The New ‘Drive-In’ Diner

Dos Chinos Food Truck

By Caitlin Adams |

Food trucks. Catering vans. Lavish loncheras. Mobilized merchants of mouth-watering munchies.

By now you must have heard of, if not experienced, this new foodie phenomenon sweeping the country. Maybe a co-worker has asked you to join them at a stop to “check it out.” Or perhaps you’ve seen the brightly colored trucks parked in a lot near your office and witnessed the mingling of Orange County’s working masses. Tie-wearing executives trade jokes with computer programmers dangling ID tags. The fresh-faced marketing trainee flirts timidly with a PR intern, who’s preoccupied with the burning question of whether to order sweet potato fries with her tofu taco, or should she get a vegan cupcake instead?

Dos Chinos Food Truck

Depending on the location, seating comes at a premium; more casually dressed patrons might sit on a curb, but business-attired professionals may find their only recourse is to stand awkwardly, cradling a drink in the crook of an elbow. Other diners might bring folding camp seats or even a full set of table and chairs unpacked from the back of an SUV.

These are the sights that might greet you at any one of Orange County’s food truck lunch stops. Still, old stigmas linger. Many people are wary of purchasing, much less eating, anything prepared on board a truck. The kitchens are cramped. Putting three to four people inside one of these vehicles is a crowd. The menus are relatively limited, usually themed, and tend to vary from week to week. But, curiously enough, putting all of these factors together … works.

Dining al fresco
The current food truck trend was born out of the slowing economy after the 2008 stock market panic. Dining out at restaurants, once a major entertainment for most of the country, took a steep downturn in 2009, and the decline continued in 2010. Just as “eating out” became more rare, more restaurants began to feel the pinch– – and a niche market went unfilled.

“The appearance of these trucks that are bringing restaurant quality food at reasonable prices – I think it (gave) people a way to get out of the house again,” says Jose “Coli” Piaggio, of Argentine cuisine truck Piaggio on Wheels.

Piaggio has been in the restaurant business for 25 years. A native Argentinean, he has owned restaurants in Brazil, Laguna Beach and Brea. He can speak firsthand about the effect that the downturn had on the restaurant industry: His own Brazilian/Argentine steakhouse, Carvao Grill, closed last year. So, not wishing to abandon a business he loved, he packed up his family recipe for empanadas and hit the road.

“I thought this would be a way for me to keep doing what I know how to do, and do something that is sensitive to the type of economy that we are going through,” he says.

While many of the food truck operators on the scene are young entrepreneurs, Piaggio is a seasoned chef with years of experience. He sees the trend for food trucks as a new movement in the way people dine.

“The size, the great food and the diversity of the food that we offer you – (each of the trucks) has a different approach to their food,” he says. “And it’s a social phenomenon, because people can come and share more than in a restaurant environment. People are asking each other, ‘What are you eating, can I try that?’ It’s a way to socialize.”

Delicious and nutritious
One of the most popular trucks in O.C. is bright green and noticeable from 500 yards. The Lime Truck recently broke 3,000 Twitter followers, maintains a comfortable 4.5 star rating on Yelp! and has more than 2,500 Facebook “Likes.” Add to that, this truck was voted Best of the Fest at the OC Foodie Fest in August, after only two months on the road.

The dynamic duo behind The Lime Truck is Executive Chef Jason Quinn and Daniel Shemtob, who manages the business. Quinn has worked in the kitchens of the Sofitel Hotel, Charlie Palmer, Hanna’s Prime Steakhouse and Houston’s. Shemtob brings to the pair his background in real estate and a head for managing the business side of things.

After deciding he wasn’t enjoying a career in real estate services, Shemtob called up Quinn – whom he’d known since Shemtob was 13 – with the idea of hiring as a chef.

One of the main selling points for The Lime Truck is the variability of its menu. Three mainstays – the Yum Yum Lamb Sandwich, Ultimate Taco and Carnitas Fries – are always offered. And then five to six specials change weekly.

“We make everything from scratch, and the menu’s all ingredient-driven,” Shemtob says. “Lots of times we’ll just get ingredients and not have any plan of what we’re going to do with it. We’ll sit and look at bok choy or we’ll sit and look at cabbage and then we’ll just say, ‘OK, let’s try this.’”

The Lime Truck’s menu draws heavily from Middle Eastern, Vietnamese and Southwestern cuisines, but when asked to categorize his truck’s style of food, Shemtob says simply, “California.”

“We didn’t want to do straight Spanish, or straight anything Korean, or anything like that,” he says. “We wanted everything to be fresh, like you wouldn’t find anywhere else.”

One truck that has a corner on a dining demographic in Orange County is Seabirds, the brainchild of Stephanie Morgan. The Seabirds’ menu is entirely organic vegan, and its dishes (like Jerk Jackfruit Tacos and The Bella on Sourdough) are anything but boring.

While not an avowed chef, Morgan says she began developing recipes out of necessity when she became a vegan and admits that it can be hard to find dining options that fit her dietary lifestyle. She says her aim is to make vegan food more available and to let people know that to eat healthier and more sustainably is a win-win for everybody.

“The planet wins, animals win, you win,” she says. “And the food can be good.”

She points to the truck’s most popular item, the Beer-Battered Avocado Tacos, which were originally intended to be a vegan take on fish tacos. Fried in rice bran oil, a creamy fresh wedge of avocado is topped with shredded cabbage, red onion and her own special jalapeño sauce.

Gotta get a gimmick
Another local truck that will be very familiar to avid Food Network fans is Crepes Bonaparte. Husband-and-wife team Christian and Danielle Murcia, with their mustachioed truck named Gaston, were featured as one of seven food trucks competing on “The Great Food Truck Race” last summer. The couple originally planned a crepe catering business, but after observing the growing popularity of food trucks in L.A., they decided to take their crepes on the road. One month later, they were tapped to appear on the television show.

