Author: Michael Darling & Tyler Kearn
Today’s breed of gourmet food trucks are a far cry from the roach coaches of yesteryear. Instead of grease-soaked nachos, they serve shrimp kebabs, grilled brie sandwiches and red velvet pancakes. The gourmet trucks spread out daily and nightly across L.A., selling their delicacies on street corners to hungry Angelenos. But for one day, they all converged in a single place: the first annual L.A. Street Food Fest.
On Saturday, Feb. 13, Los Angeles Center Studios in downtown L.A. was filled bumper to bumper with 35 food trucks. General admission to the festival was $5, and each truck – including big names like the Buttermilk Truck and Grilled Cheese Truck – sold special sample servings from their menu for $1-$5. Part of the proceeds from the festival went to the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank.
The Food Fest was a blending of two major L.A. cultural trends: the rising popularity of gourmet food trucks, and a generation immersed in social media. Unlike traditional taco trucks, such as Oxy’s beloved Leo’s and Sonia’s, gourmet trucks have no regular location. Instead, they travel around L.A., announcing their next location via social networking services like Twitter.
Just as the gourmet trucks have embraced the power of the Web to gather a following, so have the organizers of the Food Fest. Practically all promotion for the event was done online, spreading through food blogs, Twitter and other electronic sources. The results were astounding – if ever there was evidence of the reach of social media, this was it.
Co-founder of the Food Fest Shawna Dawson, self-described as “social media maven,” was surprised by the turnout.
“We initially expected 5,000 to 6,000 people. Then, we thought 10,000 to 12,000, ” Dawson said. “We had 10,000 by one o’clock,” two hours after the event opened its gates.
We overheard people waiting to get into the venue discuss wait times of 50 minutes to over an hour. Once inside, we overheard one woman say that she waited an hour and 10 minutes for the Fry Smith, a French fry truck, just to order their signature foie gras fries – french fries soaked in duck fat. The wait for the Buttermilk Truck, with its pancake samplers, was an hour and a half at its worst. By 2:05 p.m., the event organizers had to turn people away, and by 2:30, they closed the gates entirely. Dawson cut our interview short so she could personally go and apologize to the 3,000-4,000 people still waiting in line to get in, handing out water bottles and bags of chips as consolation.
“We had a thousand servings, made over the last two days [in preparation for the event],” founder of Mama Koh’s Chicken Angie Koh said. “We sold out at about 2:30.” She described the event and its massive turnout as “really wonderful.”
Mama Koh’s is currently operating out of a church downtown, and is donating all of its proceeds from the Food Fest to earthquake relief in Haiti. Koh makes fried chicken that is inspired by both the dish’s roots in the American South and her own Korean heritage. The chicken is breaded and fried as usual, but also glazed with honey and has the slightest hint of garlic. These last two elements are taken from traditional Korean cooking.
Cross-cultural cuisine is emblematic of the diverse food options at the festival. The highlight dish at Gastrobus, a truck specializing in organic pub grub, was Mexican-style pulled pork placed on a bed of grits and chopped onions. The grits were light and had hints of cheese which complimented the pulled pork.
Many gourmet taco trucks, inspired by the now-famous Asian fusion Kogi Korean barbecue taco truck, served fusion-style tacos and tortillas. The Buttermilk truck sold delicious red velvet mini pancakes and their signature “Buttermilk Brick,” a breakfast sandwich consisting of a small biscuit sandwiching an egg and chorizo gravy.
The festival was an opportunity for up and coming gourmet trucks to publicize their menus before their official debuts. Among these trucks was the Fry Girl donut cart, specializing in nearly fat free donuts and mini-donuts. In addition, the Dim Sum Truck – expected to launch in a few weeks – featured dishes such as ginger shrimp rolls and duck tacos.
All of the promotion for the Food Fest proclaimed it to be the “first annual” – a clear indication that they intend to have this event again. With the large turnout and attention that the festival got this year, it can only be bigger and better next year. Be on the lookout for it next February. Until then, it is still possible to eat at any of the trucks that were at the festival at anytime, without waiting in line for hours.
All of the trucks are out there, every day and night, bringing fine food to Angelenos all around town. Finding them is just a matter of checking out their Web sites, blogs or Twitter feeds. This year’s L.A. Street Food Fest may be over, but the movable feast lives on.
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