On the grid: Popular food truck event isn’t what it seems

Posted by Rebecca Farivar at April 23, 2012, 8:12 pm Pacific Time

Chairman Bao at Off the Grid.

Let me start off by saying, I am not a food truck purist.

Though I am a regular patron of Fruitvale taco trucks, I am also a fan of many of the new generation trucks, including Kogi in LA and CupKates here in the Bay Area. In fact it was after a recent stop at CupKates that I learned about Off the Grid, a regular market of street food vendors. Having just moved back to the Bay Area after living in Germany for the past two years, I hadn’t heard of Off the Grid and I instantly wanted to go.

Off the Grid is essentially a moving venue where food truck patrons can find anywhere from 4 to 30 trucks on a given date. Most, if not all, of the trucks at Off the Grid come out of the contemporary food truck explosion with trucks like Chairman Bao, Curry Up Now, and the Crème Brûlée Cart anchoring the event. Though Off the Grid hosts events throughout the week and in multiple cities in the Bay Area, its Friday night event at the Fort Mason Center is by far the largest, which is why I made my way out to the Marina this past Friday to get in on all the food I’d missed while I was living in Europe.

On the surface, Off the Grid looks like a great thing for food truck culture. After all, it’s a fantastic way to connect food trucks with the people who love them. It’s great for business, it’s fun—what’s the problem? But while I was standing in a 30-minute line to then pay $12 for three of Chairman Bao’s steamed buns, only to then wade through the ever-thickening crowd to wait in another line for $4 empanadas, I couldn’t help but feel like Off the Grid is a bit disingenuous in the image it projects.

Part of why contemporary food trucks have taken off in popularity is the allure of the truck. It makes people feel like access is limited because the truck could be anywhere at anytime (nevermind the fact that these newer trucks announce their locations via Twitter and Facebook) and they are getting good food at a low price. This idea clearly comes from the decades-old taco truck tradition where the trucks actually do move around to different locations without announcing their new locations on any online platform and the food is good, cheap, and filling.

The organizers of Off the Grid know they are riding on the cachet that comes with being considered “underground”—it’s in the name—yet nothing about this event resembles the experience of getting food from a bona fide taco truck. I drove out of my way, faced a parking nightmare, waited in a series of lines, each longer than the last, and by the end of the night ended up spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $40, the same I would have paid at a sit-down restaurant. This compared to the $4.50 I would have spent at my favorite East Oakland taco truck on a pastor burrito that usually is enough for dinner and lunch.

There’s nothing wrong with high-end food sellers using trucks as a new way to market their product and reach customers. But turning eating out of a truck into a food event and then riding on the underground associations people have with taco trucks is hypocritical when no traditional taco trucks are included in the event and the high prices bar the average food truck patron from attending.

Austin’s taco trucks: ‘¿Tacos or Tacos?’

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at December 12, 2010, 3:30 am Pacific Time

First off, apologies for the lack of posts over the past four months. I’ve been busy with other things at my day job, my other blog and my new book, The Internet of Elsewhere — none of which (sadly) are taco-related.

But, besides all that, I wanted to post this awesome short film that was sent in from Austin, TX by Robert Lemon, a doctoral student at the University of Texas.

Enjoy!

Taco Bike: Interview with Todd Barricklow

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at August 18, 2010, 7:49 am Pacific Time

Back in June, I first spotted the Taco Bike during my daily perusals of online oddities. Given my love of bikes and tacos, it seemed the best of both worlds.

SF Weekly tried it out later that month, noting: “We enjoyed our first taco bike fish taco, made with tilapia and piled with cilantro, sour cream, and thick jalapeño slices. But it was the purple cabbage Holt had picked the day before from his and girlfriend Naomi Brilliant’s Healdsburg-based Roshambo Farms that was the unexpected star.”

SFW also noted that the idea for the Taco Bike dates back to 2008, and is sort of mentioned in sketch form on Weird Fish’s blog.

Todd actually wrote me back on June 10, and it took me over two months to post this interview. My apologies.

1) What inspired the creation of this bike? How long did it take to build? Is this a one-off or are you going to be making more?

