It’s just a truck. A big white square food- wagon outside a bar. But look at its chalkboard menu: Local wild halibut, side of ceviche tostada, $4.75
Mandarin salad — local Satsuma mandarin, roasted local beet, local fennel, local baby arugula, horseradish tarragon vinaigrette, full, $7.65, half, $4
Grass-fed burger: grass-fed beef, all natural cheddar, grilled balsamic red onion, local butter leaf, hand-made French dressing, local brioche, $7.75, add all-natural Duroc bacon, 75 cents
Squash flatbread: grilled handmade flatbread, local squash, béchamel, caramelized onion, sautéed local greens, garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano, $7.5, add all-natural Duroc bacon, 75 cents
Red curry chicken: organic chicken, hand-made curry, local peas, local shiitake, carrot, cilantro, basmati rice, $7.95
Belgian style fries: Fresh-cut Kennebec potato, handmade chipotle ketchup, $3.25
This is what the street is eating? From a food truck? Handmade this, grass-fed that? Local greens? Brioche? Whatever happened to ye olde standby tacos, burritos, and hot dogs?
I’ve just stumbled off the #2 bus at 30th and Juniper in South Park, headed to the Station Tavern for a snack and a beer when I come onto this scene outside the venerable hole-in-the-wall bar, the Whistle Stop. Clump of people mill ’round the Whistle Stop entrance, another clump forms a straggly, talky line alongside a big food truck parked by the sidewalk, and more bodies are leaning on the truck’s narrow counter, or sitting on sidewalk transformer boxes, chewing, chowing, chatting. I’ve heard about these “gastro trucks” sprouting up all over the country, but I never thought they’d be so, well, gastro. Or that they’d be the outriders of a revolution that some say is causing changes in everything from class to cooking to capitalism. Over in France, “Le Fooding” is a revolt against expensive, formal, exclusive restaurants and a way of returning to roots. And right here in San Diego, anyone who gets around, foodwise, will tell you that the street is where real food — food sold from carts, trucks, little ethnic eateries, not mass-produced preservative-filled crap — is at. And at the best prices too. And, yes, it’s mostly Mexican. Then again, Mexicans are the kings of fresh.
So, a real gastro-truck? It has my attention.
The logo, “MIHO,” on the side of the truck, is surrounded by food sayings.
“The belly is the giver of genius.” Persius.
“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” James Beard.
“Preserve the old, but know the new.” Chinese proverb.
“The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.” Michael Pollan.
These are the kind of culinary bon mots you might expect to find written between cherubim and seraphim on the walls of some spa in Rancho Santa Fe, right? But on a roach coach outside the Whistle Stop bar?
I join the line as dusk falls. Inside the lighted truck, two guys and two gals, 20s, 30s, dance to the music (John Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”) as they cook, cut, take orders, call out names.
What I don’t understand is why these people would bother to cook such fancy foods, on a sidewalk, for regular Joes coming out of a bar to line their gut for — probably — more booze?
’Course, now I’m in the line, that includes me.
And why not? I like the idea of that ferocious wild halibut, and the free-range chicken, and those happy meadowgrass-nibbling cattle.
Healthwise, I should’ve had the fish, but just for the halibut (heh-heh) I ask for a grass-fed burger. With bacon, 75 cents extra. Main reason why is that someone passes in front of me with one. Oh, man, the sautéed beef and cheese smell is too much. Guy in the truck, Juan Mirón, takes my order. I’m desperate to ask: “What’s a chef like you doing in a place like this?”
