Finding high-end eats at LA's mobile food courts

All those years he was a chef at some of Los Angeles' priciest restaurants, going head-to-head with rival cooks for that coveted Zagat rating, Dave Danhi was harboring another ambition on the side.

He would put his gourmet grilled cheese sandwich in a truck and go hood-to-hood with fusion taco vendors, crepe wagons, wienermobiles and all other kind of meals-on-wheels bistros. He'd park right next to them and do battle, not for Michelin stars, but for glowing Twitter tweets and Yelp reviews.

So there was the former chef of the Water Grill, a restaurant rated by the Zagat Guide as having the best seafood in Southern California, standing behind the counter of his bright yellow Grilled Cheese Truck on a recent sunny afternoon. To one side of him was The Greasy Wiener Truck offering hand-twisted, New Jersey-style fried hot dogs. Across the way was the Crepe 'N Around, its kitchen filled with delicacies like chicken pesto crepes prepared by French-trained chef Eileen DeLeoz.

Welcome to the newest trend in eating, where you have to be fast to get to your local food court before the restaurants drive away. But if you are quick enough, you can pick from a variety of increasingly exotic choices, including Danhi's masterpiece, the cheesy mac and rib, made up of macaroni, sharp cheddar, caramelized onions and a boneless pork rib slapped between two pieces of grilled bread.

Even better, a complete meal at most any such food truck court will set you back no more than $5 to $10.

"This is definitely not a fad, it is the evolving of the restaurant industry," says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association, which for the first time is featuring an exhibit on food trucks at its annual trade show in Chicago this month.

There is an increasing demand, particularly among people 18 to 44, for freshly prepared, restaurant-quality food that can be had quick and cheap, said Riehle.

That was in evidence on a recent sunny day at a makeshift food court that assembles every week near Los Angeles International Airport. There, a half-dozen trucks were clustered in a small parking lot sandwiched between a high-rise office building and a hotel. As a steel drummer played in the background, the two buildings spilled out hungry workers by the hundreds, each of them contemplating what to have for lunch.

"We could see what we wanted when we looked out the window of our office building," laughed Sandy Castro, who was lined up at the Eat Pharmish Vietnamese food truck.

Ruben Flores had decided to partake of some fusion-style Mexican-Chinese kung pao chicken tacos from the Don Chow taco truck.

"It's way more adventurous and more cultured than a corporation or a fast-food place like McDonald's," he said. "I feel like the people behind making the food really love to do what they're doing and it's really an art form what they're doing."

The food truck, of course, has had a long if not always proud history. It began life as a noontime fixture at construction sites, where it would herald its arrival by blasting out the melody to "La Cucaracha," a signal that the roach coach had arrived with its inventory of undrinkable coffee, stale pastries and mystery-meat sandwiches.

The trucks found in today's mobile food courts are a far cry from that.

Such gathering places are marked by anywhere from a half-dozen to as many as two dozen rolling food kitchens that congregate for lunch or dinner, then drive away once everyone is full. They first made their appearance in downtown Portland, Ore., several years ago, says Brett Burmeister, managing editor of foodcourtsportland.com.

"It began as basically an alternative to the delis in the basements of the corporate buildings downtown," which he said seemed to specialize in selling bad baloney sandwiches.

Instead, the food trucks offered everything from Thai to Chinese to African and Bosnian food.

"The stuff you'd find at the nice restaurants, that you would spend $25 for, you could get for $5," Burmeister said.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles high-end taco trucks were clustering up and down busy streets, forming impromptu food courts of their own and encouraging people to follow them on Twitter to learn where they would be.

After fighting parking tickets and going to court to overturn an ordinance that would have forced some of them to move every hour, scores of L.A. truckers joined forces earlier this year to form the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association. They began to approach managers of high-rise office buildings and sponsors of public events to ask that their trucks be allowed to gather in adjacent parking lots.

It's a trend, Riehle said, that he expects will keep spreading, particularly in cities like New York, Seattle and San Francisco, which already have many fine food trucks of their own.

Although clustering in food courts puts them in direct competition with one another, vendors say the increased foot traffic and the advantage of having customers know where they are on a particular day makes it worthwhile.

If the lines get too long at one truck, said Jamie Radzik, who operates Crepe 'N Around with his wife, DeLeoz, he'll see people wander over to a different one and try the food there. He figures that's helping build brand awareness for everybody.

Meanwhile, the truckers themselves aren't shy about sampling the competition.

"That's half the fun," said Danhi's partner, chef Michele Grant, as she carried a sack from The Greasy Wiener to The Grilled Cheese Truck.

© 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

blog comments powered by Disqus