My friend Timothy Holt from Weird Fish in SF had this idea to somehow have a bike and be able to ride around and serve/cook tacos from it. I jumped at the idea and started telling him all these features that I thought it could have. It took me several long and sporadic weeks of working at night to get this thing put together. The hardest part was figuring out which components could come together to make the whole of the bike. Finding and ordering parts and hunting down little bits here and there was really a challenge. Some parts I could pick up at the hardware store, others parts had to be special ordered from restaurant supply and specialty tool catalogs and RV supply websites.

I’m an artist by day and I don’t like to go into production on anything, but I would like to build another food bike, maybe a Crepe Bike? I work in Ceramics for my fine art and I also build strange pedal powered contraptions, and I’m in the middle of building another bike right now. This one has one nine foot wheel and two smaller wheels that jut out from one side.

These contraptions are built to race on the railroad tracks for an event that my wife produces. After I race them one year, I put rubber on the wheels and make them street legal.

2) Is it specifically designed for tacos? If so, why/how? Have you had any response from real taqueros?

The Taco Bike is specifically built for making three different kinds of tacos, and has a four-slot custom griddle so none of the meats touch each other. Also because Weird Fish has a large vegan demographic, the griddle was designed to make sure the veggies are not touching the beef tongue.

I did talk with the owner of our favorite taco truck about the bike and she made some good suggestions on what she would need to meet safety codes here in Santa Rosa. She definitely had stars in her eyes when I showed her the bike.

3) Will we see this out on the streets anytime soon? The Bite Club Bites site says Weird Fish commissioned it. Will they be using it? If so, when/how/where?

The first date of use will be Friday June 18th and Timothy may just run it in front of Weird Fish for that night. It’s only 4 blocks to Delores park so I’m sure it will end up there often.

4) How does it handle hills, especially SF-grade ones? Are there gears?

It has a Nexus 3 speed hub on the back, and I have ridden it fully loaded up on some medium size hills here in Santa Rosa.

I kind of like the idea of it being limited to a certain footprint of the city where it can go. It keeps things micro-local.

5) What’s your favorite Bay Area non-Twittering taco truck?

I don’t know if they Twitter or not but Antonjitos La Texanita here in Santa Rosa is pretty awesome. It used to just be a truck, then the owner opened a restaurant and now the truck is more mobile around the county.

‘The Great Food Truck Race’ to debut Sunday, August 15

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at August 14, 2010, 7:31 am Pacific Time

So yes, I’m a little behind on this one. And thank you to friends and family alike that have asked me: “Hey, have you heard? There’s going to be a food truck show on Food Network!”

Well, at least I posted in time for the premiere, which airs tomorrow night. Scope the trailer below.

Ok, I’ll bite. (Har.)

I haven’t seen the show yet, and will post my review of the first episode next week. But my gut reaction sort of breaks down into three ways.

1) “Yeah, food trucks!” I think it’s absolutely fantastic that these trucks, a few of which I interviewed on this here blog way back when, are now going to be on national television. (Grill ‘Em All, Nom Nom) Kudos, guys!

2) Everyone seems to think that this is new. And maybe it’s just the latest example of a good idea from one part of society getting appropriated and commercialized by another. I worry that in this hype over tweet-fueled trendiness, somehow the classic taco trucks that aren’t on Twitter and don’t come to flashy downtown art strolls, get pushed aside, when in fact many of those guys were there first, and def could use the exposure.

In an article previewing the show, The New York Times proclaimed: “We’re living in a food-truck moment. Thanks to a booming gastro-culture and an economy gone bust, America’s streets are filled as never before with high-quality meals on wheels.”

I’d speculate that there are already tons of high-quality meals on wheels. Heck, check out the Yum Tacos map. I’m sure the Grey Lady didn’t know that there’s taco trucks in Arkansas, Illinois and Idaho. (I sure didn’t.)

3) Do food trucks really need to be a reality show? Do I really need people put in situations where they’re yelling at each other, à la The Real World? I really loathe these type of shows with these sit-downs at the camera and people talking smack about one another.

That said, as I found myself drawn to this part of TV Squad‘s interview with Tyler Florence, the new host of the show:

So it really is a race for them? Who can get set up and selling in new places the fastest.

