Tracking Down San Diego’s Growing Fleet of Gourmet Food Trucks

By Tovin Lapan, Special to the Union-Tribune,

David Brooks / Union-Tribune

Juan Miron takes an order from a customer at the Miho Gastrotruck. Miron and his co-owner aim to make gourmet food you might find in La Jolla, and serve it out of a truck.

The Miho Gastrotruck serves “The Classic,” a burger made with grass-fed beef and natural cheddar cheese.

A couple of years ago, Dave Long, a professionally trained chef who had opened a restaurant in Costa Rica and worked with Bradley Ogden in San Francisco, was working as a personal chef. The family was nice enough, but there was one problem for this energetic, talkative former Navy SEAL.

“I was bored,” Long said, standing in front of his Dave de Jour food truck around midnight on a Wednesday in North Park. “I felt like a glorified butler. I wanted my own thing, but without having to open a traditional restaurant.”

At the time, the word was starting to spread about gourmet food trucks that were attempting to bring the mobile meals forward by incorporating new trends in fusion cuisine and local ingredients.

“I read an article about Kogi in L.A., so I went to check it out,” Long said, referring to the now nationally known Kogi BBQ truck that sells Korean-style tacos. “When I got there, a huge line had already formed, and the truck wasn’t even there yet. That’s when I knew I was going to get a truck.”

Some stories about the gourmet food truck trend have referred to Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles as the first, which is kind of like saying Apple invented the computer. They didn’t come up with the idea; they just made it more user-friendly.

Food trucks have been around for decades, from New York to San Francisco, and were feeding San Diegans as early as the 1940s. What Kogi did do, most agree, is show the way to greater visibility through social media. Through Twitter, but also using other Web services like Facebook, food trucks can now give their followers up-to-the-minute reports on their locations. The Kogi Twitter feed now has more than 69,000 followers.

“Kogi brought it all to the forefront,” said Kevin Ho, co-owner of the Miho Gastrotruck, which started prowling the streets of San Diego two months ago. “They used social networking in a great way and established a strong following. That strategy of reaching people is at the heart of the growing food truck movement.”

There are still plenty of hurdles to success: getting licenses and permits, truck maintenance, managing the food and separate prep kitchen, and, maybe most challenging, breaking down the stereotype of the “roach coach.”

“You have to overcome people’s perceptions of food trucks,” Long said. “People see my menu and say, ‘I’m not eating ahi skewers out of a truck,’ but I assure you my truck is better run and more sanitary than a lot of restaurants.”

A look at San Diego’s new crop of gourmet food trucks and how to find them:

Dave de Jour

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This is one of the few trucks that has a strong presence in North County, where Long lives, but also is a regular in city spots like North Park. The menu changes depending on available ingredients and inspiration, but offers a list of sliders from beef tongue to mahi-mahi. There are also vegetarian options, like the intriguingly spicy smoked lentil tacos.

Miho Gastrotruck

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Kevin Ho and Juan Miron, owners of Miho, have a vision: Make gourmet, locally sourced food you’d expect too see at a La Jolla restaurant, but out of a truck. For a special event at Ballast Point Brewing, Miho chef Courtney Bryant crafted a pork belly dish with agave glaze and corn fritters. Their grass-fed burger and rotating menu of seasonal items fits San Diego tastes well. They also team up with local DJs and artists for special events (the next one is Saturday in Little Italy; check the Miho website for details).

Tabe BBQ

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Like Kogi, Tabe serves Korean BBQ tacos as well as other items, including a beer-battered fish taco with “Maui” salsa that stands up admirably to the plethora of other San Diego fish taco purveyors. It has become so popular that chef Todd Ichinaga had to open the prep kitchen (3690 Murphy Canyon Road, Serra Mesa) for regular service.

Food Junkies

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This truck is not out in the streets as much as the others, but consistently sets up in North Park near The Office Bar (3936 30th St.) on Friday nights. Menu options include a fish taco, a gourmet grilled cheese on sourdough, a Tijuana-style hot dog (wrapped in bacon) and the incredibly fun to say — and eat — “BBQ brisket in a biscuit.”

Joes on the Nose

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Practically the old guard of San Diego gourmet food trucks, this mobile coffee shop and smoothie bar has been around for three years and is a regular at the farmers markets in Normal Heights, Little Italy and Hillcrest. It is not exactly a “food” truck, but creative drinks like the Horchata Latte and the Flaming Chocolate (hot chocolate with chile and hot sauce) make it worth a visit.