Downtown LA Challenge: In the Food Truck Trenches

The author (left) with Sergio Morales and Dora Hernandez, who operate the Kabob Express truck that parks in City West. Photo by Gary Leonard.

by Richard Guzmán |

The author (left) with Sergio Morales and Dora Hernandez, who operate the Kabob Express truck that parks in City West. Photo by Gary Leonard.

A Reporter Finds That It’s Hard to Shift Into Gear in the Mobile Cuisine World

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES – There was a moment, just a moment, when panic set in. It occurred as I was practically throwing food out the window while the world’s fastest cook was piling lunches in front of me.

“Kabob salad! Gyro! Veggie burrito! California burger!” I yelled at the top of my lungs as hands below me reached for their grub.

The truck serves about 200 customers a day. Photo by Gary Leonard.

That’s when the doubts hit me. Did I put the ketchup with the burger or was that chili I dropped in there? Did I forget a fork for the salad again? Was that seasoned salt or did I disperse some other powdery substance atop those fries? And how is she so freaking fast?

More important than the questions was one phrase I kept repeating, like a mantra, during my first and last day in a food truck: “Just don’t kill Sergio today.”

As part of the Downtown Challenge, a series where I take on jobs and activities that are part of the fabric of Downtown Los Angeles, I spent a day working the kitchen inside a food truck. It made sense considering the army of trucks that storm the Central City each day.

While taco trucks have trawled the streets of L.A. for generations, it all changed a few years back when the Kogi Korean barbecue truck rolled onto the scene. Now there is a wealth of food on wheels, with trucks serving everything from innovative grilled cheese sandwiches to Vietnamese food to Cajun dishes to crepes.

I joined a truck that was a little different than most but still part of the new food revolution. Kabob Express is run by Joe Mercado, who has been in the mobile food business for more than 25 years, feeding office workers, construction crews and others a versatile menu featuring burritos, tacos, burgers and sandwiches. When the new trucks started seizing all the attention, Joe re-branded himself and his pair of trucks as Mexi-terranean cuisine, a fusion of Mexican and Mediterranean food.

His menu includes the Mexi-terranean burrito, a flour tortilla filled with hummus, shawarma and a homemade tahini sauce. There are also old-school items like burgers and sandwiches.

Stressing Out Sergio

One of Joe’s trucks parks at Seventh and Bixel streets daily from about 7 a.m.-2 p.m. It serves approximately 200 customers a day from the nearby office buildings. The lunch hour is the busiest time. Coincidentally, that’s when Joe said I could help out.

As a journalist I pride myself on being observant and having an ability to read people. Thus, I quickly sensed that Sergio Morales, who runs Joe’s Seventh and Bixel truck, wasn’t that excited about having me lollygagging around his truck during the busy time.

“You’re going to kill me today,” he told me as nicely as he could while I was putting on my apron. “You’re going to be in the way. Just try not to get in the way too much and be ready to get bumped once or twice, because there’s not a lot of room in here.”

Dora Hernandez, the longtime cook, just gave me a courtesy smile. Then she turned right back around and kept on chopping something.

“Sounds like you’re not too crazy about me being here,” I said to Sergio.

“We’re missing a guy today, and I’m going to have to do what he does too,” he responded. Now he would also have to deal with a nosy writer asking stupid questions.

I felt bad for Sergio.

“I’m here to help, just tell me what to do,” I said in my most reassuring, hard-worker-type voice. “But I have no experience with any of this. The only thing I’m good at is ordering food and eating food.”

For some reason, this didn’t make him smile.

When it came time to work, I was hoping Sergio would hand me a chef’s hat and a sharp knife and tell Dora to give me a few quick gourmet lessons. Instead, I got a jar of dressing, a spoon and dozens of small plastic cups. My job was to ready the dressings and salsas before the lunch crowd came so we could toss them in when needed.

I emptied an entire jar of dressing and salsa as I talked a bit with Sergio. He was originally in the food truck business, then moved to his real passion, real estate. He was doing pretty well until the market tanked. Fortunately, he was able to turn to Joe, an old friend. Now he manages the truck, and has an upbeat, positive attitude.

“You make the best of it. You have to,” he told me.

Sergio does. It seemed like he knew all of the customers by name. He joked with them, they joked back and they asked about each other’s lives in between orders.

The Three Amigos

Together, Sergio, Dora and I were ready to feed the hungry City West lunch crowd.

“It’s fun, it’s easy,” Dora said. In fact, it’s almost too easy for her, which was my downfall.

After prepping the dressing and salsa, my job was the simplest one in the truck — I had to add some seasoned salt to the fries and some ketchup packages too, and make sure there was a fork with every order and bag it all up. It didn’t seem monumental.

Then I had to yell out the orders, since people tend to walk away after ordering or chat loudly. After I got their attention I would hand the food out the window.

The crowd started arriving at about 11:30 a.m. While Sergio claimed it was an unusually slow lunch, to me it seemed like we were at the Indianapolis 500 and the orders and customers were speeding all around me like cars going 200 miles per hour.

I had an immediate problem: Dora spoke as fast as she cooked and I had trouble understanding what was what as she piled orders in front of me.

“Is this the kabob salad or a chicken kabob plate?” I would ask. By the time I finished my question, she was another three orders ahead of me.

Luckily, in between taking orders, handling the money and working the pits like an ace mechanic, Sergio helped me out by translating for Dora a bit.

Pretty soon I got used to her calls and was yelling out the window like an old-school lonchero.

“Kaaaabob salad, chicken wrap, chicken wrap here! California Burger, who’s got the California Burger?”

When I wasn’t loud enough Sergio was behind me like an echo. I seemed to be growing on him, too.

“Who’s this new guy?” someone asked him.

“That’s my brother. Don’t we look alike?” Sergio joked. For the record, and to make Sergio feel better, we look nothing alike.

I joked around a lot with the customers too, and they all seemed to think I was extra funny, since I got more laughs than I usually get when I joke around at press conferences. I guess people like you more when you’re handing them food than when you’re asking about budgets.

Most importantly, besides a few forgotten forks and maybe some red pepper added to an order of fries rather than seasoned salt (sorry, nice lady in the white shirt) I did a pretty good job. Best of all, I didn’t kill Sergio.

“You actually helped me today. You helped me a lot,” he told me at the end of my shift.

It meant a lot to me that Sergio said that. Then I took my apron off and did the thing I’m best at.

I got out of the truck and ordered the California burger from Sergio. It had been a long day, I was hungry and it had taken all my will not to take a bite of one of those juicy burgers as I was handing them out.