Absolutely. There’s an elimination challenge in every city. They got 72 hours to make the most money. We start each truck with a full tank of gas and a completely cleaned out pantry, and everyone gets the same amount of money, so everyone starts on a completely even playing field. They’ve got 72 hours to shop, prep, cook and compete for the dollars and the hearts and minds of the whole community.

In their hometown, they’re rockstars — they can literally just Twitter, “Hey I’m on the corner of whatever,” and 25 minutes later, there’s a line around the block. But in the new cities, they don’t know anybody, so they’re trying to figure out who’ll Twitter, who’s calling the paper, who’s calling the television station, who’s gonna let them know we’re out here. These guys really thought out of the box. It was amazing to watch them all step up to the plate and be strong, independent mobile companies.

No matter what, I’ll be watching.

Mi Grullense: Interview with Edgar Galindo, owner’s son

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at July 16, 2010, 7:03 am Pacific Time

So after our aforementioned February ride, Edgar Galindo, the son of the owner of the Mi Grullense taco trucks on International Blvd. contacted me, asking why I hadn’t chosen his trucks for the ride. I informed him that we had, in fact, during the original ride back in October. Given that he seemed to know an awful lot about the history of Oakland taco trucks, I thought I’d knock a set of five his way. (I’ve edited his answers for clarity.)

As he writes: “My name is Edgar Galindo, I run Mi Grullense Restaurant and Tequila Bar on Fruitvale Ave. and my father Enrique Galindo is the owner of the Mi Grullense business in Oakland, with two taco trucks and one restaurant.”

1) How and when did Mi Grullense start operating a truck in Oakland? What was the scene like at that time?

In the early 1980s taco trucks were big in Los Angeles, they had success in San Jose but were banned so everyone in San Jose with taco trucks was forced to close up their truck, sell or move to a different city. My father is from the town of El Grullo and had family members in the original El Grullense out of San Jose. My mother had a brother in Oakland, Tony Muñoz, who was a butcher and had his own business, he saw that Oakland had a growing Mexican community and told my parents he could try to help them by setting up a spot to park a taco truck in the same lot as his business. (Where the Hollywood Video is on MacArthur Blvd., it used to be a market.) My father’s cousin had a taco truck in San Jose that could not be operated there anymore so my father asked to rent it and operate it in Oakland. This was in 1984. At first, my father and mother would drive the taco truck from San Jose to Oakland daily, until we actually moved to Oakland in 1985. There were only, I believe, two or three other taco trucks in Oakland at the time, I believe El Taco Zamorano was the first and had only been around a few months before we came to Oakland.

2) How many trucks do you guys operate now all over the Bay Area? What’s your most popular location? How much money do you guys make (revenue and profit) per day?

We only have two taco trucks, both in Oakland. We have had a few restaurants but for one reason or another have been forced to move or sell. In the early 1990s we started our taqueria across the street from the Wendy’s on 31st Ave. and International Blvd. It took a few years but the place was a great success. Unfortunately at the height of our success the Native American Health Center canceled our lease, and turned the restaurant into offices. We also had a restaurant on 35th Ave. and Foothill Blvd. but due to slow sales we were forced to close it down. We have Mi Grullense Restaurant & Tequila Bar on Fruitvale Ave., we have owned that since 1997 and are still up and running.

3) What’s your most popular menu item? Have you ever changed the menu in any way? How have your customers changed over the years?

Our most popular menu item is still the carne asada tacos, followed close by the al pastor tacos.

The menu has changed slightly over the years, our recipe has not changed, but we have added a few new items. We did not sell burritos at first, since they’re pretty much unheard of in Mexico. But we adapted to our customers and added burritos in the early 1990s, we also added tortas and quesadillas at some point in the 90s. Just recently we added a few new choices of meat, we added tripa (cow intestine) and buche (pig stomach) both are very popular. We have also added fish ceviche to our second taco truck to accommodate many customers who kept asking for a refreshing summertime food.

Customers have changed over the years, I remember when there weren’t so many taco trucks populating Oakland. Our lines were crazy, sometimes people waited over an hour to try our tacos! We had families that came from Modesto all the way to Sacramento just to have our tacos on a weekly basis. I remember meeting people in Mexico who had heard of us and were also customers. Nowadays since there are so many taco trucks its hard to compete, but we still have our loyal customers.

