By Carter Jung / Photos by Guy Spangenberg
The left turn signal arrow goes green and the massive vehicle I’m sitting in lumbers forward. Christian Murcia, the driver, gingerly presses on the throttle and carefully eases the steering wheel counterclockwise. We make the left turn traveling 10 mph, tops, and I almost fall out of the passenger seat. Our mode of transportation is 10 ft. tall with an incredibly high center of gravity, and the centrifugal force combined with a featureless, slippery seat creates a newfound respect for side bolsters. GT-R buckets these are not.
A quarter way through the turn, something clangs in the back. “That was the rear door,” Christian laughs, calmly. “I can tell what fell in the back just from the sound.” Does that qualify as nonverbal communication?
We pass the apex cone, in this case a lane-dividing center island, when I hear a second crash. This time it’s louder than the first. Christian looks alarmed.
“That was the Jones Soda,” he reports, without taking his eyes off the road. “I moved some stuff around for the photographers and I forgot to lock the fridge.”
I look back and witness the carnage. Broken glass, brightly colored soda and sauerkraut are everywhere. It’s a good thing that Italian leather and wood trim aren’t interior options on a catering truck. This is going to be a long drive to our testing facility.
In a former life, I managed a coffee shop. While it was less than mentally stimulating, it was rewarding in its own right. The rhythm of tamping grinds, pulling espresso shots and steaming milk during peak times was cathartic, making a day’s work fly. As much as I enjoyed my stint in food service, when an opportunity at a car magazine came about, I left and never looked back. But when the gourmet “roach coach” trend started percolating in Los Angeles, aspirations of working the streets steamed through my semi-entrepreneurial mind. There are no riches to be made in journalism and the success of the Kogi Korean BBQ truck is near legendary.
When the Kogi truck first headed out into the drunken neighborhoods of Hollywood and Koreatown, circa Thanksgiving 2008, the vehicle single-handedly kick-started the gourmet food truck craze. Chef Roy Choi, Mark Manguera and Caroline Shin (all culinary school graduates) sought to redefine the taco truck by developing a cuisine that reflected the mixed Korean and Mexican ethnicities of their neighborhood. The result? Tacos heavily influenced by Korean flavors. By opening for business in the midst of a flailing economy and broadcasting their constantly changing location via social media, Kogi created a movement. Gourmet trucks now proliferate the streets of California, specializing in foods ranging from pork belly buns and buttermilk pancakes to pork shu mai—not to mention bacon amalgamations and healthy dishes of edible art (see “Roach Coach No More” nearby).
Launched on July 4, 2011, Brats Berlin is a fairly recent addition to the industry of the movable feast. Christian Murcia, the truck whisperer with the keen ability to hear his vehicle’s woes, is one of the partners, along with his wife Danielle and Joe Sue. However, this isn’t the trio’s first truck. It’s their third. Christian’s first is Crêpes Bonaparte, a crêpe truck launched in March 2010 inspired by his time spent in Europe. The couple toiled long and hard, often working 120-plus hours a week. They grilled crêpes at nightlife destinations until dawn, rested for a few hours, only to head back out to a brunch location early in the morning. Their hard work paid off and the crêpes sold like, er, hotcakes. In time, the couple found themselves collaborating with Joe Sue, the owner of Calbi (Korean-Mexican fusion similar to Kogi), often traveling to locations together, parlaying the synergy of two trucks. The relationship was so fruitful that the Murcias partnered with Joe to start Brats Berlin, a gourmet bratwurst truck.
Underneath the colorful exterior of the Brats Berlin truck is a 2003 Ford E-450 Stripped Chassis. Rebuilt by Utilimaster, the commercial vehicle began its life as a delivery truck for the now-defunct Airborne Express. Christian purchased the truck used from another caterer with the cargo area already retrofitted with a steam table and warmer, flat-top grill, deep fryers and burners, all propane-operated. A cutting board, french fry cutter and refrigerator were other built-in additions, as was the fire suppression system, generator, shelves and storage bins—accouterments not found on even the finest of Bentleys. Oh, and I almost forgot, a kitchen sink—one about to undergo a series of stress tests, courtesy of our test team.
The Brats Berlin truck is running through the slalom, groaning through the pylons precariously. Passing the second cone, the slab-sided vehicle starts rolling back and forth worse than a crab boat off the coast of Alaska. After the first run, Jonathan Elfalan, our Road Test Editor, drives up looking nervous. “How fast did you go?” I ask him.
“I’m not exactly sure, the speedometer doesn’t work,” Elfalan replies.
“I think you can go faster,” I goad.
