It’s just a truck. A big white square food- wagon outside a bar. But look at its chalkboard menu: Local wild halibut, side of ceviche tostada, $4.75
Mandarin salad — local Satsuma mandarin, roasted local beet, local fennel, local baby arugula, horseradish tarragon vinaigrette, full, $7.65, half, $4
Grass-fed burger: grass-fed beef, all natural cheddar, grilled balsamic red onion, local butter leaf, hand-made French dressing, local brioche, $7.75, add all-natural Duroc bacon, 75 cents
Squash flatbread: grilled handmade flatbread, local squash, béchamel, caramelized onion, sautéed local greens, garlic, Parmigiano Reggiano, $7.5, add all-natural Duroc bacon, 75 cents
Red curry chicken: organic chicken, hand-made curry, local peas, local shiitake, carrot, cilantro, basmati rice, $7.95
Belgian style fries: Fresh-cut Kennebec potato, handmade chipotle ketchup, $3.25
This is what the street is eating? From a food truck? Handmade this, grass-fed that? Local greens? Brioche? Whatever happened to ye olde standby tacos, burritos, and hot dogs?
I’ve just stumbled off the #2 bus at 30th and Juniper in South Park, headed to the Station Tavern for a snack and a beer when I come onto this scene outside the venerable hole-in-the-wall bar, the Whistle Stop. Clump of people mill ’round the Whistle Stop entrance, another clump forms a straggly, talky line alongside a big food truck parked by the sidewalk, and more bodies are leaning on the truck’s narrow counter, or sitting on sidewalk transformer boxes, chewing, chowing, chatting. I’ve heard about these “gastro trucks” sprouting up all over the country, but I never thought they’d be so, well, gastro. Or that they’d be the outriders of a revolution that some say is causing changes in everything from class to cooking to capitalism. Over in France, “Le Fooding” is a revolt against expensive, formal, exclusive restaurants and a way of returning to roots. And right here in San Diego, anyone who gets around, foodwise, will tell you that the street is where real food — food sold from carts, trucks, little ethnic eateries, not mass-produced preservative-filled crap — is at. And at the best prices too. And, yes, it’s mostly Mexican. Then again, Mexicans are the kings of fresh.
So, a real gastro-truck? It has my attention.
The logo, “MIHO,” on the side of the truck, is surrounded by food sayings.
“The belly is the giver of genius.” Persius.
“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” James Beard.
“Preserve the old, but know the new.” Chinese proverb.
“The garden suggests there might be a place where we can meet nature halfway.” Michael Pollan.
These are the kind of culinary bon mots you might expect to find written between cherubim and seraphim on the walls of some spa in Rancho Santa Fe, right? But on a roach coach outside the Whistle Stop bar?
I join the line as dusk falls. Inside the lighted truck, two guys and two gals, 20s, 30s, dance to the music (John Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”) as they cook, cut, take orders, call out names.
What I don’t understand is why these people would bother to cook such fancy foods, on a sidewalk, for regular Joes coming out of a bar to line their gut for — probably — more booze?
’Course, now I’m in the line, that includes me.
And why not? I like the idea of that ferocious wild halibut, and the free-range chicken, and those happy meadowgrass-nibbling cattle.
Healthwise, I should’ve had the fish, but just for the halibut (heh-heh) I ask for a grass-fed burger. With bacon, 75 cents extra. Main reason why is that someone passes in front of me with one. Oh, man, the sautéed beef and cheese smell is too much. Guy in the truck, Juan Mirón, takes my order. I’m desperate to ask: “What’s a chef like you doing in a place like this?”
I mean, I know it’s a nationwide phenomenon... Cooks who wouldn’t have been caught dead inside a food truck ten years ago are now flocking to get their own wheeled kitchens and put their personal best on the road. Facebook and Twitter are making it possible for them to tell fans where they’re going to be at a moment’s notice (kinda necessary when in, like, L.A., average permitted parking time is 20 minutes). But is it also the recession that’s made this possible, even cool? You can imagine chefs, fresh out of some behemoth culinary campus like Johnson & Wales University, who’d rather do their own thing now than wait years for decent jobs. They’d rather fork out $50K for an old lunch truck rather than wait for some angel to hand over the basic $100K (though probably more like a quarter-mill) that starting up a real restaurant would cost. Or is it more that eating has become more democratic, where it’s cool for rich, middle, and poor to share the same burger-centric tastes? (You can add healthy, local, and organic to that.) Probably it’s both, creating the perfect storm for a new, mobile market. Is class itself collapsing with the Twitter generation? For sure, people don’t seem to care which side of the tracks the truck’s at, so long as they can get their fangs around interesting, nontraditional fare. Even if we’re living in an increasingly wine-glass economy — more rich, more poor, fewer middle-income earners (we’re getting more and more like South America) — these gastro trucks reflect the digital age’s zeitgeist: mercurial, egalitarian, at home with change.
That’s my theory, anyway, as I stand in line waiting to give my order, listening to Lennon.
I notice two students from Cuyamaca College wolfing down burgers, using the yellow and red electric transformer boxes as tables.
“We were just talking about how great the meat is,” says one, Isaac Jiménez. “Grass-fed cattle. There’s such a difference. The juices…”
“I’ve been here for the past couple of weekends,” says his buddy, Caleb Sharp. “I usually play Frisbee golf [at Morley Field] during the daytime, and I was driving back one day and saw this truck. Me and my friends decided to stop by. We’ve come every Friday since. The first time I got a pulled-pork sandwich. It was really good. It seems like the menu changes every time. So I got the burger the next time, which I loved. But what I really like is their farm-to-street idea. That concept. I feel like you could taste the difference with the fresh food that you get here. And it’s grown locally. It’s just the difference in quality. It’s amazing. I think our younger culture’s really adopting this idea, even if it costs a couple of bucks more. The culinary scene around America is getting developed by the younger generation. We’re taking it in more. We’re using it to eat healthier than the way that we were brought up to eat.”