I mean, I know it’s a nationwide phenomenon... Cooks who wouldn’t have been caught dead inside a food truck ten years ago are now flocking to get their own wheeled kitchens and put their personal best on the road. Facebook and Twitter are making it possible for them to tell fans where they’re going to be at a moment’s notice (kinda necessary when in, like, L.A., average permitted parking time is 20 minutes). But is it also the recession that’s made this possible, even cool? You can imagine chefs, fresh out of some behemoth culinary campus like Johnson & Wales University, who’d rather do their own thing now than wait years for decent jobs. They’d rather fork out $50K for an old lunch truck rather than wait for some angel to hand over the basic $100K (though probably more like a quarter-mill) that starting up a real restaurant would cost. Or is it more that eating has become more democratic, where it’s cool for rich, middle, and poor to share the same burger-centric tastes? (You can add healthy, local, and organic to that.) Probably it’s both, creating the perfect storm for a new, mobile market. Is class itself collapsing with the Twitter generation? For sure, people don’t seem to care which side of the tracks the truck’s at, so long as they can get their fangs around interesting, nontraditional fare. Even if we’re living in an increasingly wine-glass economy — more rich, more poor, fewer middle-income earners (we’re getting more and more like South America) — these gastro trucks reflect the digital age’s zeitgeist: mercurial, egalitarian, at home with change.
That’s my theory, anyway, as I stand in line waiting to give my order, listening to Lennon.
I notice two students from Cuyamaca College wolfing down burgers, using the yellow and red electric transformer boxes as tables.
“We were just talking about how great the meat is,” says one, Isaac Jiménez. “Grass-fed cattle. There’s such a difference. The juices…”
“I’ve been here for the past couple of weekends,” says his buddy, Caleb Sharp. “I usually play Frisbee golf [at Morley Field] during the daytime, and I was driving back one day and saw this truck. Me and my friends decided to stop by. We’ve come every Friday since. The first time I got a pulled-pork sandwich. It was really good. It seems like the menu changes every time. So I got the burger the next time, which I loved. But what I really like is their farm-to-street idea. That concept. I feel like you could taste the difference with the fresh food that you get here. And it’s grown locally. It’s just the difference in quality. It’s amazing. I think our younger culture’s really adopting this idea, even if it costs a couple of bucks more. The culinary scene around America is getting developed by the younger generation. We’re taking it in more. We’re using it to eat healthier than the way that we were brought up to eat.”
“Ed! While it’s hot! Ed?”
I go up to the window at the back of the truck. “You know you can eat this in the Whistle Stop,” says the gal, Cheryl. She’s one of the two female chefs here tonight. “Show them your ticket and you get $1 off the happy hour price of your beer.”
Wow. The burger sits in a black-and-white paper napkin in a cardboard boat, with those Belgian fries of “chopped-up fresh-cut Kennebec potato,” and a little paper cup of “handmade” chipotle ketchup. I pick it up and head in to the Whistle Stop.
“What’s it to be?” asks the bartender, Renée.
“It’s happy hour?”
“It’s happy hour.”
“In that case, a Stone IPA.”
“You eating that here?”
I nod. And, yes, she charges me $2.50. Buck off the $3.50 happy-hour price. Deal.
“Why do you do this?” I ask.
“Because it’s mutually very beneficial,” Renée says. “Because people love us, and people love Miho. They’ve been parking out front for about eight months. Almost everybody brings their meals in here to eat.”
“They only come on Fridays,” says Renée’s coworker Craig, “so it doesn’t threaten [the business of other restaurants]. It’s definitely good for us. We may get 50, 60 people come in with food from the truck over the two hours of happy hour, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. And Sam Chammas, our owner, just likes the whole idea.”
Huh. Even though Chammas also owns the Station Tavern, which serves food, just down the road.
I chomp in while the meat’s hot, juicy, and wafting sautéed onion-flavored clouds up at me. Burger, garlicky fries dipped in that chipotle-skewed ketchup, and hoppy IPA. Does it get any better? You can taste subtleties such as the milky soft, delicate, kinda sweet crunch of the butter leaf lettuce, probably grown right down there in I.B. On the other hand, why would people spend extra bucks on a burger like this, in hard times? You could get seven bargain burgers from, say, a Burger King for the same price. And at BK you can sit down, at a table, out of the cold night air. I’m doing that here, but for sure, most Miho customers — Homis, the Miho crew call them — stand on the sidewalk holding their little cardboard baskets, after paying nearly Burger Lounge prices.
