To understand American history, Jon Lauck says you have to understand the Midwest's role in some critical events.
A few years ago when food trucks started popping up everywhere, Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold thought that food trucks might be the promised land for ambitious young chefs, but as with any other kind of food operation, “only 5 percent of them turned out to be any good at all.”
New trucks aside, Gold believes that one of the traditional taco trucks, known as loncheros, that have operated in L.A for decades serves the best shrimp and cheese taco in LA.
Still, some of his favorite nouveau food trucks are the celebrated Korean-Mexican taco truck Kogi, run by Roy Choi — who’s been called the godfather of the food truck movement — and Doug Quint‘s Big Gay Ice Cream Truck in New York City.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE GREAT FOOD TRUCK RACE")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Every other team right now is sitting in their truck thinking, well, what are the Philly guys going to do?
UNIDENIFIED MAN #2: Oh, yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They can't make a geoduck cheese steak.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: We got three to start.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Two gooeys(ph).
HOBSON: That is from the Food Network's "Great American Food Truck Race," now in season four. The show features a bunch of foodies who are challenged to cook with surprising ingredients like, as we just heard, geoduck clams, trying to win the keys to their own food truck.
Now food trucks are not new but they remain trendy. They've been springing up everywhere for the past few years. But not all of them work. Jonathan Gold is the highly respected food critic for the Los Angeles Times, and he's with us now from KPCC in Pasadena. Jonathan, welcome.
JONATHAN GOLD: Glad to be here.
HOBSON: So what is the story of food trucks in 2013? Are they on the rise? Are they - have they arrived? Or are they on the decline?
GOLD: They seem to be following the classic arc. When they first arrived here - I'd say 2008, 2009 or at least the modern breed of food trucks - a lot of people, including me, thought that they were the second coming. They solved a lot of problems that we were seeing young chefs have, the first of which being, of course, capital. You can open a food truck without that much money. You don't have to raise, you know, $2 million from investors and get a decorator and get somebody to be the reservationist and the maitre d'. You can just put a truck out on the road.
And if your food is good, theoretically, it could be as good on a truck as it would be on a restaurant where the kitchens are often as cramped as they are in some trucks.
HOBSON: The Daily Meal recently voted the 101 top food trucks in the country and 16 of them were in Los Angeles. Is L.A. the center of food truck America?
GOLD: I think you would have to say this is the center of food truck America. The modern food truck was more or less born here with the Kogi truck. A guy called Roy Choi, who had cooked at Le Bernardin and who had run large hotel kitchens, dropped out of that business and opened a food truck. And apparently the skills that it takes to feed 1,500 people at a banquet of the Beverly Hilton are transferable to working at a food truck and feeding 1,500 people waiting in line for your Korean tacos.
HOBSON: And we think about food trucks as trucks, but usually they just stay in one place, right? They're not moving around all that much.
GOLD: Actually it depends on the truck. I mean, in Los Angeles, there are two separate groups, I guess, two different schools. I mean, they have their own trade associations. They tend not to share garages. One of them would be the old-fashioned the luncheros, the Mexicans who have had trucks in Los Angeles since the '60s. Some of them are extraordinarily good. For example, there's a place called Mariscos Jalisco that has a sort of like shrimp and cheese tacos that comes from the owner's hometown. And it's fantastic. There's no better taco to be had in Los Angeles. But the only time the two kinds of trucks come together are at festivals. And the luncheros tend to stay put.
On the other hand, you have the new breed of trucks who are mostly, you know, not Latino who, I guess, like old-fashioned lunch wagons but they tend to go around. They're not in the same spot all the time. And if you're interested in them, you'll probably follow the truck's Twitter feed to tell you where they're going to be doing lunch or dinner that day.
HOBSON: Before we go any further, I have in front of me a basket of rosemary fries, which were picked up from Clover, which is here in Boston. It is number 50 on The Daily Meal's list of 101 top food trucks in the nation. So I just want to eat one of these while we chat about this. And the rosemary in the fries. So tell me this, Jonathan, why did they - they so frequently have two things that are put together that ordinarily would be on their own? I'm not saying that you have rosemary all by itself, but I can think of one in Austin. It's called the Peached Tortilla.
