San Diego Copper Chimney Food Truck

Aha... There he is. Allen and his ’88 Chevy lunch-truck, parked here on Carroll Centre Road. It’s Monday evening, about dusk. Takes a bit of street-scanning after the 210 bus leaves me. Then I see a shadowy clump of people standing under the side flap of a lone lunch-truck parked on the verge. The truck has that quilted-silver look that makes it look nice and clean. I come up just as the door opens. This cheery-faced guy in a yellow Nike “Futbol” T-shirt pops out. He holds a golden flute on a plate. Some kind of wrapped-pancake affair. Foot long. The plate it sits on also has little pots and dollops of white stuff, orange stuff, green stuff, brown stuff. Dips, looks like.

He hands it to one of the guys waiting outside, then turns to me. “Masala dosa,” he says. “You, too?”

I see a whiteboard with a hand-scrawled list of plates ranging from $3 to $5, mostly. This item goes for $5.

‘Masala dosa’ means ‘mixed crêpe,’” he says. “It’s rice and lentils, with spices like cloves and cardamom. Trust me.”

Guess he means “Trust me, it’s delicious.” I nod, and he disappears inside and closes the door.

“That’s Allen,” says this guy Ravi, who’s also waiting in line. “Don’t worry. He knows southern — Hyderabadi — cooking. He’s Tamil. He’s good.”

Another guy, Arvind, I think his name is, stands eating what look like white mini flying saucers. “Idly,” he says. “Steamed rice cake. It’s fermented black lentils and rice, a South Indian snack. You dip them. Delicious.”

A couple of minutes later Allen bursts open the door. He brings out two plates with those golden flutes aboard, plus a bunch of little bowls. Looks like a big paintbrush and pots of color. “Those are the chutneys,” he says. “I always have six. And this is the dosa. You eat this and you feel sleepy, just like after a beer, because it’s fermented. I ferment the rice and lentils for six hours.”

“Wow. And inside?” I ask. There’s yellow and white in the golden tunnel.

“Potatoes, onions, green chilis, red chilis, turmeric…taste it, dip it. Oh, and the middle bowl, that’s the sambar. Kind of a vegetable stew, with tamarind, and toor dal.”

Seems toor dal is pigeon peas. Like you see in our own Deep South.

“But don’t talk. Eat! Has to be eaten when it’s fresh and hot.”

So, yes, I do, standing right here. The truck has a little ledge that helps support your plastic plate, but most people just stand round on the grassy knoll, eating from their right hands and holding their plates in their left. Wow. My dosa’s hot, crisp, sort of tart. It tastes great with the turmericky potatoes and onions inside. The dips are a whole different set of treats. One is tomato-chili chutney, another is minty, another is oniony, and yet another is coconutty with green chili. And that li’l bowl in the middle has the sambar. It tastes of curry, pleasantly sour, tamarindy. Man, I could eat this forever.

Then I see Allen bring out what looks like a couple of long battered shrimp — except they’re not. “They’re mirchi bajji [$3],” says this other guy, also named Ravi. He and his buddy each crunch into one. “There are jalapeños inside the batter,” Ravi says. “And they’re…ruchikaranga.”

That’s “tasty, delicious,” in Telugu, he tells me. Telugu? Just the third-most-spoken language in India, Allen says. So how come we’ve never heard of it before?

This is how the next hour goes, chatting, chewing into the dark. Seems every chew I’m learning something. Mainly to take home to Carla, I get a chicken biryani with saffron rice ($5). Not strictly Southern Indian. “It comes from the Muslim kings,” says Allen. “But I cook it the Hyderabad way. I put 14 spices in the chicken. Then I slow-cook it the Southern way.”

Also, Allen has thrown in some yellow chile chicken. Oh, man. You taste ginger, garlic, soy, and chili. Hot. It is super-ruchikaranga.

“There was always a strong Chinese influence coming from Calcutta,” says Allen. “Indian cooking doesn’t have soy. So this is definitely Indo-Chinese.”

Allen never intended to start up what he says is the first Indian-food truck business on the entire West Coast. He was a musician, a drummer, and had a business selling guitars at Kobey’s Swap Meet until the downturn. “After that, I decided to bring South Indian cooking to the people here. I had to go back and mortgage my house in Hyderabad to finance this. But it’s working. You ought to come on a Friday. We have whole families turn up with their own tables and chairs and umbrellas. It’s quite a party.”

There’re maybe a dozen people standing ’round on the sidewalk, and in the grass, in the fading light. Each one seems to be, like, totally brilliant. Ravi has a Ph.D. and is working with Scripps Research on no less than a vaccine for the flu. Ruda is an IT guy with Qualcomm, doing things like helping Motorola-Europe fix a problem affecting 10,000 chips.

Allen’s truck is important to them. “It’s not just that it’s our food,” says Ravi. “But also, here outside, you can chat with people you don’t know, let out some of the tension in your life. We eat on the street all the time in Hyderabad. In America, it’s harder. People are more” — he searches for the word — “aloof. So Allen is a godsend.”

Allen sighs. “They say all the gods come from South India.” ■

The Place: San Diego Copper Chimney Food Truck, Carroll Centre Road, at Black Mountain Road/Kearny Villa Road, 619-997-6946; sdcopperchimney.com
Type of Food: South Indian
Prices: Masala dosa, $5; three idly (steamed Indian rice cakes), $4; mirchi bajji (battered jalapeños), $3; masala wada (lentil-and-spice snack), $3; medu wada (savory fried donut), $4; onion oothappam (“Indian pancake”) with chili, tomato, $5; vegetable Szechuan, $5; chili chicken, $5; chicken biryani, $5
Hours: 5:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m., Friday; 1:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m., Saturday; 1:00 p.m.-4:00 p.m., Sunday; 5:00–9:00 p.m., Monday; closed Tuesday–Thursday; closing times can be earlier, depending on how long food supplies last.
Buses: 20, 31, 210
Nearest Bus Stops: Black Mountain Road and Kearny Villa Road

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Wow, what a find you've made, Tin Man! This sounds like it might even be the best Indian food in SD -- the soulfulness of the South, but not purely vegetarian here. I wish I'd found this, I'm so envious. I love that they bring southern spicing into even a northern dish like chicken biryani. I ate superb dinners in Southern India because (even at small, unsung little restaurants -- I fell in love with the grandly named but down-home Oberoi Bar in funky funky Ernakulam) the cooks brought southern spices and flavors to the familiar, blander northern dishes.

Sole quibble: The way to spell what you called "idly" is "iddli." Or "idli." Rhymes with "Bo Diddli." Do I win $5 now from Typo Patrol?

I've read about this truck on chowhound.com several times over the last six or so months, but since I knew nothing about the food of Southern India, and the insiders on the website already knew what they were talking about regarding "dosas" and "idlis" and so forth, I didn't have a clue--except that the food offered was genuine and of high quality. But now, having read your descriptions, I am ready to head on over there--I have a passion for chutneys, so the golden flute with condiments sounds like it for me! Thanks!

Ed, I just love your Tin Fork column and the whole concept behind it. This sounds like another great discovery.

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