“People are starting to understand that the food is restaurant quality,” says Craig. “It’s fast food, in terms of speed, but it’s good and it’s healthy. And for being locally grown, organic food, you’re definitely paying less.”
“I think the popularity has something to do with the economy,” says Renée. “A taco stand [truck] is going to have lower overhead. And these guys’re very hot on Twitter.”
Guy next to me at the bar, Kory Contreras, says he was brought up on street food, and things are definitely looking up. “My parents, when they took me out, it was always to hamburger stands, taco shops. That’s where we ate out. But these Miho guys’ whole thing — I’ve talked to them — is that back in the old days, the ’40s, ’50s, here and in, like, L.A., the hamburger trucks served really good food, and after a while, it’s just become poor quality. That’s where they got the name ‘roach coach’ from, because a lot of people didn’t take care of their trucks, and their food was just horrible. Now that these [gastro] trucks are coming around, they’re bringing the quality back up. I think a lot of these trucks do gourmet food that you’d only find in restaurants. And where the restaurants have to raise their prices to make rent, these guys are able to serve really good food at a low price.”
Now two guys standing behind me with beers in their hands, Devin Beaulieu and Patrick Kearney, get going on the subject. And guess what? They’re 30-something anthropologists at UCSD. They study political anthropology in Bolivia.
The way they talk, Miho is part of a worldwide post-capitalist, anti-hierarchical explosion. Conversation goes something like this:
DEVIN: One theory that I had [about the food-truck phenomenon] was that restaurants have just gotten too goddam expensive. So it’s easier to go to the food truck.
PATRICK: And for the restaurateur, the person running the truck, it gives a degree of autonomy. Like, if they have to rent a space for the restaurant, they’re bound to that landlord, or to the bills, or to the prices, whereas with their truck, if they own it they have some power and certainty. You can drive to a construction site, or a golf course out in the middle of nowhere and offer food to the employees.
DEVIN: That and buying fresh, organic, local, seasonal, is part of the “just in time” flexible economy, the ultimate neoliberal [mentality].
PATRICK: It’s a rejection of the status-quo, what we think of as a “restaurant,” the ladder you have to climb to supposed success.
DEVIN: It’s about being connected. Big corporations get disconnected. Macro economics take over.
PATRICK: Like in Bolivia. There was one McDonald’s in Bolivia, and they imported potatoes [for their French fries]. Potatoes are not a major crop in Bolivia, but they are a source of pride and legacy. So they sacked the McDonald’s and [left it in] ruins and then McDonald’s left Bolivia. Of all the countries in the Americas, Bolivia has rejected more corporations. You see small businesses that are different from mainstream capitlalism. That’s the class that’s succeeding right now in Bolivia.
DEVIN: Certain types of nonhierarchical organizations — like this food truck — are happening. Somebody makes the decision that ‘We’re going to serve food from local organic farms,’ and that utilizes social networks to create an alternative food economy. What’s really important but not much talked about is these guys’ connection with whatever producers they’re buying from —they’ve created a system and a whole organization that they need to reinforce. The chain of production seems pretty important. But is it counter-capitalist, counter–hegemonic rule, or is it really a part of it?”
D’ah, right. Getting a little bit above my pay grade here…
I leave Patrick and Devin and go outside and take a breath of fresh air. Miho’s food line has dropped off. On the menu board a red slash has been chalked through the red curry chicken. “Ran out,” says Juan, the guy who took my order.
“So, how did you get this business rolling?” I ask. “And what’s ‘Miho’ anyway?”