“I think so too,” he unenthusiastically notes. “But it’s kind of hard to slalom with all the noise from the kitchen.”
I surmise that whoever rebuilt the Ford van never thought this portable restaurant would ever be used for apex strafing. After several runs, the converted van pushes its front (independent twin I-beam, coil springs, shocks and anti-roll bar) and rear (non-independent live axle, leaf spring and shocks) suspensions, threading our cones at 41.2 mph. For perspective, a Porsche 911 GT2 RS runs through our slalom at 75.9 mph.
Acceleration, the next test, is much smoother, if not painfully slow to watch. Taking 22.8 seconds to crawl through the quarter mile, each run of the catering truck is like watching paint dry (or drip?). The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport could give the brat brawler a 12.9-sec. head start and still catch it at the end of the drag strip. But then again, a Veyron couldn’t whip up a mean Polish kielbasa.
The skidpad proves to be much more exciting. As the rig pulls into the circle of cones, accelerating, it starts leaning at an angle that looks in excess of 10 degrees. It seems that storing 50 gal. of potable water in roof-mounted tanks isn’t ideal for lateral performance. If the slalom portion was scary, the skidpad is downright Jack Nicholson in The Shining…for our Road Test Editor, at least. The rest of us, on the other hand, are pointing at the listing-to-the-point-of-tumbling food truck and giggling like a bunch of schoolgirls. Not since Wile E. Coyote unsuccessfully flirted with Acme products have we seen such mechanical hilarity.
Once performance testing has concluded, I notice a growing caramel-colored puddle under the front door of the Brats Berlin. Uh-oh. What could it be? Engine oil? Brake fluid? Transmission oil? Sniff-sniff. What is that smell…French fries? Turns out it’s oil of the cooking variety and the entire kitchen is coated with it. The two deep fryers half-emptied of their canola contents for testing still couldn’t handle the skidpad. Lesson learned: Never deep fry under lateral acceleration, especially at 0.54g. The good news is that none of the custom art looks damaged.
Besides sausage-y goodness, the other notable aspect of the Brats Berlin has to be its choice of livery. Hand painted by Evolve, a graffiti artist, the urban theme sets the truck apart from its peers, lending it street cred. The idea for the vandals-let-loose-in-a-train-yard look came from Murcia’s visit to the East Side Gallery, a section of Berlin Wall that’s been painted by artists to commemorate the reunification of Germany. To keep the roving gallery fresh, the exterior will be repainted by a new artist every six months.
With the oily mess somewhat cleaned, it’s my turn to get behind the wheel.
I tug on the steering hub mounted shifter and set the 4-speed automatic transmission to Drive. I mash the throttle and the sohc 5.4-liter V-8 engine snarls. The rear axle’s four Goodyear tires tug the tarmac and propel the food truck forward. And by propel, I mean like propellers churning a barge. This thing is the size of a boat and it moves like one. Despite the V-8’s 350 lb.-ft. of torque and 255 bhp, it’s all noise and nominal acceleration. After all, the Ford E-450 Stripped Chassis weighs more than 4500 lb. Add in the kitchen equipment and the Brats Berlin truck is using a good chunk of its 9400-plus-lb. payload capacity.
I disengage the “go” pedal and reach for its counterpart. Surprisingly, it grabs with some fervor. Thanks to the E-450’s 13.0-in. front disc brakes and 12.9-in. rear discs, the Brats Berlin stops better than it accelerates. But then again, I was traveling at a rate of 35 mph, 37 tops. Thanks to the broken speedometer, I can’t offer an exact number. This beast takes 29.9 sec. to get to 60 mph and I run out of tarmac faster than the engine can top out. In fact, a quarter mile isn’t enough room to hit 60 mph. But if I had, it would’ve taken 164 ft. to brake from 60 mph, a respectable number for a land whale.
To little surprise, the Brats Berlin truck’s performance during testing is comically dismal. Where it’s meant to shine is off the track and next to the road, namely parking lots and street curbs. That is where it is in its element, with grill and deep fryers in operation, bratwursts and Belgian fries cooking, mouth-watering aromas wafting forth.
Nowhere was that more evident than the food truck challenge held at our office. One juicy bite of the Spicy Cajun Sausage, and the slalom, skidpad and acceleration numbers go out the savory window. The Brats Berlin truck may not win any speed contests, but it dominates in the delicious department. And for the truck’s three partners, that’s the only title that counts. As for me, my two days spent with Christian was just the on-the-job training I needed. I’m hunting for a used catering trucks. Korean cheesesteaks, anyone?