4) What’s the best and worst thing about operating a truck? Why operate two right next to each other? Are they different at all?

The best thing would be of course being your own boss. Staying close to home, being able to work with family, meeting so many customers. The worst thing about owning a taco truck is that there is so much competition now, its hard to make a profit, also ex-employees taking recipes and opening up their own taco trucks, and having to rent a location to park the taco truck.

We have two taco trucks right next to each other because our number one truck was getting way too busy and some customers are on a schedule and would leave looking for another taco truck or another place to have lunch. Wo we opened up another taco truck right next to it so customers can have faster, better service. Our two taco trucks are the EXACT SAME, although many customers believe that the tacos are different, I assure you that the food is cooked in the same restaurant, the tortillas are delivered by the same company, and our meat is always delivered daily by the same company! The employees are even the same, they rotate between both trucks.

The only difference is that our number one truck did not sell burritos for a very long time due to how long they took to make and our large volume of customers, although our number one truck does sell burritos now. Also, our number two truck sells tortas and quesadillas, we also added fish ceviche and plan to expand our seafood menu. Another thing is that the hours of operation are different, our number one truck opens at 8 am and closes at 1 am during the week and 3 am on weekends. Our number two truck opens at 11 am and closes at 7 pm during the week and 12 am on weekends.

5) What do you make of this new generation of fusion taco trucks on Twitter, like Kogi BBQ (LA) or Kung Fu Tacos (SF)?

To be honest, I’ve never heard anything about those taco trucks.

East Bay Express 2010: Best Bike Tour

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at July 14, 2010, 10:59 am Pacific Time

Wow! I can’t believe it! The February 2010 Tour de Taco won the East Bay Express’ Best of the Bay 2010 award for: Best Bike Tour. (That said, I’m not sure how many bike tours there are in the East Bay, but heck, I’ll take it!)

As the EBE writes:

Sometimes when you hop on a bike, you just want to ride — around the block, through the neighborhood, until you get tired and find yourself lost and in search of a Slurpee. At others, you need a goal, a destination, a mission. And what’s a more worthy mission than obtaining tacos? According to organizers of the Oaklandish Tour de Taco, not much. Billed as a “gastronomical quest on wheels through the Fruitvale district of Oakland,” the annual ride hosted by the East Bay Bicycle Coalition and Cyrus Farivar of CaliforniaTacoTrucks.com leads participants along a bike-friendly course from one taco truck to the next. This year’s ride, held in February, stopped at four taco trucks along a 2.5-mile loop and then visited an ice cream parlor a couple blocks down the street for dessert. Those looking to tack another 3.5 miles onto the ride then convened at a bar in Old Oakland for refreshments. The date for next year’s ride has yet to be set, but organizers welcome taco truck veterans and “mobile food noobs” alike, as well as riders of all skill levels. The ride’s free, but don’t forget a helmet, $15 or so for food, and an empty stomach.

As it turns out, although I’m currently in Germany, I plan on being back in Oakland next February for about two weeks, and would love to organize another one. Or heck, all you 510ers, why aren’t you organizing your own, informal ride? If you do, send me pix, por favor!

Interview with Sam Diephius, LA taco truck photographer

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at June 7, 2010, 6:47 am Pacific Time

Sam Diephius first contacted me at the end of March, and fortunately has been patient enough (and nudged me with a few emails) to interview him. I was impressed with his photographs and his tenacity, so here goes.

1) On your website, you have a collection of 22 Los Angeles street vendors. Some of them are taco trucks and some are those guys that sell oranges by the freeway and the like. How did you select the people and places that you shot? Were they receptive to it?

In the neighborhood (Venice) where I live there are roving grocery trucks that show up late in the day to sell to the local community. I’ve used them quite a few times for picking up little things like tortillas, avos, tomatoes, et cetera. I always admired the way families or friends hang out around the trucks as sort of a meeting area to talk about the day and share story.

