Street food is a sign of the times. It's the common denominator of a society consistently on the go — and consistently pinched for cash.
Boasting increasingly diverse menus and clientele to match, food trucks are on the road to becoming a $2.7 billion revenue-generating machine.
This is no passing fad.
From Los Angeles to Miami, modern mobile food vendors pilot chromed-out and custom-wrapped vehicles, in stark contrast to the prototypical, "La Cucaracha"-blaring “roach coaches,” the workaday heroes of construction sites in white catering trucks.
Today's food truck eaters value provenance of food over the speed at which it's delivered. Authenticity is increasingly valued over familiarity. And, while plenty of food trucks follow the standard blueprint for street food (handheld and cheap), others are moving toward the opposite end of the spectrum.
The irrepressible Jose Andres added a food truck, Pepe, to his army of eateries, out of which comes $20 dishes of Iberico pork. And the Vizzi truck in Los Angeles, which carts around high-end items like Wagyu beef and truffles, sells a $24 lobster risotto dish.
According to John T. Edge, the food writer and historian who literally wrote the book on food trucks (The Truck Food Cookbook, Workman Publishing, 2012), the best street food is at once luxurious and budget-minded.
“It's economically priced enough to be democratic, it's sold by way of conveyances on the street, which is democratic,” Edge says. “But it respects the principles of good food, which we in America have come to think of as luxurious.”
The best of the new-guard street food vendors take their inspirations from tradition, says Edge.
“To me, if you dig down deep, you recognize that a couple generations of Americans have now grown up — especially in the southwest (and) on the west coast — with strong Mexican migrant populations (who) have long sold good food from taco trucks,” he says. “I think that's the true root inspiration for this modern-American street food movement.”
At the head of the new-guard food truck charge is Roy Choi, the Korea-born founder of Los Angeles' Kogi Korean BBQ truck. In 2009, Choi tweeted the location of Kogi's first dinner service and started a revolution. “Truck food, in popular parlance, is in large part a phenomenon that Kogi set in motion,” Edge says.
In 2010 Choi, who grew up in LA, became the first food truck operator to be named “Best New Chef” by Food and Wine Magazine.
The Kogi empire, which now includes a fleet of five trucks and three sit-down restaurants, has inspired legions of followers. These young and savvy food truck operators leverage social media to advertise their presence and dole out fusion food as unlikely as Choi's Mexican-Korean mashup.
“America is a great synthesizer of culture and of ideas,” Edge says. “It's the great American ability … We recognize, tag and reinvent, and kind of claim as our own, a variety of different cultures and ideas.”
To Rosane and Jose Piaggio, who started Piaggio Gourmet on Wheels in Orange County the same year Kogi opened, their particular brand of fusion evokes a sense of home.
Jose is Argentinian and Rosane is from Brazil, and that manifests on the menu as pulled-pork tacos with chimichurri and burritos stuffed with garlic-lime shrimp and skirt steak.
Piaggio reflects a sense of economic place, too. While many young chefs dream of food trucks as stepping stones to brick and mortar restaurants, Piaggio worked the trend in reverse.
Jose had a couple of successful steakhouses to his credit, one in Brazil and another in California. “He was just one of the victims of the economic tsunami, especially in the restaurant industry,” says Rosane. “He was just spinning his wheels.” Jose closed his restaurant and, two weeks later, it was literally on wheels, moving toward better business.
“In these economic times, it's much better for us to have the food truck,” Rosane says. “You go where you're needed … and that's working much better for him.”
Economic instability, says Edge, is one of the “catalytic forces in the development in the modern-American street food culture,” though he acknowledges it owes its evolution to impatient young chefs.
Sometimes, those young upstarts are completely fresh to the food scene, like the owners of Mexicue in New York City. David Schillace and Thomas Kelly wanted to leave the corporate world behind, and figured a food business was just the ticket.
“We went to LA and ate at the Kogi food truck and saw this really cool trend that was going on there,” says Kelly. “We were intrigued by the food truck culture, and from a business perspective, it allowed us to start a food business with a relatively small amount of capital.”
Mexicue turns out a fusion of Southern-American slow-smoked barbecue and Mexican food that's a big hit in the Big Apple. So much so that Mexicue recently opened two brick and mortar restaurants offering their particular brand of fusion, joining the legions of other food truck owners taking off the wheels.
With so many fledgling restaurateurs offering fresh takes on pan-continental cuisine, Edge indicates it may be time to rethink the word “fusion.”
“The best street food and cart and truck food reflects a new and truly diverse America — the idea that a Korean-American kid who fell in love with Mexican food because he grew up in a Mexican neighborhood cooks a bulgogi beef taco," Edge says. "It's an honest reflection of that person's upbringing. It's not fusion. It's more about being a brilliant chef and marrying foods in a unique way.”