By Derrick Schneider
photos by melissa schneider
When I started working in Emeryville two years ago as a server-side programmer for a videogame studio, the foodie friend who had suggested me for the job gave me a rundown of the local lunch options in easy walking distance. He finished his short list and said, “You will quickly come to hate them all.”
“Quickly” turned out to be just a couple of months.
There are decent sit-down restaurants in the area, but none are cheap enough—or quick enough—for a normal mid-workday lunch. There are some fast food restaurants, but none are good. That leaves just a tiny handful of cafes that serve sandwiches, pizza, or pasta.
Each is tasty, affordable, and quick. And unchanging. What variety each offers is confined to a small set of specials that rotate on a predictable schedule.
It wasn’t just the foodies who felt the lack of options. Any new restaurant in the area—good or bad—enjoyed massive lines on opening day as local lunch cliques thronged to the novel food.
Except for runs on new restaurants, lunch among my coworkers started with a “where shall we eat” prelude marked by a lack of enthusiasm and an abundance of boredom.
Then the trucks arrived.
Seoul on Wheels
The email showed up one morning in the fall of 2009: “There’s a new Korean barbecue food truck near Pixar. Who wants to check it out?” As we drove up Park Street, we spotted the iconic truck: long and white with a metal awning lifted up over a bank of windows.
Behind one of them, a woman with a poof of tight curls and a big smile waited to take our order.
“Seoul on Wheels started in Spring of 2007,” says Julia Yoon, the truck’s owner. “I actually came up with the idea eight or nine years ago when I moved from Southern California. Korean food here was a lot more expensive than I was used to paying.” But the idea slumbered until the sale of a previous business gave her the capital to start her current one.
“I didn’t have any restaurant experience,” she says, “so opening a traditional brick and mortar was out of the question.”
Food trucks don’t require much overhead, but Seoul on Wheels posed its own challenges. Today, nontraditional food trucks seem to be everywhere, but three years ago, Yoon was on her own. “I’m pretty sure I was the only non-Mexican, non-hamburger food truck. I had to do all the research by myself. When I first started, people were still wary about eating at a truck, but I don’t think that’s still true.”
The Bay Area’s non–taco truck boom took off in the early part of 2009, when treasure-seeking foodies in San Franciso would follow word of mouth and websites to find carts offering anything from creme brulee to barbecue pork sandwiches. Even Portland-based friends of ours knew of the local food truck scene and spent a day on one trip down here trying to find the sometimes-elusive sellers. And the scene got a big boost thanks to Oakland’s first Eat Real Festival and San Francisco’s Street Food Festival, both of which happened in the late summer of 2009 and prominently featured street food trucks.
Nonetheless, Yoon still gets people who are new to her truck or food trucks in general. She also gets some who have never tasted Korean food. “And every day I get someone asking me what kimchi is,” she says. But she sees her business not just as serving Korean food but also educating people about it. “I don’t know anyone who tries Korean food and doesn’t fall in love with it,” she says.
That’s certainly been true at my office. Every Tuesday and Thursday (and every other Wednesday), some of us inevitably walk up to her other Emeryville location (64th and Hollis) to choose from rice bowls with rib eye, spicy pork, or chicken. Kimchi fried rice is another popular choice, as are her tacos, topped with the same choice of meats. The meat has the tight crust of grilled protein and the savoriness of wellseasoned food. The kimchi adds a sour, spicy component that enlivens every dish it’s in. Yoon’s food is well priced (lunch typically costs me about $8) good, and filling.
A few days after we discovered Seoul on Wheels, another truck showed up near Pixar and another email went around the office. Once again, we piled into a car.
It didn’t take long to spot the new truck: It was painted bright green and decorated with drawings of swooping red plants.
“It was an idea I had after going to Amsterdam and being inspired by the falafel there,” says Gail Lillian of Liba, the truck we had noticed. Lillian, who has 18 years of culinary experience behind her, is a slender woman with brunette curls who takes orders from the falafel lovers at her truck and hands them to her cooks.
“A friend suggested that I do this as a truck instead,” she says. “It seemed like a great way to start a business without a lot of overhead.”
She bought the truck in January 2009, but didn’t debut her business until the Real Food Festival, in part because San Francisco kept thwarting her efforts to get permits.
This is a recurring theme among food truck owners. While the city’s lunchtime crowds are an attractive market, the would-be food truck owner needs to navigate barely charted seas of red tape. But the food truck demand is high enough that there are now consulting firms that will help maneuver through the bureaucratic course.
Emeryville, on the other hand, opens its arms to seemingly any business that wants to set up shop. Those large lunchtime crowds from many local companies at each new restaurant are a testament to the city’s permissiveness, as is the sweep of big-box stores along 40th, Ikea’s blue monolith, and the loft/shop universe of Bay Street.
Lillian certainly acknowledges Emeryville’s ease of entry, but the city also fit her vision. “I live in the East Bay and wanted some presence here, too,” she says. “I wanted to serve lunch, and so I needed to find a place where people were working. I couldn’t really think of neighbor hoods in Oakland for a truck presence. I could think of retail locations, but then my business would be suffering with everyone else’s.”
Liba is a popular destination for my co-workers and me on Mondays, when Lillian parks her truck near 65th and Hollis. (She’s still near Pixar at 53rd and Hollis on Wednesdays.) The crunchy fried balls with their fluffy filling are made with organic ingredients, pushed into whole-wheat pita bread along with an herbaceous sauce, and topped with a squirt of hummus. Liba’s customers then dress the pockets with a range of condiments: rosemary peanuts, spiced carrot slices, and tapenade, to name a few. The price: about $8.
