I couldn’t resist a French Onion Soup Melt [with] Gruyère cheese and a Parmesan crust
Anthea Gerrie heads to Hollywood to track down California’s hottest eateries on wheels
I was descending into LA and as the plane circled above the billions of tiny lights forming a gold and silver grid beneath us, my tastebuds were already tickled by the thought of all that fabulous food waiting on the ground. But it wasn’t your typical California cuisine that got me salivating, you understand — I wasn’t coming to the City of Angels for Wolfgang Puck’s fancy pizzas, the right-on “nourish bowls” loved by Silverlake hipsters or even the world’s best patty in a bun from Fatburger… It was gourmet street food that had lured me to the City of Angels. The city that loves to eat on the run now has more than 5,000 food trucks, ready to serve them gourmet treats for breakfast, lunch and dinner around town.
I had done my homework and I had my list. Kogi BBQ kickstarted LA’s street food fever in 2008. Until then there were always a few taco trucks downtown, but it was Kogi that was part of the force that was part of the sea change that had Angelenos become more interested in pleasing their palates than choosing a restaurant where they could see and be seen. Kogi was the first and easiest restaurant to track down, for unlike most of the city’s mobile offerings it also has a bricks-and-mortar presence, and serves Mexican-Korean fusion fare. Think burritos dressed with Korean chili-soy vinaigrette and kimchee quesadillas.
I wanted to try the food from the truck as the Kogi BBQ truck is considered a travelling LA landmark, but I soon discovered this wasn’t as easy as it sounded. LA food trucks are such a moveable feast I was never able to find Kogi, nor others on my wish list including the Egg Slut breakfast truck, Guerilla Tacos, whose chef trained with multi-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse, and Free Range, home of a famous chicken sandwich.All have been raved over by food critics who obviously had more luck tracking them down. Naively, I imagined that all I had to do was head to Wilshire Boulevard (known as Miracle Mile), where my Hollywood-based friends assured me that “all” the best food trucks gathered every day.
There were plenty of food trucks, to be sure, but none I’d heard of. Until – there it was at the end of the line, a glowing orange beacon, the Grilled Cheese Truck, which is one of Los Angeles’s most beloved. This is, after all, a city which has run a grilled cheese cook off for several years, and has at least one restaurant devoted to nothing but endless variations on America’s favourite gooey, high-protein snack. I couldn’t resist a French Onion Soup Melt, the soup quotient represented by the onion compote as well as a cup of broth and featuring both Gruyère cheese and a Parmesan crust. This is die-and-go-to-heaven fare for all but the lactose intolerant; full marks for whoever invented this dish. I also had to steal a bite of my companion’s Mom’s Apple Pie Melt, another wicked assembly, featuring sharp Cheddar on a baguette dressed with brown butter, caramelised apples and candied walnuts — yummy. No wonder founder David Danhi has won eight best food truck awards, not to mention a social media award as the third most influential Tweeter in LA.
I was to discover a social media presence is vital for trucks that need to let followers know where to find them in an extremely busy city. Few get the same pitch on the same day or even week, and pitches themselves are said to be decreasing as companies don’t want them to be parked in front of their buildings. This forces the trucks off-road into car parks or private hire for special events. It was in the car park of an auditorium in far flung Redondo Beach that I got my next fix, that classic East Coast treat, a genuine East Coast lobster roll. Cousins, founded by – er – cousins, Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac, flies lobsters in daily from Maine, where the duo hail from, and serves them in the shell for those who don’t mind winkling out the super sweet meat, as well as packed neatly into a roll with lemon mayo.
The next day I was ready for something more typically west coast and was thrilled to spot a Border Grill truck haring through Westwood Village. Having learnt how unpredictable van locations are, there was nothing for it, but to follow this mobile outpost of the legendary modern Mexican restaurant, which recently closed in Santa Monica after decades, but still dispenses meals on wheels, including Baja ceviche cones packed with lime-marinated shrimp, burritos served with organic red wine and a killer carnitas taco which did the trick once we caught up with the truck on nearby Midvale Avenue, near the Hammer Museum.
All that chilli left me with a craving for dessert, which meant only one truck of choice Coolhaus, founded by a pair of architects and home of ice-cream sandwiches in flavours you can’t believe – chicken and waffles or foie gras ice cream packed between rich chocolate cookies? Sounds weird, but good old strawberry and vanilla are available too, and their truck can be found, as on the day I visited, outside their bricks-and-mortar shop in Culver City, a newly happening neighbourhood that has become another hub for mobile offerings.
One thing I was still hanging out for before I left town was a Reuben, that delicious west coast invention of pastrami, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on rye. In LA, deli fare is synonymous with Canter’s, which opened for business over half a century ago and whose mid-century fixturing made it a Mad Men location. But Bonnie Bloomgarden, fourth generation of the deli family (and punk rocker with the Death Valley Dolls) has dragged the business into the 21st century by creating a Canter’s truck.
I rushed south to Playa Vista, now subtitled Silicon Beach and so full of techies the former sleepy residential neighbourhood has become a work hub and prime location for trucks. Here, on West Washington Boulevard I tucked into not only a Reuben, but that ultimate comfort food, a potato latke and a matzo ball soup just like grandmother used to make. And the best thing? I still had half of that huge densely-packed sandwich to sustain me on my plane journey home.
Visit Roaming Hunger for food truck menus and day-by-day locations.
PHOTOGRAPHY COUSINS MAINE LOBSTER, ERIC SHIN, LA TOURISM, THE GRILLED CHEESE TRUCK,