“Kevin Ho and I started out doing a kind of underground business,” he says. “Beer dinners, pairing food and beer. It was me, Juan MI-rón, and Kevin HO. MI-HO. It also sounds like that endearment in Spanish, ‘mi hijo,’ ‘my son.’ It was a creative outlet for us to incorporate things that we’re passionate about: food, music, design, entertaining, and drinks. We’d both been working at the Linkery. That’s where we met. And we went to school in the Bay Area, so we developed an appreciation for farm-to-table food. That’s the philosophy that Miho focuses around. So after doing the beer dinners for a while, and working at the restaurant, we realized we wanted to create something which would sustain our livelihood and feed people with great food that’s locally sourced. We found out about the hot [cooked] food-truck movements in other cities, how it was flourishing in Portland, L.A., New York, so we decided we could do that here in San Diego. We worked on our business plan for about nine months, from August 2009. We launched in May of 2010.
I peek over the counter and look around his kitchen. Even after the earlier frenzy it looks clean, from the metallic shelves to the counters, and it’s spacious for a truck interior. So how much did they have to outlay to launch an operation like this?
“It’s definitely a lower investment than opening up a restaurant,” he says, “less than $100,000. But we don’t like to give out a lot of information because there are a lot more trucks that are coming out right now, over the next three to six months, and we have worked really hard to be where we’re at.”
That amount — let’s guess $80,000 — pales in comparison to what starting a regular eatery would cost. “Opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant, you’d be looking at $200,000, at least,” Juan says. “That’s definitely why a lot of people decide to go [the food-truck] route. But it’s still a lot of work. You deal with more complications. When you’re a normal restaurant and you run out of food, you can send someone to the back and make more food. But here, once we run out, we run out. It’s a mobile kitchen. Things that you experience as you go along the way that we have to go through [make it tough]! Like, if you buy an old truck. This was an old-school lunch truck. Finding parts, keeping it rolling…”
He rolls his eyes. Lunch trucks, he explains, have been around since the 1940s. “The Moody family has been in the business since then. In fact, lunch trucks used to serve white-collar workers, not blue-collar workers as they do now — the ‘roach coaches,’ as they’re known. They go to construction sites, factories. But not back then, before the introduction of fast-food restaurants. That’s when they started shifting [to blue-collar customers].”
So, if fast-food eateries squeezed a fleet like Moody’s out of middle-class business, how can Juan and Kevin succeed?
“Social networking is definitely one of the biggest success factors, besides your traditional marketing. Those are the top two. Out of any food truck in San Diego, we have the most followers on Facebook and Twitter. Our newsletter goes out to over 2000 people. We have more than 2200 followers on Facebook, about 2100 followers on Twitter.”
What about the fact that they’re sourcing local, organic?
“That helps, too. We can do that at a much lower investment, less risk. We own everything, just me and Kevin. Whereas, if you wanted to do a restaurant, more than likely, unless you have a lot of [start-up] money, you have to get investors. So, the goal was something where we could work for ourselves, create our own path. Whereas if you have investors, you have to be following someone else’s [business plan].”
Why is it a nationwide — maybe worldwide — phenomenon?
“Because I think people are looking for more affordable, accessible, unique dining experiences. It’s not necessarily a green thing. Like, there’s no other truck in San Diego that does green sourcing as we do. It’s happening because people want something affordable, accessible, and convenient. And definitely, it does have its trendy factor. Social networking is a big part of it. People love Facebook and Twitter. They like to know who’s eating where.”
∗ ∗ ∗
These gastro-truck guys may be hot, but, man, they can be hard to find. ’Specially if you’re not Twittering regularly. Tonight, Saturday, I’m in North Park, looking for the other famous San Diego food truck, Tabe. Right now I’m in the goth gloom of the Office, the bar on 30th near University. It’s around 10:00 p.m. That’s when I heard the Tabe truck was going to turn up. Tabe’s famous because it was started by the same Korean family that launched Kogi, a Korean-Mex BBQ truck in L.A. that’s based on the simple idea of putting Korean BBQ into tacos. In L.A. it has truly gone viral. Roy Choi, a chef who thought he was going to be stuck doing hotel banquets, has become a star. Over about a year, Kogi Korean Barbecue expanded to four trucks. They were given a Bon Appétit Award in 2009, while Food and Wine magazine named Choi “Best New Chef” for 2010. Kogi boasts more than 50,000 followers on Twitter.