One day when I was frustrated about my job, I thought, “why am I flying half way around the world when there are amazing stories in front of my house”? I walked down and started talking to one of the truck drivers and asked him if I could photograph him, and in exchange I would give him a picture. He was a little hesitant because it was a little bit strange to him to have someone setting up lights and asking him to move around, smile, and be a model, but he was very happy when I gave him the picture the next day. These guys are very proud of their trucks and they are always happy when I bring them a picture of them with their trucks.

From there it was on, and I started asking everyone who sells things on wheels, Ice cream, fruit venders and even the pork rhine guy, but I knew the taco truck was going to be the holly grail. Most people are a little hesitant, but after I show them a few photos they are usually excited about the project. Since they are working I try and pay them $10-$20 for their time. Time is money for them and I try and pay them accordingly. The shoots last anywhere from 10 minutes to 2-3 hours depending on the situation. Some of the taco truck parks out in East LA have hours of prep time before they hit the road and they are usually open to just about anything as long as they can keep working. Good people for sure!

2) What did you learn on your odyssey through “El Barrio,” as you call it? Where in LA were you shooting exactly? Why did you pick those locations?

Actually this project turned out to be a lot more than just about the vendors and taco trucks. Most of the street vendors (vendors that don’t own a vehicle and sell on the street corners) are here illegally and are just trying to make ends meet. They work really long hours with little pay and have large families to support back in their home country. The people in my pictures aren’t taking American jobs, getting into trouble, causing problems, but they are here illegally. With all this talk about immigration in the press this project really brought this complicated issue front and center for me. One thing I can tell you is that Latin America has influenced our way of life in America in some awesome ways. For example, I can’t tell you the last time I had apple pie, but I can tell you when I had a couple tacos: yesterday!

Most of the images were made in Venice or in East LA. East LA is an awesome place to visit and if you haven’t been you should go. It is full of life and energy very similar to being in a different country.

East LA is a great location for shooting pictures of the Latin American culture and people, and the taco trucks are everywhere. It’s just a part of the lifestyle there. There are amazing murals and street art around every corner and it feels very alive. LA can really get a bad rap and for good reason sometimes, but East LA is really the center of the Latin American culture here and it can feel like it’s own city.

3) What do you look for when shooting street vendors? How do you try to vary your shots? What would you suggest to amateurs who shoot taco trucks in terms of approaching taqueros and also in terms of framing? I feel like it’s easy to just shoot the standard side or angled view of the truck, y’know?

Usually what I am looking for is someone this isn’t busy. If they are making sales I don’t want to bug them. After I’ve found someone I will go and introduce myself and show them what I am working on. Most of the time I will come back another day. This gives me time to think about what I want to do and how I will light it. Sometimes I take the subject to another location with a better back ground or different light and other times I will shoot them right where they are.

Anyone can make a snap shot of a taco truck (“lonchera”) but to make a picture that is unique the photographer needs to slow down a bit. Here’s a list of things to think about before photographing.

I. The most important thing is making your subject feel comfortable, knowing a little Spanish can go a long way in making the model feel relaxed.

II. Setting up shoots with the subject and returning another day can take some of the pressure off the model. Keep in mind most of the owners of the trucks and venders in the street are working, find out if there are certain times of the day that are slower for them and come back then.

III. Showing them an example of what you have done before can help them understand what you are trying to photograph.

IV. Always be polite and ask before shooting a picture. Try and give something back to the model no matter how little. Even buying what they are selling is a good start. Who knows you may try something that you’ve never had.

V. Sometimes I use natural light and sometimes I work with a lot of lighting, it all depends on the shot. By using lights I can accent different areas of the truck or the owners. Night images work nicely as well. Using natural street light or the light from the taco trucks can give a “real” feeling to the subject.

VI. Breaking the repetition. Let’s face it, taco trucks can look very similar. etting to know your subjects can make a huge difference in accessing different angles and locations of the trucks and the venders. If they feel comfortable you can then move them to a different location. Also moving in and out and up and down while looking trough the view finder will help to see things differently.

4) How does shooting in your backyard (Los Angeles) compare with shooting in some of the other international locations that you’ve worked in, like Jamaica and Burma? Are there any major similarities? Differences?