GOLD: It's funny that way. I think it's because the one that had such overwhelming success and such a big national profile right away was the Kogi truck, which did have the Korean tacos. One of the best French chefs in town in Los Angeles, in addition to his, you know, wonderful regular restaurant has a truck that serves French Southern fried chicken.
HOBSON: It's a little more inventive than what you would find in a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
GOLD: Usually. I mean, that's what they have. That's their currency. And if there's a concept that doesn't work, you know, they just retool their concept and they're out on the road again within a week.
HOBSON: Can you think of one that you have tried that did not work? Somebody trying to put a couple of things together that just were not right together.
GOLD: Probably too many of them.
HOBSON: While you're thinking about that, I'm going to munch another fry here.
GOLD: Sure. Oh, yeah, there was one truck who did a sort of Tokyo-style hamburger in which instead of buns, they used sort of compressed patties of sticky rice.
HOBSON: That probably didn't hold together very well.
GOLD: It did not. They also served sushi. And I think the level of trust has to be pretty high before you're going to eat something like Tirashi sushi from a truck.
HOBSON: Yeah. I mean, I will remember back to my days in high school. There was a food truck down the street that everyone used to call the roach coach.
GOLD: Yeah. That was the sobriquet for them until pretty recently. And a lot of the truck guys sometimes will use that among themselves.
HOBSON: I hate to say this because I just had a couple of these fries, but this truck, Clover, that I was talking about was, at one point, shut down with a little salmonella scare. How do these food trucks keep their health stuff up to code?
GOLD: There's a pretty widespread assumption that trucks aren't inspected and that they are somehow inherently less sanitary than brick-and-mortar restaurants. And I don't think that's true. They - they're required, at least in Los Angeles, to be tethered to a brick-and-mortar space. Taquerias will - you usually have a Taqueria that's the mother ship and open as a regular restaurant but will also have a fleet of trucks, and they're inspected pretty rigorously and they're cleaned really rigorously. And they're looked at, at least as much, if not more, than the restaurant that you would open the door and walk into.
HOBSON: Jonathan Gold, you say that L.A. is the capital of food truck America. What's the emerging center of it? Who is going to come up and nip at L.A.'s heels?
GOLD: I'm not sure if they're coming up. I mean, Portland - and I'm talking about Portland, Oregon though I guess there's also trucks in Portland, Maine - really embraces their food truck culture in a way that we don't even hear. I mean, here they're hassled by authorities or hassled by, you know, cops. Doing $150 parking ticket is almost written off as a cost of doing business.
And in Portland, every neighborhood will have its, sort of, dedicated food truck lots where they get together and you know that you're going to see a certain truck at a certain place. And the variety of trucks in Portland is great. Seattle has great trucks. I've been hearing a lot of really good things about Chicago lately. I know there's a big cluster of pretty good ones on the University of Chicago campus that people just rave about.
HOBSON: I would love to see if they can come up with a deep-dish pizza-hotdog combination on a Chicago food truck.
GOLD: That would be fun. I think the hour-long cooking time on a deep-dish pizza might just defeat a truck...
GOLD: ...but you never know.
HOBSON: Jonathan Gold is the food critic for the Los Angeles Times, talking with us about food trucks. Jonathan, thanks so much.
GOLD: Thank you. It's been great.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
And, Jeremy, we asked listeners to tweet us their favorite food trucks. We are hearing from you. John Book says his all-time favorite truck is Tsukenjo Lunch Wagon in Honolulu. But now he's in Portland, Oregon so his favorite is - let's see if I - how shall I do this — the Big A** Sandwich.
YOUNG: And Brian Zelip(ph) says Nineveh Assyria in Olympia, Washington and Cracked in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.
HOBSON: My hometown.
YOUNG: There you go. Robert Drake casts his vote for the Border Grill in LA So tweet us your favorite food truck. I'm @hereandnowrobin.
HOBSON: I'm @jeremyhobson. You can also reach us @hereandnow. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.
YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.