Tabe (short for taberu, which means “to eat” in Japanese) also has food based on Korean-Mex fusion, though its recipes were created by a Japanese chef named Todd Ichinaga. Soon after, the Korean owners pulled out and sold Tabe.
I’m sitting down the bar from this guy humped over a plate of two oozing fish tacos, hoping that Tabe is going to turn up.
“Are those food-truck tacos?” I ask.
“Yes,” he mumbles. “From Tabe. Good. Out back. The city won’t let them do business on the street. They have to sneak around behind, into the alley.”
Dixon Koontz is a regular. Knows all about Tabe and the whole food-truck scene. “It’s a cool underground thing that’s happening, and it’s really quality food. Tabe’s no roach coach. I paid $6 and a tip for this. On a scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s a six. But only because it’s cod. I’m a bit of a fish-ianado. I prefer corn tortillas, and I prefer halibut. But I know that’s higher dollar. Still, this has cheese, and mandarin orange on top. It’s quite tasty. And for what I’m paying, at this hour, from a truck, in San Diego, I’ve got to be happy. Just go out through the back door.”
I do, though I can’t believe that this aristocrat among food trucks has to hide like some dirty little secret out here in the alley behind the Office. The barman must have put the word out because half a dozen people have already traipsed out through the back door and down steps. They cluster around the truck, backed up as if at a loading dock.
The menu’s simple: Korean BBQ beef (“marinated in traditional Korean spices and char-grilled to perfection!”), which, like all the choices, you can have as a taco ($2.76), a burrito ($5.52), or a bowl ($5.52). Teriyaki chicken (“glazed in our homemade teriyaki sauce and topped with our signature Maui salsa”) has the same choices and prices. There’s spicy pork (“soused in a classic Korean spicy marinade for a unique kick!”), and beer-battered fish (“a fish filet battered in Bass Ale and covered in our secret cream sauce”).
The gal in line ahead of me, Mayte (short for Maria-Teresa), says that the University of Texas at Austin, where she lives, has food trucks with Indian, Mexican tacos, Greek, and cupcakes every day, and they’re kind of in fashion. Right now, “these trucks park close to a fancy-schmancy area, but it’s cooler to eat at the trucks, because it’s different. Not everyone is willing to try it, and young people, hip people, will be, like, ‘Oh, stop the car.’ It’s cool, it’s anti-establishment, and Austin is that way.”
Her friend says, “Even if you have a lot of money in Austin, you don’t want to act like you’ve got a lot of money.”
Matt Gorton, who’s running the joint solo tonight, says all the recipes come from Todd Ichinaga, who was a celeb chef at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, looking to repeat Kogi’s sensational rise, only here in San Diego. Chef Todd brought recipes that included Peruvian, Hawaiian, Japanese, and Polynesian influences. Heady stuff.
“Then the Korean owners pulled out and put the truck up for sale,” says Matt. “It was on craigslist. Me and my partner Rich Morris bought it. Chef Todd wanted to stay, and we wanted him to, so he created all the menus, the recipes. Then about a month ago, he started backing out a bit because we were having a hard time paying him. So, in the last month we’ve been operating in a different way, without the chef, but we still have the recipes, and [we’re expanding] by word of mouth, and [us doing] lots of tweeting.”
Biz hasn’t sky-rocketed, and they’ve been having problems making the operation profitable, but it looks like it’s doing good business as a kind of underground foodie secret of the Twittering classes, office workers in Sorrento Valley, and drinkers here — where the Office owners welcome them — even if it’s out back.
I have to decide between main dishes. Pork, chicken, or beef? Taco, burrito, or bowl? When I can’t make up my mind, Matt suggests I go for cardboard bowls of all three, the chicken, pork, and Korean BBQ beef. “That’ll cost you $7,” he says. Deal.