Shooting in LA is awesome. Going out shooting, coming home, sleeping in my own bed can make a big difference. The problem I have is that I can get easily distracted here. When I am in another country I don’t have a lot of options of distraction and I make more pictures. It is also hard to see the amazing things around me when I am at home because I see them every day. In another country everything is different and new.

Most of the photography basics from the list above apply directly to other countries. Sometimes I have to be more careful than other in other countries. For example, China and Burma are very safe, Kingston, Jamaica on the other hand I have to keep my wits about me. LA can be a little uncomfortable at times as well. The truth is that I find most people around the world to be very friendly and are interested in what I am doing and photographing.

5) What’s your favorite taco truck in LA? What do you typically order?

Gosh, where do I start? There’s so many “taco trucks” now a days that they are starting to spill over into other cuisines, Korean bbq, Brazilian, Texas ribs, grilled cheese, the list goes on, but I have to say the taco truck that sells actual tacos is the best. Let’s just say that (although they might be amazing) if your truck has a Twitter account, you are not a taco truck. They can have their sushi, kimchi, and crepe “taco trucks” and I will stick with my standard al pastor tacos or veggie with the works, I will do asada, or chicken burrito any day. On a side note, if I could, I would eat them ever day!

I don’t really have a specific truck I love but I will say this, my favorite truck is when I’m super hungry, it’s late at night, everything is closed, I’ve just finished a big work day, right when I am too lazy and tired to sit down for a meal and I’ve given up and am submitting to eating cereal for dinner. The one that appears on the side of the road with it’s lights on at that point in time is my favorite!

LA food truck trade group endorses candidate for June 8 election

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at June 4, 2010, 7:03 am Pacific Time

Longtime followers of taco trucks issues in the Golden State may remember the veritable bevy of laws that have come and gone that threaten our beloved taqueros. After that, it became clear that taco trucks owners need to get organized.

The old school trucks have formed the aforementioned Asociacíon de Loncheros (which, by the way, is being honored by the LA chapter of the National Lawyers Guild this Sunday night!), while the new school has gotten together to crate the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association. They were the minds behind the ill-fated Santa Monica food truck lot, which lasted just one day.

But it was only a matter of time before one of those groups — both of which registered as 501c6 organizations, which means they are trade associations that can engage in political speech — took on a political stance.

Since late last month, the SCMFVA, which represents a lot of nouveau trucks in downtown LA and on the Westside, have formally endorsed Betsy Butler (D) for the 53rd Assembly District in the California State Assembly.

Why?

“She sees the benefit of food trucks in that area,” explained Matt Geller of SCMFVA, in an interview with LAist.

Previously, the SCMFVA endorsed Cary Brazeman for a seat on the Mid-City West Community Council, which is in charge of that oft-conflicted mid-Wilshire district.

So now the question is, how long before we start seeing stance on taco trucks as an item in campaign literature?

Get Jerked: Interview with Amira Jackmon, co-founder

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at June 2, 2010, 7:23 am Pacific Time

Although it doesn’t get as much play as its brethren across the Bay or down in LA, the East Bay does have quite a number of taco/food trucks: both new school and old school. In fact, my favorite all-time taco truck remains El Ojo de Agua in Fruitvale. Amongst thew new school, we’ve got Jon’s Street Eats, Cupkates, Liba SF and countless others. But Get Jerked is the first truck that I’m aware of to bring flavors of the Caribbean to my beloved East Bay. Amira Jackmon’s, the truck’s founder, gave me the low-down.

1) Amira, you went from corporate law to food? Huh? How’d that happen? And what’s your connection to the Caribbean, anyway? What about your partner?

Yes. I guess you could say that I went from Wall Street to Main Street. That happened when the firm that employed me for eight years let go of about 100 people in March of 2009. I was one of them. Frankly, I’m not sad about it; it’s been a good thing. I’ve always had an inclination to be entrepreneurial and have dabbled in various ventures over the years. I just never had the courage to fully take the leap on my own. I actually purchased the food truck in 2007 while I was on maternity leave with my son, who’s now almost three. It was my intention to manage the truck from home and not return to the firm so that I could stay home with my son. (What can I say…I’m a Pisces. We’re known to be dreamers!) It turned out not to be such an easy thing to run a taco truck while taking care of a newborn. So my plans got delayed a bit. The firm giving me the boot, in the end, was the push that I needed to finally get the food truck up and running. My legal skills are something that I will always have and that I utilize almost every day in my food business. I also maintain a small practice on the side that I might expand in the future as time permits.

