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Food trucks tantalize local tastes

Cuisine: Mobile restaurants increase the amount of culinary options available to locals

Posted: December 5, 2010 10:41 p.m.
Updated: December 6, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Elmer Alarcon, 33, a cook for Kogi BBQ, prepares a burrito inside the Kogi truck.

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It happens most Wednesday nights: About 9:30 p.m., a few die-hard foodies begin to gather outside the Brave New World comic book shop in Newhall.

By 10:15 p.m., the group becomes a crowd — a line that stretches more than a block down Chestnut Avenue, leading up to a brightly colored food truck labeled “Kogi BBQ.”

For many, the reward comes after more than an hour of waiting: A chef inside the truck calls a number and hurriedly pushes out a cardboard tray filled with Kogi’s trademark tacos — Korean-style beef topped with Asian-style cabbage and spicy sauce.

“You can’t find this type of food in restaurants,” said Stephanie Moses, 18, of Castaic, who routinely makes the bi-weekly pilgrimage. “It’s something different, and the fact that they come out here to Santa Clarita — it brings with it a different kind of vibe. More fun, eye-opening and just a good experience for people out here.”

Kogi BBQ is one of the pioneers of the gourmet food-truck craze.

While Santa Clarita is relatively new to it, the phenomenon — and, in fact, food trucks in general — has deep roots just 30 miles to the south in downtown Los Angeles.

History on wheels
It all began with the basic taco truck, which provides quick and inexpensive sidewalk lunches to workers. But it has since transformed into a guerrilla-gourmet dining experience, said Rocio Rosales, an economic sociologist and UCLA doctoral candidate in sociology who focuses on food vending in Los Angeles.

“Food trucks have been around for a while,” she said. “What has changed is the type of food offered, the presentation and the target audience.”

John T. Edge, a monthly columnist for the New York Times and author of the upcoming book “Truck Food Nation,” has done extensive research on the food-truck boom.

And although he said it was difficult to pinpoint, which gourmet food truck first emerged, he credited two Los Angeles businesses as paving the way for what has now transformed into gourmet food trucks.

Cater Craft Foods Inc. is one of the largest catering-truck companies in Southern California and has been in business for 44 years.

Roadstoves is a mobile-catering company that transformed itself after 40 years of catering experience to offer startup services for those aspiring to take their food business on the road with specialty designed “road stoves” as well as permits, insurance and licenses.

Kogi BBQ is one of its featured clients.

“(Cater Craft and Roadstoves) were some of the first companies to convert catering trucks to gourmet food trucks,” Edge said in an interview with The Signal. “They were very important in the formative stages.”

Downtown Los Angeles is the epicenter of the gourmet food-truck shakeup.

In 2009, Edge called Los Angeles “the citadel of the postmodern American truck-food phenomenon” as food trucks sprout up all over the country.

The scene
On a recent monthly Art Walk festival in downtown Los Angeles, people flooded to designated food-truck areas sprinkled throughout the city amidst the towering buildings.

“IncrediBall, coming up!” yelled a chef from inside a gourmet meatball truck, Great Balls on Tires.

Patron Martin Karamian noted, between bites, “It’s delicious.

“We’re sampling from a bunch of different trucks, doing a little taste test,” he said, getting ready to take another bite. “The quality has gotten so much better from 10 years ago.”

Keith Richardson, of Los Angeles, said he’s been eating at food trucks for the past eight months every chance he gets.
“You can eat multiple things in one area, and it’s just really good food,” said Richardson, who even brings along his own plastic fork in order to sample a variety of cuisines.

New entrepreneurs
One of the first big names on the Los Angeles gourmet food-truck scene was Kogi BBQ, a Korean-fusion truck that launched in late 2008.

Now about 9,000 food trucks are licensed to do business in Los Angeles County, according to county records.

As with any other social phenomenon, there are many possible reasons for this food-truck surge, said Rosales, including the economic slump, which produced a growing number of entrepreneurs.

“People who lost jobs or who could not find jobs in the traditional labor sector moved to this other medium where they could distribute their own product and be their own boss,” Rosales explained.

Clint Peralta, one of the founders of Great Balls on Tires, was one of those entrepreneurs.

Before Peralta donned his apron and climbed aboard his mobile eatery, he worked in the wholesale mortgage industry for four years until it collapsed.

“It wasn’t my or anyone in the industry’s choice,” he said about his departure from the financial world.

But from this unexpected change came a new start for Peralta and a chance for him to get involved in something he really loved.

“One of the things I really love is food. I’ve always been into different kinds of food,” he said. “I never wanted to try just one food. I’d save money to go eat at nice restaurants. I’d go to taco trucks. I’d go everywhere.”

And to Peralta, nothing compares to the food-truck experience.

“The financial industry has existed so you’re not re-inventing anything,” he said. “Here in the food-truck industry, every day is a new experience, and you get to make it up as you go along. It’s an emerging industry.”

Peralta’s truck, Great Balls on Tires, also known as G-BOT, brings to the masses a familiar comfort food: meatballs. Everybody knows one; every culture has one. They are simply universal, Peralta said.

“A meatball is very comforting, and practically every culture has a meatball,” he said. “Asians put it in dumplings, (there are) Swedish meatballs, and Americans know it as spaghetti all covered with cheese.”

A self-proclaimed “foodie” for nearly 10 years and an avid blog reader, Peralta saw the food gourmet truck industry take off in 2009 with Kogi BBQ.

“I thought, ‘How cool would it be if we could take something universal, like a meatball, and then infuse every kind of different global cuisine into the meatball?’” he said.

