LA's food trucks have been around for more than a century — and they've always been run by immigrants
From fresh tamales to oysters on the half shell, the lonchera is an old school Southern California staple, one that dates back more than a century.
It's been a decade since the Kogi truck hit the streets of Los Angeles, selling Korean-inspired tacos and sparking a trend that would change L.A.'s fast food landscape. But the history of the mobile food vending goes back much further — to the gold rush and chuckwagons.
"A chuckwagon and food truck are both different ways of serving large amounts of food to hungry people, under rather unusual circumstances," says culinary historian Richard Foss, "It's a way of taking food around, making it accessible and it's extremely reliable. It's a measure of the ingenuity of the people involved that they could do this."
On Friday, the Autry kicks off its Urban Chuckwagon series, which Foss thinks of as the first food trucks. He helped curate the series. A Martinez met up with Foss at the museum's cafe to get a sneak peek — and a taste test.
Over an assortment of dishes that included oysters, tostadas, togarashi peanuts, Foss and Martinez discussed how the dishes at the event will embody the flavors of the past and present.
A taste of today, with ingredients from the past
Each of the dishes featured on the menu is a call back to the past. The Korean short rib tostada alludes to the Kogi food truck, the peanuts refer to one of the earliest hot kitchens.
But the dishes weren't made with the palates of the past in mind. The world has changed — as have our tastes, Foss said.
"I would venture to say that your grandfather and his grandfather, if confronted with a bottle of Sriracha sauce, would've regarded it as possibly poisonous. Because they had never had anything that was garlicky and that peppery.
So our sense of flavor, not only of spicy heat but our tolerance for full flavors of vinegar or sesame oil, these are things that are relatively new in the American experience."
In previous centuries, folks had more of a taste for fatty foods. Over the years it has evolved to what it is now and Los Angeles is a hotbed for culinary evolution.
Chuckwagons live on through food trucks
In the last decade, the image of food trucks has changed. What many people once saw as "roach coaches" rebranded as gourmet food sellers on wheels. At their core, they're all about practicality and accessibility, says Foss.
"This is how a lot of people can remain in their comfort zone, in the sense that you're not going into a strange neighborhood. You can sample this food because it comes to yours. And it makes it possible for you to discover whether you like something.
Diners who sample these foods might be more more willing to visit the communities where they originated. Essentially, the food trucks work to create bridges across culture through food and mobility, an an integral thread to multicultural life in Los Angeles.
Although Take Two got a special sneak peek, it was only a fraction of the full menu, which includes:
- Oyster cocktails
- Honey roasted peanuts with Togarashi
- Lamb's tongue pastrami on rye with sauerkraut, Russian dressing and swiss cheese
- XLNT tamales
- Hot smoked salmon with mustard seed vinaigrette, potato, curly endive and pickled red onion
- Tacos from king taco
- BBQ Korean short rib tostada with kimchi, herbs and avocado salsa
- Banana and chocolate cream pie
- Crispy waffles with ice cream
- Rocky Mountain rum punch (1862)
- Rob Roy (1894)
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