Ten years ago when people heard the words “food truck,” chances are a singular Mexican establishment or greasy burger joint specializing in delicious street food for blue-collar professionals came to mind. Not so these days, especially in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the food truck scene is flourishing — and high-end restaurants and award-winning chefs want in on the action.
How did the world of food trucks move from bacon-wrapped hot dogs to heirloom tomato salad with burrata and olive oil croutons in such a short amount of time? The food truck revolution began in the late 2000s as the economy tanked and diners hoped to find more affordable ways to eat out. At the same time, more and more chefs — those interested in getting their food out to the masses, at least — took to the streets. In comparison to a restaurant, the low risk factor and minimal cost of opening a food truck added to the appeal. Pretty soon food trucks and carts, featuring every type of cuisine from crème brûlée to brick-oven Neapolitan pizzas, were turning up all over the place: busy financial districts, hipster weddings and massive music festivals.
In 2009, Mark Manguera’s LA empire of Korean barbecue food trucks, known as Kogi, was the first of these new-aged gourmet trucks to be nationally recognized and awarded. Its chef, Forbes Travel Guide Tastemaker Roy Choi, became famous for his fusion of Korean and Mexican food. In San Francisco, Off the Grid, a large, roving market of food trucks, launched its first event in 2010. Today, it hosts more than 20 weekly food truck gatherings.
Some food trucks have developed such a large following that they’ve expanded their business and moved into a brick-and-mortar location. In San Francisco, two popular places immediately come to mind: Smitten Ice Cream and Curry Up Now. Founded in 2007 by Stanford business school graduate Robyn Sue Fisher, Smitten Ice Cream started out as a cart, set on top of a Radio Flyer wagon, that used an original patented technology to freeze small batches of artisanal ice cream with liquid nitrogen. Their Brrr machine freezes the base for ice cream at a lower temperature, which results in a smoother and creamier texture. Combine this with only the best local ingredients, seasonal flavors (October brings about maple brown sugar squash), housemade accoutrements such as brioche buns and cinnamon shortbread, and cheeky marketing, and you’ve got a stellar ice cream that appeals to the masses. Smitten grew quickly and, in 2011, opened its first stand-alone shop in Hayes Valley. This fall, they plan to expand with ice creameries in Los Altos and Rockridge.
Curry Up Now began four years ago as a single truck that operated in Burlingame, just south of San Francisco, and featured traditional Indian street food. Despite various visits from local police to ease traffic jams caused by lines, the truck, with its spicy tikka masala burritos, deconstructed samosas loaded with chutney, and earthy kathi rolls, was loved and praised. It didn’t take long for a crowd to develop. Today, Curry Up Now operates four trucks and three restaurants. With two more restaurants set to open in undisclosed locations before the year’s end and several more on the agenda for 2014, the little Indian food truck that could shows no sign of slowing.
The trend continues to evolve as well-known restaurants roll out their own food trucks to improve visibility, expand mobility and increase catering sales. Half Moon Bay’s Sam’s Chowder House, for one, is glamming up its food truck — but leaving the mouthwatering recipe for Sam’s Famous Lobster Roll alone. Even luxury brands such as Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts have gotten in on the four-wheeled fun. In mid-September, the hotel chain debuted the first Four Seasons Taste Truck. The mobile restaurant is currently traveling up and down the West Coast; right now it’s stopped near Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills (A Four Seasons Hotel) through October 13. Taste will roll to Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles (October 14 through 20), Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village (October 21 through 27), Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North (October 28 through November 3) and Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado Santa Fe (November 4 through 10) after that.
The roving menu, which was created by each hotel’s executive chef, changes from location to location. At every stop, the Taste Truck’s food is inspired by what is local, in season and beloved by the chef. (The highlights of the Palo Alto stop, for example, were housemade bucatini and malloreddus pastas.) Although the dishes are passed to you from a truck window, the food is elevated, sophisticated and filling. After taking one bite of the duck-fat burger with aged cheddar and truffle aioli during Taste’s recent San Francisco stop, it’s safe to say that upscale food trucks are only beginning to rev their engines.
Photos Courtesy of Behind The Food Carts, Sarah Deragon and Chloe Prud-homme