“So this is your meal. With my new style [since Ichinaga left], it might have gotten jumbled together a little bit, but you have teriyaki chicken, your Korean barbecued beef, which is going to be a little bit sweet, with a little sweet marinade, and then that’s the spicy Korean pork. That’s my favorite flavor of all.”
The golden meats steam away on a log raft of fries, striped on top with red marinade and a creamy white sauce. Health food? For sure not. But fresh, and delish? I can’t wait to try it.
I have to ask him how difficult this life is. I’m impressed by the way he seems to be always working, cleaning. Even at this hour, the interior looks spotless and functional. “We have to be,” he says. “It’s not like a restaurant kitchen you never see. Here, everybody sees what’s going on. We get inspected twice a year. The truck’s a 1986 Chevrolet, cost $27,000, and it needed about $10,000 worth of changes. Plexiglass, credit-card reader, cash register, getting things cleaned up. It adds up. It’s hard, but I love it. It’s fun, it’s an adventure. You never know what’s next.”
Hard? “Oh, yes. In the beginning, it was asking people, ‘Where can we go?’ It was knocking on doors — this was the original owners, who did a lot of the footwork — they were going up and down the office parks. They were going [to office managers] and saying, ‘We’ve got a taco truck. Do you mind if we park out front? Would you spread the word to all the people in the building?’ Most people said no, but one might say yes. By the time me and my partner Rich took over the business, which was last February, they had established two or three spots, and one of them was good. We’re still going to that. That’s our Wednesday spot, on Town Center Drive. Then, because of Twitter, some people came to Town Center Drive, and they said, ‘Would you come over to Sorrento Valley, over on Blind Canyon Road?’ We said, ‘We’d love to. How about Friday?’ That’s now my best slot. Certain neighborhoods don’t respond to us. In P.B., I’d make $60 in one night, that’s it. Whereas Chula Vista, right now I’d be crazy busy. They’ve fallen in love with our food. ’Specially the Filipino community. I went from zero to $250 [per two-hour visit] in three weeks.”
Why can’t they park where the public can see them? “I’ve been given a ticket for ‘selling on a public road,’” Matt says. “You’re not allowed to do that. You could be blocking a public right-of-way. That was $258, in Hillcrest. That scared me from parking near the city on the streets. But I don’t know why we should be hiding back here.”
Matt says there are more gourmet food trucks on their way to San Diego. Is this town big enough for them? “There’s enough business in the business parks at lunchtime for more trucks. I’m thinking of getting a second one. And there’d be a lot more business if we were allowed to operate downtown, except for the rule of only being able to stay in one place for 20 minutes at a time. Another rule says you can’t open up for business in a public space, period. So, apparently, there are conflicting regulations. And, yet, we add life to the city. It should be welcoming us.”
I take my plate back into the bar to eat. Dixon is still there, finishing off his tacos.
“The food-truck movement is really big in other cities,” he says. “But it’s not on the rise any more. It’s leveled off. We’re smaller here. In, say, L.A., it’s much larger than in San Diego. New York, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco — everyone’s got a large food-truck community. Mostly, it’s because of the economy, because the overhead is so much less. Plus there’s a lot of capable and creative chefs, but not as much opportunity. Ten years ago, they wouldn’t have considered a food truck, but today, what you’ve seen is a better understanding of craft foods, and recognition that small doesn’t necessarily mean poor quality. Ten years ago, we would have aspired to opening up a TGI Friday’s in the Gaslamp, right? So you tell me which you’d rather be at, there, or here, eating these Korean-influenced fish tacos? Someone being creative, or someone basically pulling it out of the back and warming it up for you?”
I chew in to my combo. Lord. Matt’s right. The pork, with its gingery, fennelly thing going on, is slightly sweet, slightly vinegary. Is that orange juice in there? Matt said there were Japanese pickled vegetables in the mix. The meat was marinated for 24 hours before he cut it up. Beautiful. The other two meats are fine as well, but the pork is it. The fries taste herby.
