World-renowned chef, author and Emmy winning television personality Anthony Bourdain visits Los Angeles' Koreatown in the next episode of "Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown," airing Sunday, April 21, at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the show on Twitter and Facebook. This piece originally ran in 2010, but we're sharing again as part of Bourdain's exploration of L.A.'s vibrant food truck scene.
On a well-lit street in Los Angeles' Venice neighborhood, a crowd of thirty-somethings wait in line. It's not for a club. They're waiting to order food at one of the trucks in the club's parking lot.
Los Angeles has a long tradition of mobile food service. After all, this is a city often defined by its obsession with restaurants and automobiles. Trucks serving cheap, delicious Mexican style tacos and tortas have been around since the 1970s and remain a vibrant business.
There are around 6000 food trucks in Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles County Health Department, and the last few years have seen a new wave of food trucks arriving and taking advantage of social media to alert customers to their changing locations.
Kogi BBQ creative director Alice Shin says "Koreans playing with Mexican food is not an alien concept here in LA. I grew up with summer barbecues and running to the store fetching tortillas when we ran out of rice. So I won't say we're the ones who invented it. But I will say that we're the first to put Korean tacos on the map and the first ones to do them any justice."
Word of mouth about the food was strong from the start, but they struggled to find customers. Then they started posting their location on the truck's Twitter account. Soon a savvy clientele was showing up, eventually leading to long lines forming before the truck actually arrived. Kogi now runs a fleet of five trucks that head as far out as Orange County.
Following Kogi's cue, a whole new generation of high-end, social media savvy food trucks hit the streets of Los Angeles and Korean tacos joints began cropping up coast to coast. A person could eat every meal of the day in LA at a truck and eat better, more interesting food than they might find at restaurants. All they need is a phone with a Twitter application.
Trucks post their locations and if one is convenient, you go find the truck. A developer has even created a live map, la.truxmap.com, that tracks locations of more than a hundred trucks via Twitter and information supplied by the trucks. They also have an iPhone app (it costs $5.99; Android is in the works) that will show all the trucks nearby that are open (or opening soon) and will map to them.
Frank Ivan Pardo, co-creator and lead developer of Truxmap, explains "Around June 2009 I saw how fascinated people were by the Kogi truck and I was convinced that Twitter was not the most straight-forward way for people to find their location. A few more trucks launched soon after that, and I decided that it was impractical to follow 15+ trucks on Twitter and that the data would be more user-friendly if it were presented on a map."
The food is great, for the most part, and many ethnic cuisines are represented by a truck somewhere in Los Angeles. There is also a drive to do something new and this leads to a lot of creative food, though surely with some misses.
The scene attracts creative types like trained architect Natasha Case, who created the Coolhaus truck, which serves ice cream sandwiches. As Pardo says "The overhead in starting a food truck is significantly lower than it would be for a restaurant. Thus, it's less of a risk to lease a truck and try your hand at serving your food to the people." It is easier for a person, with or without a culinary track record, with an idea to get out there, try it and let the peoples' palates be the judge.
This doesn't mean that all trucks are run by rookies. Roy Choi of Kogi was already a luminary as chef de cuisine at the Beverly Hills Hilton and Top Chef Masters contender and restaurateur Ludo Lefebvre has a truck that serves fried chicken.
There are other cities with food truck scenes, but none come close to rivaling Los Angeles in numbers, quality, or variety. Alice Shin of Kogi attributes LA's dominance to several factors. "There aren't a lot of laws pertaining specifically to food trucks, so there's a lot more freedom here than in, say, New York or an impossible city [like] Chicago. The friendly weather also is kind to our business. No one wants to eat at a food truck when it's raining or snowing!"
Frank Ivan Pardo agrees about the weather and adds "The presence of street vendors is embedded in the consciousness of everyone who has grown up in Southern California in the last 30+ years, even if they have never eaten from one of them." Pardo adds "Why have the food trucks been so incredibly successful in LA, but slow to grow in San Diego, a city with similar demographics, property value, and weather? We can't be certain, but I think we just need to give it a little more time."
Has Los Angeles reached food truck saturation? Natasha Case of Coolhaus thinks it there is still more demand than supply. "LA is definitely not maxed out. We are turning down events two months in advance because we are too busy."
Pardo adds "My thoughts on the sustainability of the trend had been uncertain up until very recently. I'm now fairly positive that the food truck community will be growing for quite a while."
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