“Ed! While it’s hot! Ed?”
I go up to the window at the back of the truck. “You know you can eat this in the Whistle Stop,” says the gal, Cheryl. She’s one of the two female chefs here tonight. “Show them your ticket and you get $1 off the happy hour price of your beer.”
Wow. The burger sits in a black-and-white paper napkin in a cardboard boat, with those Belgian fries of “chopped-up fresh-cut Kennebec potato,” and a little paper cup of “handmade” chipotle ketchup. I pick it up and head in to the Whistle Stop.
“What’s it to be?” asks the bartender, Renée.
“It’s happy hour?”
“It’s happy hour.”
“In that case, a Stone IPA.”
“You eating that here?”
I nod. And, yes, she charges me $2.50. Buck off the $3.50 happy-hour price. Deal.
“Why do you do this?” I ask.
“Because it’s mutually very beneficial,” Renée says. “Because people love us, and people love Miho. They’ve been parking out front for about eight months. Almost everybody brings their meals in here to eat.”
“They only come on Fridays,” says Renée’s coworker Craig, “so it doesn’t threaten [the business of other restaurants]. It’s definitely good for us. We may get 50, 60 people come in with food from the truck over the two hours of happy hour, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. And Sam Chammas, our owner, just likes the whole idea.”
Huh. Even though Chammas also owns the Station Tavern, which serves food, just down the road.
I chomp in while the meat’s hot, juicy, and wafting sautéed onion-flavored clouds up at me. Burger, garlicky fries dipped in that chipotle-skewed ketchup, and hoppy IPA. Does it get any better? You can taste subtleties such as the milky soft, delicate, kinda sweet crunch of the butter leaf lettuce, probably grown right down there in I.B. On the other hand, why would people spend extra bucks on a burger like this, in hard times? You could get seven bargain burgers from, say, a Burger King for the same price. And at BK you can sit down, at a table, out of the cold night air. I’m doing that here, but for sure, most Miho customers — Homis, the Miho crew call them — stand on the sidewalk holding their little cardboard baskets, after paying nearly Burger Lounge prices.
“People are starting to understand that the food is restaurant quality,” says Craig. “It’s fast food, in terms of speed, but it’s good and it’s healthy. And for being locally grown, organic food, you’re definitely paying less.”
“I think the popularity has something to do with the economy,” says Renée. “A taco stand [truck] is going to have lower overhead. And these guys’re very hot on Twitter.”
Guy next to me at the bar, Kory Contreras, says he was brought up on street food, and things are definitely looking up. “My parents, when they took me out, it was always to hamburger stands, taco shops. That’s where we ate out. But these Miho guys’ whole thing — I’ve talked to them — is that back in the old days, the ’40s, ’50s, here and in, like, L.A., the hamburger trucks served really good food, and after a while, it’s just become poor quality. That’s where they got the name ‘roach coach’ from, because a lot of people didn’t take care of their trucks, and their food was just horrible. Now that these [gastro] trucks are coming around, they’re bringing the quality back up. I think a lot of these trucks do gourmet food that you’d only find in restaurants. And where the restaurants have to raise their prices to make rent, these guys are able to serve really good food at a low price.”
Now two guys standing behind me with beers in their hands, Devin Beaulieu and Patrick Kearney, get going on the subject. And guess what? They’re 30-something anthropologists at UCSD. They study political anthropology in Bolivia.
The way they talk, Miho is part of a worldwide post-capitalist, anti-hierarchical explosion. Conversation goes something like this:
DEVIN: One theory that I had [about the food-truck phenomenon] was that restaurants have just gotten too goddam expensive. So it’s easier to go to the food truck.
PATRICK: And for the restaurateur, the person running the truck, it gives a degree of autonomy. Like, if they have to rent a space for the restaurant, they’re bound to that landlord, or to the bills, or to the prices, whereas with their truck, if they own it they have some power and certainty. You can drive to a construction site, or a golf course out in the middle of nowhere and offer food to the employees.
DEVIN: That and buying fresh, organic, local, seasonal, is part of the “just in time” flexible economy, the ultimate neoliberal [mentality].
PATRICK: It’s a rejection of the status-quo, what we think of as a “restaurant,” the ladder you have to climb to supposed success.
DEVIN: It’s about being connected. Big corporations get disconnected. Macro economics take over.
PATRICK: Like in Bolivia. There was one McDonald’s in Bolivia, and they imported potatoes [for their French fries]. Potatoes are not a major crop in Bolivia, but they are a source of pride and legacy. So they sacked the McDonald’s and [left it in] ruins and then McDonald’s left Bolivia. Of all the countries in the Americas, Bolivia has rejected more corporations. You see small businesses that are different from mainstream capitlalism. That’s the class that’s succeeding right now in Bolivia.
DEVIN: Certain types of nonhierarchical organizations — like this food truck — are happening. Somebody makes the decision that ‘We’re going to serve food from local organic farms,’ and that utilizes social networks to create an alternative food economy. What’s really important but not much talked about is these guys’ connection with whatever producers they’re buying from —they’ve created a system and a whole organization that they need to reinforce. The chain of production seems pretty important. But is it counter-capitalist, counter–hegemonic rule, or is it really a part of it?”