“It’s generational,” Dixon is saying. “For a while, the restaurants in town, in San Diego, at least, hadn’t really much of a focus on smaller farms, the organic movement. But the last ten years has seen a major sea change. Factor that in with a younger clientele — and most of them have never had food from a food truck before — so, it’s kind of an adventure. Add a dose of Twitter to let them know where you are. For them, it’s okay to be on the move. Some people actually enjoy the hunt. That’s what’s so refreshing. San Diego ten years ago was Italian food or Italian food. San Diego was ‘Idaho by the Sea.’”
Not everyone’s thrilled with the food-truck success story. The city for one. Brick-and-mortar restaurant owners for another. For their point of view, the trucks clog streets and threaten the profits of rent-paying restaurant owners. Areas such as Little Italy positively don’t want to see the trucks turning up. And they have laws to back them. Hearken to this post for Miho fans that Kevin Ho and Juan Mirón wrote on their website last June:
“Well, our first visit to Little Italy didn’t turn out exactly as we had hoped for. Five minutes before we even got set up, a representative of the Little Italy Association came up and informed us that we were not allowed to park anywhere in Little Italy. He recited some debatable municipal codes, and sent us on our way. We moved on down a couple blocks out of Little Italy, and set up shop again. After serving a few lucky customers, a couple parking enforcement officers arrived and notified us that some local business owners had complained that we were blocking a driveway — we obviously weren’t. Anyway, they whipped out their municipal code and began to scrutinize our permits and licenses. By the way, the municipal code is in written word, and anyone familiar with legal documents knows that words can often be interpreted or misinterpreted in a number of ways, depending on context and intent. Long story short, they told us we had to leave. But before they did, they kindly threw in a comment that is really the purpose of this post:
‘It’s not fair for you to be here when you don’t pay rent.’”
Stephen Zolezzi, president of the Food and Beverage Association of San Diego County, which represents restaurant businesses, says the legal situation for gastro trucks is not easy. “There are five sections that speak to how they have to be able to operate. The language is very gray. One section conflicts with the other section. This is typical of the way many ordinances are written, and laws, [meant] to give the enforcement agency — in this case the neighborhood code compliance or the San Diego Police Department — the opportunity to interpret each individual situation, as to whether it may be a threat to the public welfare.”
Take Manny Andres, who now owns a food truck in Normal Heights but never wanted to. He was known among the hot-dog cognoscenti as the best bacon hot dog maker north of the line. Yet it says something that years after he started doing business on Adams Avenue, I’m up here looking everywhere for him. I call in at the Auld Sod, the Irish bar. “Didn’t he used to have a TJ hot dog cart around here?” I ask the guy behind the bar, one night around 11:00.
Nobody seems to know. I finally head down 34th Street just as a white food trailer pulls into a parking lot. Ah. Big letters above where they’re lifting the counter flap. “Home of the Original Bacon-Wrapped Hot Dog.” It’s Manny’s place. (His two brothers, Jaime and Edgar, do the actual cooking.) Manny deals with his customers. Sometimes, this time of night, they can be a lot to handle.
Right now, five guys and gals pull up: Steph, James, Jenna, Fernando, Sabrina. They look like the cast of the Wizard of Oz. They’ve been partying, but they’re just happy, not trouble. They want carne asada burritos, carnitas tortas, tacos, and a couple of hot dogs. “This is the best food,” says Sabrina. “Know why? Because they don’t drain the fat. Fat means flavor.”
Can’t argue there.
“See, this is what I set up for in the first place,” says Manny. “To give somewhere for people coming out of pubs to grab some food.”
I’m getting a hot dog while we’re talking. It’s a cold night. I need something to warm my fingers on if nothing else. The menu says the bacon dog’s $3, and that includes grilled onion, grilled bell pepper, and pico de gallo. Must say, when I get it, it’s juicy and salty and crunchy with all those sautéed veggies.
“Here’s the thing, though,” says Manny. “I used to sell these from a cart. Just me, outside the bars. People knew me. I only paid around $500 for the cart. It was enjoyable. Then, about a year later, the city inspectors came up one night and told me I was a health hazard and that I had to get a food truck. I had two weeks to comply.”
