August 21, 2010 12:40 am

Food fight in Los Angeles

 
Kabob 'N' Roll van

Refuelling: The Kabob ’N’ Roll van serving lunch on Wilshire Boulevard

Meetings of the five-member Transportation Committee of the Los Angeles City Council tend to be rather quiet affairs. But earlier this month, 150 people crammed into Room 1010 at City Hall to debate LA’s latest gastronomic craze: gourmet food trucks.

To their fans, the trucks are a welcome addition to the city’s food scene, parking outside shops and offices at lunchtimes and congregating on Friday nights to create mini food festivals. To their critics, they are a menace, stealing trade from restaurants, creating litter, lacking proper licences and regulation, and clogging the parking places of entire streets.

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“We don’t want to shut down the trucks but we do need to work this out,” says councillor Tom LeBonge. “Many of the truck operators want free enterprise and don’t like government regulation, but we have to act before it becomes a bigger problem.”

While the atmosphere at the meeting was amicable and the committee agreed to revisit the issue in 60 days’ time, 10 miles across town animosity between the Californian version of meals on wheels and local owners is growing.

The designer boutiques and antique stories of Abbot Kinney Boulevard, near Venice Beach, stay open late on the first Friday of each month. Now up to 30 food trucks line the short street and hundreds of hip 20-somethings crowd the sidewalks, flirting, partying and sampling such high-end snacks as the Fishlips’ salmon-skin hand-roll, Dogzilla’s Japanese-style hot dogs and Dosa’s slumdog (a lentil flour crepe stuffed with Indian “pesto”, paneer, spinach and masala potatoes for $7.75).

“We had a fried pork truck parked in front of our store,” one boutique owner complained, “Our interior and all our merchandise stank of pork and there was trash everywhere. We asked the truck to move but they refused, and, when we called the police, they couldn’t do anything. The gourmet truck craze is such a new phenomenon the law hasn’t caught up with it yet.”

There have always been food trucks in LA. For a city built around the car, where no one walks, a mobile kitchen is a natural way to deliver street food. For many years the trucks offered cheap basic fare, mainly tacos and burgers from often shabby vehicles, at places such as building sites.

Things changed when Roy Choi, a talented chef who had run major hotel and restaurant kitchens, decided to take to the road. In November 2008, Choi created Kogi, the first gourmet truck, serving “Korean BBQ”, a fiery fusion of Mexican tacos and Korean barbecue fillings such as short ribs and kimchi (fermented cabbage).

Choi stencilled his truck with an eye-catching design that owed equal parts to LA’s graffiti art and custom-car tradition, and he attracted a new young crowd by broadcasting his locations via Twitter.

“The real innovation wasn’t the gourmet dishes but the internet,” says Jim Fishman, a restaurateur whose family owns Renee’s Courtyard Bar in Santa Monica. “It was marketing the trucks using Twitter and GPS units on the trucks that made it possible for people to find them.”

Some restaurant owners happily acknowledge the trucks’ appeal. “Anything that creates a gathering of people in LA is good,” says Evan Kleiman, who runs Angeli Caffe, a popular Italian restaurant on Melrose. “In most cities, you have a street scene that supports street food. In LA, it’s the other way around.

Kleiman argues that the trucks play a positive role, letting customers try out new dishes and letting young entrepreneurs try out the food business, thanks to their lower start-up costs. “If a pizza truck parked outside Angeli’s, I wouldn’t be pleased, but in the end I believe in my product. Trucks and restaurants aren’t interchangeable. I get excited by the trucks, like anybody else. If I spot the CoolHaus truck when I’m driving home at 10.30pm, I’ll do a U-turn and buy an ice-cream sandwich.”

So far, surprisingly few established LA restaurants have launched trucks. One that has is the Border Grill, whose owner Susan Feniger is among the city’s most famous chefs. “It’s marketing on the street for us,” she says. To Feniger, the important thing about the gourmet truck craze is that it raises the standard of street food, making it an option for serious eaters. “I’ve never had a big interest in fancy restaurants. I love local neighbourhood food, for example in Vietnam where a woman has her rice noodles and her peanuts and her charcoal and sets up in an alley. Restaurant-quality food cooked by a great cook in the street.”

So enthusiastic is Feniger about such food that last year she opened a restaurant simply called Street, serving her interpretation of street food recipes she collects on research trips around the world.

She was also a judge alongside Antonio Villaraigosa, mayor of LA, at this summer’s first LA Street Food Fest. Held at the Rose Bowl football stadium last month, the festival attracted 5,000 visitors who paid $45 to $65 for all they could eat – or all they had time to wait in line for – from 60 gourmet truck operators.

Unable to drive into the stadium, the trucks were replaced by blue and yellow tents like a medieval tournament. I sampled a crisp pocket of pork, walnuts, salad and honey at Crepe’n Around; a mini kebab of grilled chicken and vegetables, perfectly cooked at Kabob N’ Roll; a small toasted sandwich with barbecue sauce, beef flank and poached egg at Monsieur Egg; raja fries – strips of charred poblano chiles, browned onions and grilled beef over french fries – from Frysmith; and tiny red-velvet cupcakes at Cupcakes A Gogo.

The Food Fest showed off how the gourmet trucks are catering to current tastes for small, healthy, organic dishes and those from ethnic sources or created out of novel fusions. And it proved just how popular they are – but is the future of the trucks safe? Proposals being put forward include an increase in licensing and regulation, and specially-designated parking areas.

Or perhaps more truck owners will follow the example of the pioneering Roy Choi. After launching the gourmet truck craze, he went on to win a Best New Chef award from Food & Wine Magazine, and expanded to four trucks grossing $2m in his first year. And in April he took the next step – opening bricks-and-mortar restaurant, called Chego! The interior looks like a truck.

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Details

To find a truck, see www.roaminghunger.com or www.findlafoodtrucks.com

Street, 742 N. Highland Ave, www.eatatstreet.com

Chego!, 3300 Overland Ave, www.eatchego.com

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