when there are a lot of trucks gathered in one place. Take for instance, the SOMA Food Truck park in San Francisco that opened last fall. Any number of trucks are in and out of the space in any given day, but when I worked close to there, I often avoided going there for lunch because there weren’t many healthy—or interesting—options available. If I’m going to blow my junk food points for the week or month, I want to make it count and not just get another cardboard rectangle decorated with red gingham full of mediocre fries and yet another take on sliders.
The best food trucks, IMHO, are those that serve either really great quality versions of classic stuff (like LIBA Falafel, which not only makes great falafel, but also has an amazing vegetable-based salads and toppings that up-level the humble chickpea) or that are doing something really interesting—like the Kogi truck in LA, which I finally got to try last weekend, that sort of kicked off the whole food truck craze a few years ago with it’s Korean tacos and burritos. Another couple notable examples that I’ve tried are the Lime Truck in Orange County, which won the second season of “The Great Food Truck Race,” and Seoul Sausage in LA (see my review of them here). I actually sought out Lime Truck on a trip to the OC to take my niece to Disneyland because their lamb Yum Yum sandwich, carnitas fries and Ahi Poke Nachos sounded so intriguing, plus they have (semi) healthy options—how many food trucks actually serve vegetables like Blistered Bok Choy? Seoul Sausage is also a perfect example of what having a really great food truck can do—they’ve been able to open a bricks and mortar shop because of the truck’s success.
This is all just a preamble to set up my chat about the trucks I tried this past weekend when I went down to LA for the FYF music festival. In addition to seeing some great bands (Breeders; Yeah Yeah Yeahs, !!!, Washed Out, Nosaj Thing) there were food trucks strategically placed throughout the festival for us hungry concert goers. (Festivals are a great venue for trucks and another reason why they probably won’t die out any time soon.) I tried out a couple of the vendors, both of which are worth checking out if you’re in want of Asian food truck fare…or coffee ice cream (which doesn’t come in a truck but was vending at the show nonetheless)!
Following the lead of the Kogi truck, everything at food trucks seems to be being made into a taco or burrito these days. I’ve seen Indian curry burritos in SF, and I can now say I’ve had Vietnamese nachos. On Saturday night, I stopped by the Mandoline Grill Truck for a pork Banh Mi sandwich and, yup, Vietnamese nachos. The nachos were half the reason I stopped at this truck. The thought of them was too intriguing to pass up. The lines were long and unfortunately by the time I got to the head of the line to order, they were only serving a stripped down version. Normally the Vietnamese nachos can be ordered with your choice of meat–pork, Hawaiian BBQ chicken, beef or tofu. They must have been running low on stuff because I got a vegetarian version that consisted just of tortilla chips, a sriracha mayo, and “salad” of mint, cilantro, scallion, jalapeño and scallion oil. But even the stripped down version was good. Definitely worth a try.
The Banh Mi was also good. I particularly liked their French baguette. It was a really great consistency. Sometime baguettes are so crispy on the outside that it’s like putting a studded weapon in your mouth when you bite into them–you rip up the roof of your mouth and pay for it for the next two days. This one was just crisp enough–it flaked and maintained a slight crunch while still being pretty pliable without making you regret biting into it. The pork had a slightly sweet glaze on it but it wasn’t overpowering. I asked for my toppings without jalapeño, but, as is customary for Banh Mi, the sandwich came topped with cilantro, shredded carrot, shredded daikon radish, and also some mayo and scallion oil.
Sunday night we went to the Kogi Truck, which is the original Korean fusion truck. They were serving a limited menu at the festival, including tacos or burritos. Their regular menu also includes a kimchi quesadilla, Kogi Dogs and Kogi Sliders, even Calamari Tacos. I had the short rib burrito, which is a take on the traditional Korean barbecue short rib dish, Galbi. In the burrito was marinated short rib (combined with scrambled egg and hash browns no less!), shredded jack and cheddar cheese, and Kogi’s toppings of salsa rioja, onion-lime-cilantro mix and a Napa Romaine slaw. I never would have thought that cheese would go with galbi, but it does. The only thing missing from the burrito was some rice. I would have actually liked to have some rice in the burrito, too. You can also order a tofu, chicken or pork burrito.
Kogi has become a bit of an institution in LA (deservedly so) and the lines at FYF proved it—we wanted to try them on Saturday night, but the line snaked so far around all the other trucks it probably would have taken a good hour or more just to order. Clearly owner Roy Choi did something right when he left his resto job to start this truck. There are now many Kogi trucks throughout LA and he’s opened two sit down restos, the Alibi Room, which also features cocktails, and Chego, which is a rice bowl joint. To go with our Korean burritos, we did also opt for some Masala fries from the India Jones truck, which serves some traditional Indian street foods like Chaat and Frankies, an Indian wrap. Of course, they also serve Taco Chaat!
Finally, if you’re a fan of coffee ice cream, you may want to see if your local food store can start carrying Black Bean Ice Cream. It comes packaged as if it’s in an ice cream cup, rather than the usual ubiquitous pint container, which I thought was cute and clever. They make four flavors–coffee, decaf, mocha chip and coffee toffee crunch, which includes chocolate covered toffee bites. I liked this ice cream because it wasn’t sicky-sweet like the stuff those two guys from Vermont make. It also had a really smooth coffee flavor, which wasn’t overly bitter like many commercial coffees. This coffee was crafted expressly with strong coffee in mind–the makers set out to make a stronger, bolder coffee ice cream If you like your coffee and like your ice cream, this is for you.
Mandoline Grill Truck
Black Bean Ice Cream
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