Alix Clark takes to the streets of Los Angeles and meets the culinary innovators driving the city's insatiable appetite for street food.
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12 Jun 2012 - 1:49 PM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 7:59 PM

"White, wholewheat, wholegrain, rye or sourdough?" asks our waitress, Maureen, as she deftly pours another cup of coffee from the ever-present pot of percolated 'joe'.

She then pre-empts our bagel decision with "water, plain, poppy seed, sesame seed, onion, rye, cinnamon and raisin, or everything?". She exchanges a gentle eye-roll with the table next to us and hurries away to place our order. All around us, waitresses and busboys are moving swiftly through the diner, with the decor and menu seemingly unchanged since it opened in 1945. Our meals arrive promptly – huge helpings of bacon, eggs, fruit and cheese – and we barely make a dent before the jet-lag catches up with us and we decide that a snooze is next on the menu. We leave cash on the table and head for the door. "Wait!" yells Maureen, her thick Birmingham accent softened only slightly by her 29 years in the United States. We freeze. Have we left an insufficient tip? Confused our dollar bills? "Come here, you," says Maureen, putting down her coffee pot for a moment and enveloping us in a hug. "Welcome to America."

Not just America, but Los Angeles: city of perpetual blue skies, blindingly white teeth and mile upon mile of blacktop freeways. It’s fitting, then, that the food of LA has taken to the streets. Not that long ago, the only food trucks you saw in LA were either associated with the filming of a movie (mobile catering vans set up for cast and crew), construction sites or the occasional hot dog or taco stand, down the not-so-salubrious end of town. That’s all changed in the past few years with an explosion of meals on wheels that cover the street-food spectrum from Korean to Indian to Armenian, predominantly linked by tortillas and soft tacos – Mexican basics that have become cross-cultural food-delivery systems.

Traditional Mexican burritos include the standard fillings of chicken or beef with rice, beans, guacamole and salsa (mild or spicy). Now, a tortilla – fresh from one of the 80-plus food trucks that travel the streets of LA – can be loaded with Korean-style barbecued beef with kimchi (fermented vegetables) or Armenian-style steak with hummus and pivaz (parsley salad). And the eaters of LA – from frazzled office workers to festival-goers to Friday-night family groups who track the trucks’ movements via Twitter or Facebook – couldn’t be more satisfied.

"I never thought it would take the world by storm," says Roy Choi, chef and owner of Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go – one of the first gourmet trucks on the scene in late 2008. For Choi, "it was about survival after getting booted from a position as a classically trained chef". A phone call about food trucks prompted Choi to "pull some ingredients out and 'boom’ the taco came together". While Choi’s family background is Korean, he grew up surrounded by the Latino culture that is prevalent in LA. "I was never a Korean chef, but I grew up with it," he says. Coming up with the Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go concept was 'like I finally had a release valve. Korean is in my blood, but I feel more Latino than Korean. When the two came together – it was LA food. There was nothing that defined LA food before this."

Food trucks are practically ubiquitous on the streets now, but when Choi and the Kogi crew started, they were "in the alleyways on Hollywood at midnight, serving tacos to drunks coming out of bars. They loved the food but couldn’t remember where they’d eaten it." Word began to spread and food bloggers came on board as supporters, particularly Alice Shin, who is now Kogi’s creative director. "We visited the UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] campus that December [of 2008] and pretty soon we had about 600 people waiting when we arrived at a dorm," remarks Choi. Supply had to increase to meet demand for Kogi’s uniquely delicious take on burritos, tacos, sliders (small burgers) and quesadillas (toasted stuffed tortillas), and a second truck hit the road in February 2009. There are now five trucks in the Kogi Korean BBQ-To-Go convoy and Choi has also opened three restaurants: the hugely popular Alibi Room, A-frame and Chego.