As far as my connection to the Caribbean, I am an African-American who loves and claims all African-derived cultures as my own. I consider us the same people; my ancestors just happened to get off at a different port of call. I reconnected with the Caribbean side of my family during my freshman year of college. It happened the moment I went to my first house party. The big crew on campus at the time was the “Queens Posse” a group of freshmen girls who all hailed from the area around Jamaica, Queens, New York. During the reggae set, one of them started dancing, hands on the ground, legs cocked up in the air and feet on the wall, winding and grinding her waist against some dude to no end. Outwardly, being the nice little Christian girl from Fresno that I was, I was appalled. But, secretly, I longed to “get on bad” just the same way. It took me about four years to learn how to do the butterfly (the popular dancehall reggae move from the early 90s) but I persisted and by the time I graduated, I had it down. It’s funny because that same girlfriend, who back then teased me about being so “corny,” has become a close friend of mine. Now, she’s the straight laced, Bible toting conservative, and, while you won’t really find me anywhere dancing upside down, I do consider myself a pretty good “wind-er.” So I think there’s been a nice bit of cultural exchange between the two of us.

2) We have Korean tacos, Chinese tacos and now Jamaican tacos? Why do tacos work so well? Or is it just cause all Californians love tacos? Do you think there’s any cuisine that couldn’t be taco-ified?

I think part of it is definitely a California thing. Every good Californian loves a taco. I’m still shocked when I meet people, obviously non-natives, who tell me that they don’t like tortillas. What’s not to like about a tortilla?

But I also think that, in part, we’re witnessing an evolution of the American taste bud. If you grow up eating tacos, eventually, you’re going to long for something different. I think many of us are, frankly, a little bored with Mexican food. Recently at an event that I did, the Mexican family selling pupusas two booths away from kept coming to my stand all night for more jerk tacos. By the end of the night, they were asking me for tips on how to prepare sorrel (sold in Mexican restaurants as “Jamaica”).

It’s just like with Asian food. I would venture to say that most Americans were introduced to Asian cuisine through the Chinese. But now, I can’t think of anyone I know who regularly goes to eat Chinese. It’s either Thai or Vietnamese or Indian or something more “exotic.” My prediction is that, unless traditional Mexican restaurants step up their game and start to introduce some more complex sauces and spices, like more of the moles and sauces from areas that Americans are not as familiar with, then the Mexican restaurant will be in danger of being relegated to that place you go to when you’re hungry, and it’s late, and there’s nothing else to eat.

3) Do you really have a steel drum in the truck? Where/how do you cook the chicken? Why no roti on the menu? What about ginger beer?

I don’t have a steel drum on the truck. I actually recently did an event where I prepared jerk chicken in a steel drum outside of the truck and I plan to do that from time to time. But serving traditional jerk chicken is not really what Get Jerked! is about. I think there are other good Caribbean restaurants here in the bay to serve that market. (My favorite right now is Coconuts in Palo Alto). I’ve even heard of a jerk chicken cart in San Francisco, though I haven’t tried it yet. What I’m trying to do with Get Jerked! is to capture the attention of those people who would never really venture to try Caribbean cuisine except for the fact that it’s being offered to them in a format that they can understand: a taco, a sandwich, a burger. If I happen to attract the traditionalists at the same time, then all the better.

Roti is on the menu and I have offered it and plan to offer it again from time to time.

I might offer ginger beer in the future when I find a good supplier or find the time to make my own.

4) Growing up in Fresno, what was your favorite thing to order at taqueria/taco trucks? What does your partner make of taco trucks? What’s your current favorite non-Twittering taco truck?

I never really ate from taco trucks growing up. In fact, I can only remember there being one taco truck in Fresno at the time and we never ate from it. We cooked tacos at home. We probably cooked tacos more often than we fried chicken. It was quick and easy. Plus it was something us kids, with a working mother, could handle on our own. I can remember times as a kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, downing like 12 tacos in one sitting.