The Twitter model

Another factor to the gourmet food-truck surge is a change technology.

“Many customers are young and very possibly tech savvy,” Rosales said.

When the Kogi BBQ truck launched in late 2008, it relied on word of mouth to attract customers. But within a year, Kogi’s use of Twitter revolutionized the way food trucks communicated with customers.

“Kogi linked technology to these mobile eateries so that websites such as Twitter and Facebook helped to advertise their location and increase their visibility and clientele,” Rosales said.

“For many of these food trucks, the availability of new technology was invaluable and perhaps the missing link, as so many of these gourmet food trucks depend on the Internet to advertise their product and locations.”

There are even mobile-phone applications and websites, like TruxMap, that map the location of your favorite food truck.

And lastly, a change in the type of customer has contributed to food trucks’ popularity, said Jesús Hermosillo, a UCLA graduate student in urban planning.

“There has been a cultural change,” Hermosillo said. “There are a lot more young people, some of them hipsters, that live in an urban areas, and for them, eating at these food trucks is an adventure.”

Hermosillo also pointed out that there are two types of food trucks: “loncheras,”  traditional taco trucks that have been around for decades, and the newer, gourmet food trucks he referred to as “Twitter trucks.”

“These Twitter trucks are not just selling food, but they’re selling an adventure,” said Hermosillo, author of the study “Loncheras: A Look at Food Trucks in Los Angeles.”

He also cited society’s constant desire for change.

“People find food trucks convenient because they want to have easy access to food services, and that’s why food trucks have been around for a very long time,” Hermosillo said.

Mobile community
In October, Santa Clarita residents experienced their first food truck festival at the Bridgeport Marketplace in Valencia.

The turnout of more than 8,000 exceeded expectations, said Marlee Lauffer, spokeswoman for Newhall Land Development Inc., the company that organized the event.

A dense crowd of food lovers enjoyed sliders, fried chicken, Kobe beef tacos, meatballs and cupcakes from one of 22 trucks — all parked in one lot.

“You have the gamut all in front of you, right in front of your face,” Peralta said. “How wonderful is that?”

There were so many people at the food event that The Signal reported people standing in line for 45 minutes at the Sprinkles Cupcakes truck, which was so popular it sold out of cupcakes before the end of the event.

From the success of events like the Awesometown Gourmet Food Truck Festival, Rosales said other new trends are emerging from this food truck craze, such as established restaurants offering their own mobile eateries and trucks partnering with local businesses.

“Businesses with storefront property are beginning to offer mobile locations, such as Sprinkles Cupcakes,” which has a permanent location in Beverly Hills, Rosales said.

Molly Taylor, founder of The Sweets Truck, not only bakes her own signature sweets, but also partners with other professional bakers, pastry chefs and coffee roasters from across Los Angeles to offer a variety of treats to her customers.

This way, “people can go and grab their favorite sweets (outside) of their side of town,” said Taylor, who used to work at a storefront bakery before creating her own bakery on wheels.

Legitimacy
Food trucks are becoming so common that Los Angeles County has created a letter-grade system to rank their cleanliness and food-handling practices. The grade system is similar to those that health inspectors give to brick-and-mortar restaurants.

Although food trucks have always had to go through health inspections, Hermosillo said the letter grades will benefit all types food trucks.

“It will help legitimize, the food trucks and people will understand that they are health-regulated,” he said.

Peralta said he hopes with this change, more people will feel comfortable buying food from trucks.

“It’s an industry that many people don’t really know about, and the letter grades might bring that whole segment of the population that otherwise wouldn’t try trucks to give it a shot,” he said.

Of course, there are challenges that come along with operating a food truck. The main problem both Taylor and Peralta have is parking and the truck’s limited space.

“It’s hard to park a boat,” said Peralta. “We have finite amount of storage space, it’s hot, it’s cramped, and so you don’t have as much as you could offer if you had a restaurant where you have walk-ins and unlimited storage space.”

And there are some people who just aren’t fans of the trucks.

Los Angeles officials passed a law in May 2008 that made it a misdemeanor to park a taco truck in the same place for more than an hour. The penalty for those who violated the law: up to $1,000 in fines or six months in jail.

This ordinance was later dismissed by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dennis Aichroth, who deemed it “too ambiguous to be enforceable” and said it conflicted with the state’s vehicle code.

Despite these challenges, Peralta and Taylor say the experiences they’ve had are worth every minute on their food truck.

“The hours are long but they’re mine. I work for myself,” said Peralta. “We love food and we’re constantly evolving every day, which feeds all the things that satiate your soul.”

Not to mention the creativity that come with this evolving industry, said Taylor of The Sweets Truck.

“What food trucks offer is the opportunity to take one or two ingredients and being very, very creative with those ingredients,” she said, “really just have fun with it versus a menu that has to appeal to a lot of different people.”

Keep on truckin’
So what is the future of gourmet food trucks?

Both Rosales and Hermosillo said that future might be long range, since taco trucks have become a mainstay.

“Taco trucks have been around for decades and are likely to continue hanging around,” said Rosales. “Only time will tell if the newer gourmet trucks become a lasting part of the urban landscape.”

Kogi BBQ and the crowd it draws, meanwhile, have become a part of Newhall’s landscape — every other Wednesday, at least.

“They’re really good,” said 18-year-old Moses of Castaic, who added she thinks more trucks should make their way to the Santa Clarita Valley.

“I wish they had a dim sum truck out here,” she said. “We don’t have dim sum out here.”

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