Not many of the other food trucks have the chef background that Choi brings, but their passion for the food – and the delivery method is the same. Cousins Nareg Artinian and Harout Nazerian turned the ignition key on The TK Truck in December 2010 armed with plenty of enthusiasm, their family recipes and almost no experience. 'In retrospect," says Artinian with a smile, "it would have been a good idea for one of us to have a job in a restaurant – even as a busboy. We probably could have made the learning curve more manageable, rather than being almost completely clueless." Cluelessness aside, the pair took the Armenian flavours of their family background and used them to create LA-style truck food. "[Los] Angelenos know what makes good tacos and burritos," says Artinian. 'We took something we loved to eat and combined it with something else we love to eat – kabob. My dad’s tikkeh kabob – and you’ll hear every Armenian kid say this – is the best. Family and friends would come over for kabob and they would all say, 'You should totally sell this’. So, being young, eager and unwilling to join the traditional workforce, we decided to use this recipe in our food truck. The cheese we use is also one of a kind – it’s the homemade cheese that our nene [grandma] would make for us as an after-school snack. After much begging and pleading, Nene taught us the secret of the cheese. And then, of course, we have our quesadilla.

"Our family has been in the United States for more than 30 years," explains Artinian, while watching customers enjoy the Mother’s Love Quesadilla (filled with cucumber, dried mint, red pepper spice and cheese). "Our parents moved here from Lebanon and Syria, and their parents had been first generation in those countries. But our great-grandparents are from historic Armenia [now part of Turkey], particularly a region called Ourfa, where most of our family history, along with the recipes, is traced back to," he says.

The secret family ingredient, included in all The TK Truck recipes, is their red pepper spice blend. 'It’s basically Aleppo-style red pepper spice," says Artinian. "Aleppo is a town in Syria that became an Armenian settlement. Cuisine from Ourfa is known for being on the spicier side. We don’t import any peppers from Turkey or Syria, but we have found a blend of red peppers sold locally that are comparable and make a good substitute. That’s the recipe that our grandpa spent years perfecting and selling to support our family."

The significance of food is obviously something that’s been passed down through Artinian’s family. "Food is important to me because it is probably the best way to describe a culture. The ingredients they use reflect what was around them at the time, and what ingenuity they had to use to manipulate those raw ingredients. Food was that one thing that was always there during our family get-togethers, or rather the reason we got together. When my nene would make some labour-intensive dish, such as sarma [stuffed cabbage leaves], semseg [fried meat pies] or delicious kubbet [oversized dumplings], she would make enough for all of us to come over and make a party out of it, and have plenty for everyone to take home for dinner for a couple of days as well. Food signifies togetherness, which is what I’ve been lucky enough to see when groups of people walk up to the food truck together. We’ve managed to grab a couple of recipes from Nene’s cookbooks and we are starting to mess around with her dishes, because someone has to cook to get people together and to continue the traditions."

Back on the streets, dusk is falling over Abbot Kinney Boulevard, one of LA’s few pedestrian-friendly streets, in Venice Beach, the renowned bohemian suburb on the Californian coastline that retains some vestiges of 1960s Los Angeles. There are plenty of mystic bookstores with wafting incense alongside vintage furniture stores, impromptu driveway sales and edgy clothing shops. But the main drawcard, this balmy evening, is the collection of food trucks congregated by the canal at the southern end. Fragrant smoke wafts on the breeze and dogs wearing shoes (hey, it’s LA) join their owners in line for an LA-style taste of the world. Crowds are massing to get their fix of grilled cheese, small bites from high-end restaurant Border Grill and sweet treats from the cupcake truck.

"If it wasn’t real, people wouldn’t be with us," says Choi, of Kogi’s success. "If you’re brave and confident enough to put it out there, if it’s special, people will be attracted to it." He steps away for a minute as a fire truck pulls up and two firemen approach. "Hey guys, 50 per cent discount for you." Given that the generously sized Black Jack Quesadilla (named after two fans who drove from Vegas to eat at Kogi) only costs US$7 to begin with, the firemen can’t believe their luck and stagger away with enough food to feed the station house.