My first time eating from a taco truck was actually during law school at a truck in East Palo Alto. If my memory serves me correctly, it was called Three Brothers. It’s no longer there but I believe they now have a restaurant that’s doing pretty well.

I don’t really play favorites when it comes to traditional taco trucks. To me, traditional taco trucks are all about convenience. I go to whichever one happens to be closest when I’m hungry and need something to eat that’s cheap and quick.

5) Tell me more about this shark and bake sandwich. Surely you must be able to find it here in some fish store, no? Have you ever tried to make it at home here?

I’ve seen shark in local grocery stores though I can’t say where it was from and I’ve never really researched it for use on the truck. I don’t really see a shark sandwich being in high demand here in the bay area. It’s like my former dance teacher, Carlos Aceituna (of Bay Area group Fogo na Ropa, may he rest in peace) once told me about why his relationship with his Brazilian born girlfriend didn’t work out once he moved her to the U.S.: some things don’t translate well. What may make sense to enjoy on the beach in Trinidad, where shark is plentiful, may not go over as well here in Northern California where there’s more of a concern with issues of sustainability.

Bake is relatively easy to make. But I don’t really see me offering it on the truck any time soon. That’s because what I’m trying to achieve through the truck is more life, not less life. Maybe if I had four or five good friends around me who all had nothing better to do except to sit around in a circle with me and gossip while we all rolled and kneaded bake from scratch then that might be fun. Until that day, I’d rather just go around the corner from my house to Acme Bread and order a high quality roll made locally from organic ingredients that pretty much everyone in the bay area loves and call it a day, which is what I do.

Wyss Catering Trucks: Interview with Mike Wyss, president

Posted by Cyrus Farivar at May 21, 2010, 7:35 am Pacific Time

Long before Road Stoves conceived of making a Kogi, Nom Nom or Grilled Cheese truck, Wyss Catering Trucks, based in Santa Fe Springs, California, began building trucks two decades ago. President Mike Wyss took a slightly different tack, and rather than responding to each of my questions individually, responded all at once. I’ll list my questions below, and then his email, unedited, after that.

1) So are you guys the grand-daddy of LA taco truck manufacturers? Tell me how you got started.

2) How does one go about ordering a truck from you? What do they cost? What are the options on the low and high end? Can one buy a used truck? What should a prospective truck owner look for in a truck? How much can they be customized?

3) How has the manufacture of taco trucks changed since you’ve been in business?

4) What do you make of the recent uptick in these gourmet twittering food trucks? Are there options that are popular with them that aren’t as popular with more traditional food trucks?

5) What’s the coolest or most unique truck you’ve ever made? What’s in the future for your business?

Dear Sir,

We have been in the catering truck making business for 20 years here in our present location and the owners father and uncle started back in 1953. We worked at the other place until breaking away in 1990.

Most people visit our web site and request information, which we then send. A standard kitchen can range from $85,000.00 up to $115,000.00 depending on regulations in the customers area. We also customize trucks to fit what the customer wants to serve. As far as used trucks, most were built under old laws and in California for instance, they would not be approved unless they are brought up to code.

Two years ago this July, California changed its laws regarding MFPU (mobile food processing unit). They now require all equipment be NSF approved. We are finding more areas of the US are going in this direction also. This is why we have all customers contact their local health department for their particular regulations.

As far as the gourmet trucks, they are all different except for people just starting out. They usually lease an existing truck from a catering house. They cannot buy them as they would then have to bring it up to present codes. The standard cost on that would be around $40,000.00 and that is to much to put into an older truck.

In the past most of the trucks me made were route trucks or movie studio trucks. In 1994 we made the first IN-N-OUT truck. Since then we have made trucks for Carls Jr., Hot Dog on a Stick, Ben and Jerry’s, Tommy’s Hamburgers and more. We recently made a truck called The Sweets Truck and Border Grill. We have made Pizza trucks and all manner of different trucks. We have built search and rescue trucks for San Bernardino Sheriff and Long Beach Police to name a few.

Our business is really tied to construction and related businesses. At the present time, it is really slow and the gourmet catering trucks keep the doors open.

Regards,

Mike Wyss
President