Manny borrowed from relatives and friends to come up with about $50,000 — a big stretch from his initial $500 hot-dog cart investment — so that his licenses would not be dropped. That was around October 2010. He got his food truck, but now he needs his brothers to operate it, he owes money, and he can’t place himself in front of the pubs where everyone comes out. He can’t park curbside and needs permission from owners to park on the lots behind their shops — where nobody sees him. He’s not complaining, but you see what a burden this is. Everything’s more costly, complicated. “You know what the worst is?” he says. “It’s that looking down from inside a food truck, you can’t relate to your customers. With the cart, I was right across from them. We could talk, get to know each other. The cart was more attractive to people. It was right there. But the city didn’t want me on the street. I like my truck, but I miss my cart. And so does the street. San Diego needs street life. It has the perfect weather, but it’s missing a little life on the streets. San Diego needs to loosen up.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Then comes a surprise and a shock.
The first happens around midnight on Saturday in the Gaslamp, down 5th between I and J. Are the big guns moving in? A large yellow-and-black food truck arrives in the Five Star parking lot. Murderous pigs stare out from the logos on its sides as the truck wedges itself onto the edge of the lot nearest 5th Avenue. At around 12:30 a.m. the counter flaps crank up, the lights crank on, and here, suddenly, is serious competition to the Lords of Gastro Trucks. The Cohn family of restaurants, and especially celebrity chef Deborah Scott, have thrown money into the food-truck trend. She had this truck custom built from the ground up for “around $150,000,” according to Ms. Scott (I call her later), and she named it “Chop Sooey,” indicating Asian roots to the food she’d be serving. A sister truck called “Ms. Patty Melt” is also out doing farmers’ markets and special events and also offers some late-night, post-bar, bottom-feeding services. But not tonight.
Right now, I’m the only potential customer, but I can see from the menu board that Ms. Scott is creating low-priced yet serious gastro food, even if it’s for the loud-mouth boozers starting to fill the streets. Tonight on the menu board: carnitas tacos (two for $5), chilaquiles with fried egg ($5), pulled-pork quesadilla with four-cheese mix, salsa fresca, Cuban-stye pulled pork, two corn tortillas ($3), and piggy-like curly-tail fries (with bacon bits, bleu-cheese dressing, fried onions, and, looks like, green onions), $3. These two are always on the list, on-the-spot manager Robert Laffoon tells me, “but Deborah changes the food every day.”
I go for the pulled-pork quesadilla and the curly-tail fries. Damn, but the bleu cheese and the fries drowning in it are wonderful, and the quesadilla is, as gourmands might say, complex, herby, cilantroey.
The one worry is that big companies like Scott’s may elbow their way into a still-shaky field, squeezing out space for smaller pioneers like Miho and Tabe. But, as somebody who has catered to the well-heeled, with restaurants such as Island Prime and C-Level, Scott could be demonstrating a change of heart among fat-cat companies, indicating a willingness to dip their toes in at street level to see — and maybe add variety to — how the other half eats. Scott says she wants to make food trucks a happening thing, to join in on this big move to gastro-democratization, to letting the rest of us get a taste of those lofty culinary arts she practices. I like the thought.
The shock? My favorite food truck, the Copper Chimney South Indian food truck has closed. Oh, man. Allen Sem, from Hyderabad. Half of Qualcomm would turn up for his food. It was that good. He used to park by the grass on Carroll Centre Road on the weekends, bringing comfort foods like masala dosa and medu wada (a savory fried donut), and others, like mirchi bajji, which you wanted to order just because they sounded so great to say. Allen is still cooking, but he has moved to brick and mortar. The thought is deflating. But then another Indian food truck, India on Wheels, rolled into town. Of course, as Allen would probably be pleased to point out, they offer “North Indian” cuisine. In any case: this scene is growing. And growing more interesting by the day.
The other lesson? Gotta grab these rolling babies while the spirit moves you. And them.