Ode to the Taco Truck

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by Oliver Wang

Since spring 2009, the biggest story in the Los Angeles food world has been as much about distribution as it has been about preparation. Nuevo-food trucks, lead by Roy Choi's Korean taco operation, Kogi BBQ, have literally rolled out into Southern California streets at a remarkable rate, popping up everyone from high-tech office parks to late-night bar haunts to community festivals. If you're not familiar with the phenom, the new food truck movement involves catering trucks criss-crossing L.A. through a constantly changing set of locations, usually updated via both a website and on-the-fly via Twitter.

The first Kogi truck debuted in November of 2008 and by the following spring, wasn't just on local media's radar but garnering national attention. I wrote about the Kogi phenom for Contexts (a sociology magazine/journal) in Fall of 2009, saying: "the Kogi storyline wrote itself: inexpensive, ethnic fusion street food with a hip, technorati twist,"[1] and indeed, that high-concept pitch has proven so irresistible that even a year and a half later, the nuevo-food truck story continues to have legs, including in the New York Times and on public radio's Marketplace. Meanwhile, there have been dozens of new trucks to hit L.A. and beyond and naturally, there's even a new reality show called "The Great Food Truck Race."

One of my pet peeves about the media coverage of Kogi was that writers often played up the fusion Korean angle but downplayed the Mexican side of the equation. That recent Marketplace story is even worse—nowhere does it once mention that before haute cuisine entrepreneurs took to the streets in their vinyl-wrapped catering trucks, the L.A. food truck industry was almost exclusively a Mexican American enterprise.[2]

True, most of the traditional taco trucks didn't figure out the Twitter angle; after all, they tend to appear at the same spots daily for the convenience of their largely working class clientele. But the basic business model—staying mobile and serving food at cheap overhead, at all hours—is something that Mexican trucks have been doing for decades.[3] Adding the social networking angle is an innovation but it's not a wholesale revolution in concept. If these nuevo-trucks are successful, they owe much of that to the foundation that was already laid out for years by blue collar taco trucks, themselves offering a pan-Latino set of options including Cuban sandwiches and Oaxacan clayudas besides the requisite carne asada and al pastor tacos. (Notably, few think to call these trucks "fusion" though).

One of the telling quotes from that most recent NY Times piece came from an operator of a new Korean taco truck in Indianapolis. I quote:

"The meat makes it Korean," said Mr. Ban, who marinates chuck roll in a soy and garlic sauce that is traditionally used with Korean barbecue dishes. "The tortilla and the toppings are a way to tell our customers that this food is O.K., that this food is American."

I love that last part because, truly, the taco has become an integral part of American cuisine and as I've stressed, in Los Angeles, the taco truck is as local an institution as Jewish delis, Cantonese dim sum, and post-Spago-style pizzerias.

So, to me, I don't care if your truck is mashing up Vietnamese banh mi with Philly cheesesteak or serving Filipino chicken adobo wrapped in lavash bread; if you're a catering truck serving cheap food off the street, you're still following the lead of the old fashioned taco trucks that have been a part of this city's food fare for 30+ years.

Respect the architects.

By the way, my favorite taco truck was Taco Zone, parked on Alvarado Blvd, just a few blocks northeast of Sunset, in Echo Park. They didn't necessarily make the best tacos but they had a few things going for them. First of all, they had a salsa bar, a clear sign of a superior operaiton. Many other trucks just hand you a pre-packed container of hot sauce or ladle it on for you before serving. Better trucks put out at least two or more kinds of salsa (usually a green/verde and red/roja, maybe some pico de gallo).[4]

Second, and perhaps most importantly, Taco Zone was open until 2 a.m., sometimes 2:15 a.m. if I was lucky. I used to have a weeky DJ gig at the Short Stop, about a mile or so away on Sunset, and most nights, would try to leave the bar as quickly as possible and rush to Taco Zone, hopefully before they turned out the lights. Much of the time, even if I arrived on
time, they were out of a few of the meats (usually the carne asada, their more consistently good choice) and the salsas were literally at the bottom of the bucket. But even if I had to settle for my 2nd or 3rd choice of meat, at 2 a.m., pretty much anything I ordered was going to taste incredible. Plus, there was always a small crowd of people there (Taco Zone on a Friday/Saturday night, after last call, is a zoo. Luckily, I DJed on Thursday nights) and it was always an interesting mix of people reflecting Echo Park's particular cross-blend of race and
class as a neighborhood that got froze in mid-gentrification by the Great Recession.

Alas, since my gig at the Short Stop ended earlier this year, I don't go to Echo Park at night anymore and I haven't really found another taco truck that I'm tempted to make late-night runs at. I am, however, always tempted to stop by My Taco in Highland Park which is open late on weekends. They're not a truck but they serve one of the best dishes in the city: barbecued lamb that you wrap yourself.


Notes:

[1] Whatever my other critiques, I think Kogi (in particular) is the real deal, food-wise. For one, chef Roy Choi understands the essence of what makes a good truck taco: it's not just the fillings but you have to heat the tortilla on the griddle and give it some grease. Without it, the tortilla is too dry and the whole thing just feels wrong in your mouth. The signature Kogi short rib taco though has slightly greasy tortillas, the perfect wrapper to go around their unctuous bits of beef short rib and the tangy slaw (note: some find the slaw too sweet but I think it's what balances out the flavors). I'm not saying I'd drive around town to get Kogi on a weekly or even monthly basis but whenever I'm taking around out of town guests, to me, Kogi is as "essentially L.A." as a Langer's hot pastrami (get it hand-cut, with a healthy layer of mustard) or a bowl of lamb noodle soup at JTYH in Rosemead (hand-shaved, not pulled). My friend Hua, on a recent visit to L.A., made his first Kogi run. He is not prone to giving into food hype but immediately after polishing off his Kogi tacos, texted me, "is Kogi Korean for 'The Truth'?"

[2] I don't want to reprint my Contexts essay in toto but it needs to be said: one of my other concerns with the haute-truck movement is that, at least a year ago, most seemed to steer clear of the huge part of Los Angeles bordered by the 405 freeway on the West and the 10 freeway on the North. Taco trucks are all over these same parts of South L.A. but the nuevo-trucks seemed to literally steer clear. I don't know if that's a class issue (nuevo-trucks are considerably more expensive than traditional trucks) or something else but it seems so classically L.A. (in all the wrong ways) that some "new," "exciting," food phenom that "criss-crosses" the Southland would still manage to purposefully avoid the largely working class, largely
people of color parts of the city. Hopefully, my concerns have been voided over the last year—Kogi, for example, now runs a staggering five trucks, giving them far more options to blanket the city (but I haven't actually mapped where they all go). I suspect though, for many of the newer trucks, with limited resources, they're simply following the routes that privilege the Westside, midcity and downtown but leave a big black (and brown) hole right in L.A.'s heart. If I'm mistaken
about this, I welcome being reprimanded because this is something I'd love to be wrong about.

[3] I'm astounded no one's written a definitive history of taco trucks. If I missed one during my searches, please share!

[4] The best salsa bar I've found so far is at El Ostion, a night truck at Union and Washington, just north of the 10 and east of downtown. It's a desolate part of town at night but maybe that's why their flood lights are blinding.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle. More

Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.

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