New food trucks delight gourmets but torment restaurants
By Andy Goldberg Sep 30, 2010, 15:07 GMT
San Jose, California - The creative destruction sparked by every recession worthy of the name was alive and kicking one recent Wednesday at a Silicon Valley parking lot.
It wasn't some fancy new tech company rising from the rubble of a defunct economic dinosaur that was causing all the excitement. Rather it was the weekly arrival of the gourmet food truck that was being greeted by tech serfs in the area as the best thing since, well, sliced bread.
'I'm addicted, I have to admit it,' said software engineer Jason Lee as he ordered a serving of six dollar sliders from the MoGo barbecue truck. The truck looked exactly like one of the thousands of traditional food trucks that are a regular sight in US office parks and city streets, and which have a reputation for serving simple and often greasy food.
But the lunches served by MoGo are a different species entirely. Like many of the other gourmet food trucks now plying regular routes MoGo specializes in fusion cuisine - in this case a crazy-sounding combination of Korean Mexican and Hawaiian influences.
Lee's addiction was easy to understand after tasting MoGo's sliders. They are made up of Korean-style short rib beef mixed with spam, covered with shredded cheese, lettuce and cabbage, and placed on small squares of sweet Hawaiian bread.
Other items on the menu included Korean tacos that substitute traditional Mexican ingredients like carne asada with Korean style chicken, pork and rib-meat. The truck was also doing a brisk trade in tortillas stuffed with assorted meats and kimchi, a Korean dish of fermented cabbage.
Roy Choi, the Los Angeles chef who is widely credited with inventing Korean-Mexican fusion in his truck Kogi, recently won the chef of the year award from Food & Wine Magazine. No wonder the Los Angeles Times called gourmet food trucks 'the hottest new development on the dining scene.'
Korean-inspired food may be the poster child for the new truck cuisine, but it has lots of siblings. The Los Angeles Times reported that there are some 6,000 full service catering trucks in the city and a further 3,500 more limited food carts - for which city officials are now trying to implement a cleanliness rating system.
There are falafel trucks, corn trucks, barbeque trucks, and gourmet pizza trucks, not to mention vehicles serving up rotisserie chicken, Cantonese dim sum, South African bunny chow, Greek sausage, Vietnamese banh mi or Jewish pastrami sandwiches.
The menu is not the only thing that has changed from the food trucks of old. The trendy new gourmet trucks broadcast their scheduled locations to fans via Facebook and Twitter, where Mogo boasts over 15,000 fans.
Noted food writer John T Edge organized a conference this summer called Truck Food Nation to examine the phenomenon, and aid budding entrepreneurs and city planners better manage development.
The August conference followed two street food festivals in San Francisco and Oakland that reportedly drew over 100,000 fans, with dishes that ranged in price from one dollar to eight dollars.
Such scenarios are playing out across the country, from the streets of Washington DC where government clerks nab gourmet sandwiches from carts that once served just hot dogs, to the trendy nightspots of New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where clubgoers and food aficionados mob fleets of gourmet trucks to get tasty treats for a fraction of what they would cost in a regular restaurant.
Jonathon Gold, a food critic for the LA Weekly, says the new trend has a lot going for it besides just the price. He says the trucks offer a communal experience, revive city streets and promote multicultural diversity. Also, 'they can bring fresh, healthy food to our 'food deserts',' he says. 'They represent creative, entry-level capitalism at its finest.'
That doesn't go down too well with many restauranteurs who are having to close their businesses as customers seek cheaper gourmet eats. 'Someone coming in during the prime dining hours and taking business is not good,' says San Jose restaurateur Hector Lozano. 'We're here every day, paying rent, while these people come in and make a quick buck and then leave.'