As good as the falafel is, the sweet-potato fries are the hook that keeps my co-workers coming back: Shoestring-thin strips of fried sweet potato, served with a sprinkling of salt and a wedge of lime. My bag is always empty after the 10-minute walk back to the office.
In a curious turn, the falafel shop idea that became a falafel truck may yield a falafel shop after all. Lillian wants “to get through the first year” of her new business, she says, and then perhaps use the fan base she’s built up with her truck to expand into a restaurant. Happily, the truck will continue even if the shop takes off.
Jon’s Street Eats
A few weeks after we started driving to Liba at Pixar, the same coworker who had despaired about our local lunch choices sent a note: He had spotted a food cart, not a full-scale truck, at Stanford and Hollis as he drove in. He didn’t know anything about it, but we decided to give it a try.
“I’ve always worked at quality dining restaurants with a focus on local, sustainable food,” says Jon Kosorek of Jon’s Street Eats, whose motto is “Slow Food, Done Kinda Fast.” Kosorek is a muscular man with a shaved head, dark-rimmed glasses, and a slight smile. He can come off as gruff when crowds overwhelm the custom-designed cart, but don’t let that dissuade you from trying some delicious, upscale food unlike anything normally sold as street fare.
I’ve seen Kosorek hand-pull mozzarella to order. He’s served duck tacos made with his own duck confit and garnished with pomegranate seeds and frisee. He’s served bites of rare steak on baguette slices with a dollop of foie gras butter. And a chicken salad sandwich, topped with shaved fennel and apple, still elicits nostalgic sighs from a few of the people in my office. But his constantly changing menu, usually featuring no more than two entrees, two sides, and a dessert, also offers less-gourmet food. Patty melts and pulled pork sandwiches have both been on the menu. Of course the high-quality ingredients cost more—an entree plus a side usually runs me $11 or $12—but it’s more than worth it.
Kosorek says he had originally planned on a hot dog cart. “I tried to do a restaurant on my own in 2006 in Oakland,” he explains, “and it was all set up, but one of the investors pulled out.” A childhood friend of his had done well with hot dogs back in New York, and Kosorek was tempted by the results, despite having, at the time, 15 years of culinary experience in nice restaurants. But then he got a job as the chef at Jeanty at Jack’s and worked there until the restaurant closed. Facing the hot dog idea again, he changed direction. “Once I finally committed,” he says, “I wanted to put care into every item I do. That way, I can sleep better at night.” He read an article about upscale food trucks in Portland in Sunset magazine and thought, “Why isn’t anyone doing that in this area?” That was just before the scene exploded here. “The original idea was to bring something cool to Oakland,” says Kosorek. But Oakland’s rules made it easy to set up a truck on International Boulevard and difficult to set one up elsewhere. “My food doesn’t sell well on International Boulevard,” he says. “I set up on College Avenue for awhile, but the merchants started calling the cops. All my permits were in order, but the chief of police finally got tired of dealing with them.” After that, Kosorek discovered his Stanford and Hollis location in Emeryville. “I found a spot on private property that I liked and went to the owner. Most of my spots now are on private property.”
When he doesn’t find a private property spot, Kosorek has to jump over obstacles. At the Piedmont and Pleasant Valley location he sometimes works, he says he has to “sometimes just sit and wait an hour for a spot.”
And when he set up one evening at 40th and Shafter, Kosorek’s Twitter feed told the story of an annoyed resident who complained that his condo “smelled like food.”
Twitter works well for these mobile vendors. For people like Kosorek, it provides a way to post an abbreviated form of their daily menu. And the street food trucks mentioned here all post their whereabouts for the day, even when the location is on a predictable schedule. They’ll also post if they get rained out, so customers don’t slog through a storm just to find an empty parking space.
But sometimes Twitter feeds do even more. “I don’t think many of my customers follow us on Twitter,” says Liba’s Lillian, “especially because I have a fixed schedule. But I get a lot of friends of friends of people who follow me. And here’s a perfect example: I mentioned on Twitter that I had finally gotten a permit to park in Golden Gate Park. Within about half an hour SF Weekly had called for details, and it went up on their site that afternoon. You just can’t buy marketing like that.”
Like Lillian, Kosorek wonders if the word of mouth and brand loyalty he’s developed at Jon’s Street Eats can be a path to a fixed spot. “I have a goal to bring the business into the black in year one,” he says, “because that’s attractive to investors. I want to expand the cart. Now I just need staff to make it happen. That would allow me to be on the street longer.” He recently experimented with brunch, debuting with biscuits and gravy and creamy polenta with a soft-boiled egg. Since I spoke with him, he now has assistants, usually one or two per day, to help at the small workspace. And he’s adding Monday to his list of work days. If the new days and the new staff work out, they should give him a stronger position for securing a retail location. He’s not necessarily envisioning a full restaurant. Perhaps just a bar concept. Selfishly, I hope it ends up near my work or home so I can enjoy his food more often.
Heading out to lunch these days, my co-workers and I still have a momentary “what shall we have” huddle, but now the conversation is full of excitement. Someone will bring up the closest food truck that day—Yoon (Seoul on Wheels) says the Emeryville trucks have coordinated their locations to prevent overlapping their business—and, in the case of Jon’s Street Eats, tell everyone the menu. The older options are still in the mix, but falafel, rice plates, and gourmet food are now listed as choices alongside sandwiches, pasta, and salads.
Were I giving a lunchtime list to a new employee, as my friend once did to me, I’d finish with, “You will quickly come to love them all.”
Derrick Schneider is a computer programmer and freelance writer. In addition to contributing to Edible East Bay, he writes for the San Francisco Chronicle and The Art of Eating. He also publishes one of the oldest food and wine blogs on the web at www.obsessionwithfood.com
Derrick will be speaking at the Eat Real Lit Fest. See details on page 12.