As any Parisian can attest, crepes are a popular street food that can play host to a multitude of flavors, and this truck’s menu offers surprising variety and creativity for what is, essentially, a pancake.

“When creating our menu, we wanted to focus on one thing – crepes. You will not find any other item on our menu because we wanted to be known for making the best crepes around,” Christian says.

Murcia points to the authentic “French-ness” of his crepes, from the look of the truck’s crew – white shirts, black vests and black beret-style caps – to the little mustache drawn on the takeout container’s smiley face. The authenticity of the experience begins when you put in your order. You can see the staff preparing crepes on custom-made round griddles.

A very different style of dining is available from a bright purple truck with mariachi skeletons painted on it. Dos Chinos, masterminded by Hop Phan, serves tacos and burritos stuffed with meats marinated in a variety of Southeast Asian spices and flavors. A native of Vietnam, Phan grew up in Santa Ana surrounded by Mexican culture, friends and, most important, food.

“I’m just used to carne asada, burritos, tacos and at the same time, I also love Vietnamese food and other Asian foods as well,” Phan says. “But we’re in Orange County. We’re surrounded by all kinds of cultures.”

Phan was a fan of food trucks even during their earlier period of dubious fame and regularly traveled to L.A. to get a fix of authentic Mexican street food. Observing the growing popularly of trucks in that area, and having a few recipes up his sleeve, he thought that Mexican-Asian fusion tacos would sell well.

The open road
A point of debate is the longevity of the food truck movement. Lisa Johnson, owner and chef of the mobile cupcakery Oh For Sweets Sake, points out that a year ago, Orange County had perhaps four or five recognizable trucks unique to the region. Today the landscape is abundant with them.

“Two weeks ago, for instance – it was a Friday – four new trucks hit O.C.,” Johnson says.

While more operators seem keen to enter the market, most of those currently in the pool are either focused on working their 14-hour day, or planning what comes next. For many, that would be opening an actual brick-and-mortar restaurant.

“Jason will leave and start his own restaurant,” The Lime Truck’s Shemtob says. “That’s what he wants to do. I own the company,
so I’ll have recipes from him, and we’ll keep going.”

Morgan also says she’s not interested in riding out the food truck trend with a flock of Seabirds.

“I think a little café would be ideal for us,” she says. “I think a lot of cities need Seabirds, something that could be replicated pretty easily and turned into a chain.”

Despite all of this talk of settling down, Piaggio believes this new mobile culture will endure: “I really think this way to eat is here to stay. I really believe it’s a great way to bring food where it’s needed. I don’t think it’s a competition for restaurants.”

Dos Chinos’ Phan agrees, and suggests that in a few months, Orange County’s food truck scene will match Los Angeles’ market.

“Longer term, we would have to look at Portland, Ore. Their food truck industry over there is really advanced,” he says. “In three years, I see it getting even bigger – you know, survival of the fittest. There will be so many trucks out there, trucks are really going to have to compete. If they don’t compete, they won’t survive.”

And what would his next plan for expansion be?

“I would prefer to open a restaurant before I open up another food truck,” Phan says, “because that’s what I really want to do in the first place.”

Tracking the trucks
OK, so you’ve discovered two or three delicious new mobile eateries. Now how do you find them on any given day? Here are a few tips.

Websites: Most trucks have their own websites, and many post their schedule of stops at the beginning of the week.

Twitter and Facebook: These are the most popular platforms for truck-trackers. Following your favorite is a must to keep on top of their migration patterns, and many will tweet their locations throughout the day. A good place to learn more about the mobile foodie culture, the site is run by an Irvine couple with a serious addiction to good food. You’ll find reviews and information on events. This is a convenient one-stop site to find all of your favorite trucks’ locations, courtesy of Google maps. Check the blog for events. Even better, this truck-tracking website just released an iPhone app.

Popular O.C. stops:
• OCDinDinAGoGo at the Irvine Lanes at 3415 Michelson Drive on Wednesday evenings

• Los Alamitos DinDinAGoGo at 11081 Winners Circle on Tuesday evenings

• Teller Lot at 18678 Teller Ave. in Irvine, Wednesdays at lunch

• OC Fairgrounds at 88 Fair Drive in Costa Mesa, Thursdays at lunch

• Forest Lanes at 22771 Centre Drive in Lake Forest, Tuesday evenings

• SoCo Farmers Market at 3315 Hyland Ave. in Costa Mesa, Saturdays at lunch

Trucks to try
Dozens of trucks crisscross SoCal every day, bringing delicious eats. Here are a few more to check out.

Longboards Ice Cream: Choose your ice cream, dip it in milk or dark chocolate, and roll it in your choice of a dozen toppings. You can even find the ice cream bars at Gelsons.

Jay DiEugenio is BACON MANia ! - photo Kevin Lara

Bacon Mania: Every cardiologist’s worst nightmare comes to delicious life on this truck. Everything features that distinguished piggy product – even the desserts. Follow the snout!

Tropical Shaved Ice: Hawaiian-style shaved ice arrives on the mainland from the Kukahiko family. Finely shaved ice is topped with homemade syrups like Lilikoi, Passionfruit, Tigers Blood and Guava. Just don’t call it a snow cone.

Spudrunners: Ah, the humble potato, how do we love thee? Let me count the ways: fried, baked, mashed, boiled, scalloped, roasted – the list goes on. Get your fries fix from this truck, and check out the selection of grilled cheese sandwiches and soups, too.

Barcelona on the Go: Spanish tapas and bistro-style dining are served from this truck, which cuts its steaks onsite and cooks them to order. Also try: Spanish-style macaroni and cheese, the Monte Cristo sandwich and seafood paella.