A few years ago, spurred by an economic malaise, many professionally trained chefs began taking to the streets — in trucks.
Once known by the unsavory moniker “roach coaches,” food trucks have since experienced a renaissance.
Plugged into social media such as Twitter and Facebook, sourcing local ingredients and sporting graphic eye-catching designs, food trucks have transformed the American food scene in a few short years.
Historically, food trucks provided meals to folk who didn’t have ready access to food, whether as a canteen for soldiers or a lunch truck for construction workers.
“Nobody wanted to eat off of them because they were not good food,” says Tony Chen, the blogger of SinoSoul based in Los Angeles.
“Now people have cleaned it up and flipped the game. Instead of just Mexican food, you can get basically anything. I think that’s what changed the stigma of the roach coach. ”
Today’s food truck serves anything from Taiwanese sticky rice to buttermilk pancakes.
Below is a roundup of a few food trucks that capture different aspects of the trend.
Kogi Truck, Los Angeles
“You don’t have to like them,” says Chen, “But when they blew up two or three years ago, Kogi really changed the food truck scene.”
By making Korean tacos, chef Roy Choi and co-owner Mark Manguera changed the food truck genre by demonstrating that the LA food truck wasn’t all about the tacos with which it had become synonymous.
Kogi offers a Korean Mexican fusion food — tacos stuffed with marinated Korean short ribs, kimchi quesadillas — and in the process has spawned dozens of copycats in L.A. and beyond.
“You have to wait in line for at least an hour,” says UCLA student Min Sung Gu. “I think our school’s dining café could go out of business because of them. The tacos are delicious, and not at all greasy.”
Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck, New York
“People have this infantile obsession with our past,” says Chen. “Foods drawing on American childhood seem to do pretty well.” Indeed, what food truck is more iconic of childhood obsessions than the ice cream man?
“There were never any ice cream trucks in my neighborhood,” says frequent customer Tahmid Chowdhury, 28, who grew up in Rockland County, 30 minutes’ drive north of New York. “For me, getting ice cream from Van Leeuwen makes me feel nostalgic for the perfect childhoods I saw on TV.”
Van Leeuwen, a family business started in 2008 by Ben van Leeuwen and his wife Laura and brother Pete, is sophisticated enough for adults and uses wholesome ingredients healthy enough for kids. Van Leeuwen only uses three base ingredients — milk, cane sugar, and egg yolks — and what they produce is pure, unadulterated joy.
Their commitment to the best ingredients shines in the Sicilian pistachios that give the Pistachio ice cream a deep, smoky flavor, and the “fiber-free” ginger ice cream that has the perfect balance of sweet and spicy.
Van Leeuwen now runs two ice cream trucks and three storefronts.
Spencer to Go!, San Francisco
Spencer calls itself a “mobile bistro,” which is a succinct way of saying, really fancy food truck. Chef Laurent Katgely knows a thing or two about haute cuisine, having worked at Lespinasse in New York and as executive chef of Pastis in Los Angeles, and he brings the sensibilities of fine dining to the food truck.
Spencer offers a variety of vol-au-vent — puff pastry with a filling — whether it is escargot, sauteed shrimp, or a fungi truffle emulsion. Spencer is also conveniently parked across from the wine shop Terroir, so you can enjoy a glass of red with your braised lamb cheek sandwich.
Spencer to Go!; 300 7th St. (at Folsom Street), San Francisco; spenceronthego.com
Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Portland, Oregon
Chef Nong Poonsukwattana distinguished her food stall from the other “pods” on 10th and Alder by posting only one item on the menu — khao man gai, a Thai version of Hainanese chicken.
The dish is stunningly simple — poached chicken on a bed of rice that has been cooked in the chicken stock and a side of broth — and is some of the best comfort food you could buy for lunch.
On top of the dish, you’ll want to drizzle some of the sauce — spicy, vinegary, sweet — which adds the right amount of acid to round out the dish. If they haven’t already run out, you’ll also want to get a side of crispy chicken skin.
El Taco Rico, Austin, Texas
Some of the best food can occupy the humblest of locations. For Mexican food lovers, that place is a bright blue trailer parked in the lot of a laundromat in Montopolis in East Austin.
In a state notably obsessed with barbecue, chef Yolanda Sanchez Cornejo brings an authentic Mexican version to town. Barbacoa is the original barbecue that started in the Caribbean and eventually moved to Mexico and the U.S. Cornejo’s barbacoa is in the vein of Mexican barbacoa, which is a cow’s head slowly roasted until the meat is so tender it falls off the bone.
Put this in a taco and you have some of the best Mexican food north of the Rio Grande.
El Taco Rico: 810 Vargas Road, Austin, Texas