"It’s authentic," says Choi, leaning against the artistically graffitied truck as staff hand out tacos and sliders to the waiting crowd. 'Everything I went through was necessary to get to Kogi." Although the food truck market is becoming crowded, Choi believes his formal training sets him apart. 'There’s a great culture developing here. Everyone is putting their heart into it, but they’re not trained chefs. In LA, the street food is still very primitive compared with countries such as Thailand and Vietnam. There’s a long way to go yet. Some of the food on this scene isn’t great, but it has changed the way we, as residents of LA, interact with each other. The culture will develop first and chefs will come in later," he says.

"Our menus are always changing and I like to believe people are waiting each week to see what the specials are." Choi is not too far removed from his former life as a hotel chef, but his style of food is a million miles away. 'This is my life," he says simply. 'This food is like my diary. Whatever I’m feeling"¦ mad"¦ happy"¦ I express it through food. I’m having a blast, with no rules and no boss."

 

Hit list

Eat

Kogi Korean BBQ-To-GoRoy Choi’s original food truck is still serving up lip-smacking combinations of Korean and Latino flavours. +1 323 315 0253, kogibbq.com.

A-Frame
If you’d rather get your Roy Choi fix in a fixed location, head to A-Frame where, says Choi: “We’ve taken away that level of theatre and charade. With some restaurants, you’re walking into a production. Ours flips that… it’s all about beautiful chaos – like punk rock.” Expect a wait on the weekends. 12565 Washington Blvd, Culver City, LA, +1 310 398 7700, aframela.com.

India Jones
His restaurant closed in 2009, so Bumant Pardal joined the food truck movement with his Indian take on burritos. Try the Frankie – mouthwateringly tender lamb wrapped in roti. +11 1  (310) 310 3964, indiajoneschowtruck.blogspot.com.

Grilled Cheese Truck
There’s nothing quite as American as a grilled cheese sandwich and the 100m-long queues at this roving truck show they’re doing it right. Try the Bayou Melt with Habanero Jack cheese and chicken sausage or indulge in a dessert melt. thegrilledcheesetruck.com.

Border Grill
Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger have been serving modern Mexican food at their three restaurants for years. Now they’ve taken to the road and you’ll need to join the crush to get a taste of their finely honed flavours. +1 213 542 1100, bordergrill.com.

Canter’s Truck
This is an offshoot of the original Canter’s Deli, which has been serving Los Angelenos since 1931. The truck is run by a third-generation Canter and serves deli favourites on the go. 419 North Fairfax Ave, LA, +1 323 651 2030, cantersdeli.com.

Coolhaus
There are plenty of dessert options on the food truck scene and Coolhaus is one of the most popular with its architectural take on ice-cream sandwiches. A big scoop of ice-cream (flavours include strawberry with jalapeños or brown butter and candied bacon) between two cakey cookies will set you back US$5. +11 1 (310) 424 5559, eatcoolhaus.com.

The TK Truck
Cousins Nareg Artinian and Harout Nazerian fuse old family recipes with LA sensibilities. +11 1 (818) 396 6TK1, thetktruck.com.

Nate ’n Al
This is the original Jewish diner with a huge menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 414 N Beverly Dr, Beverly Hills. +11 1  (310) 274 0101, natenal.com.

Beverly Hills Farmers’ Market
Spend a Sunday morning browsing the fresh produce (including grass-fed beef, cheese, fruit and vegetables) while listening to folk tunes performed by Coco and Lafe – a husband-and-wife duo who tour 120 farmers’ markets each year. 9300 Block, Civic Center Dr, Beverly Hills, +11 1 (310) 285 6830, beverlyhills.org.

 

Shop

Le Fashion Truck
Jeanine Romo and Stacey Steffe have put fashion on wheels with this tiny boutique that serves both the corporate lunchtime crowd and weekend events. +11 1  (818) 779 1626, lefashiontruck.com.

 

Stay

Luxe Hotel
LA is generally a city for cars, but Beverly Hills, with its contained city centre that offers world-class shopping and plenty of restaurants and cafes, is an easy option for pedestrians. The Luxe Hotel is perfectly positioned to make the most of the area. 360 North Rodeo Dr, Beverly Hills +11 1 (310) 468 354, luxerodeo.com.

 

 

Photography by John Laurie.

 

As seen in Feast magazine, December 2011, Issue 4. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.