Los Angeles's Food Truck Revolution

Posted by Nate Berg

IMG_2679A new hub for food trucks expands the offerings beyond tacos.

Food trucks are typically pretty hard to pin down. While some may argue that's the point, a growing number of gourmet food trucks in Los Angeles is getting keen on the idea of permanence-or at least temporary permanence. In the process, they're bringing new life-and a more varied cuisine-to the streets of Los Angeles, transforming otherwise empty spaces into lively, popular, and profitable hubs.With the cult popularity of food trucks, however, has come a backlash from disgruntled restaurateurs, who've watched customers pass by their doors, favoring instead the four-wheeled restaurants in parking spots nearby. Revoked permits and parking citations have followed, prompting this new breed of L.A. food vendors to band together and form the Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association-a voice for their growing ranks and as an internal support network.And now, to jointly dodge bureaucratic grief and establish a more consistent market, the group has opened what they're calling a Gourmet Food Truck Lot in downtown Los Angeles. It's a narrow strip of asphalt at the corner of Alameda Street and Traction Avenue in between the sidewalk and a warehouse loading dock in a steadily populating industrial section of the city's formerly desolate downtown. Its first day saw a line of five trucks, bumper-to-bumper, offering a menu of food ranging from kabob to Indian dosa to Asian-infused tacos-street food uncommon in a culinary scene made up almost entirely of Latin American dishes. Dozens of office workers, students, and passersby chowed down-which confirmed to the organizers that a little permanence might work well for L.A.'s mobile food world."It's more than I expected for the first day," says Matt Geller, vice president of the vendors association. He's looking to bring in a rotating collection of about three trucks to this area five or six days a week. "So far it's a thumbs up for a full-time gig. I haven't seen a frown yet."That's a big contrast to the scene a month earlier. Geller and his cadre of industrious truck owners had actually tried in early January to set up another mobile food truck lot in nearby Santa Monica, but they were shut down by the city after only one day due to zoning violations. They were parking in the lot of an unused former car dealership, a space volunteered by its owner. But "mobile food truck vending" is not among the 44 approved land uses listed in the city of Santa Monica's zoning code for that particular property and city officials came early on day two to enforce.IMG_2678While the food vendors and their enthusiastic followers may have been miffed by the harsh realities of zoning, some city planners see it as a broader and potentially city-changing issue. For a city with notoriously sparse streetlife, the food trucks breathe new life into Los Angeles. Otherwise empty, unused, and essentially dead space, the small lot has found new life through these trucks, and helped to revive a small piece of the landscape. Because of its location on private property, Los Angeles city planners told Geller the trucks could do business as they pleased. A few minor health code stipulations were followed, but for the most part, the lot can operate as long as it wants whenever it wants."It's an interesting, fun idea to activate some space that's underused. That's what makes a city," says Simon Pastucha at the L.A. Planning Department's Urban Design Studio.And for police, the steady location off the street makes their jobs a lot easier. Erasing the ambiguity about whether a truck has been in one place too long, or parked illegally, police can essentially cross these food trucks off their list of things to worry about -- at least whatever five are currently parked in this new downtown food lot."It's away from a lot of the local restaurants. So that way they're not competing with the restaurants and we're not getting complaints from the restaurants. Everybody's happy," says Officer Matthew Shafer of the LAPD.As patrons on this first day of the food truck lot sat at the long table next to the trucks, a couple of motorcycle cops drive by. "Everyone enjoying their tacos?" one asks through his bike's megaphone as they pass by.But not all the attention was good attention for this temporary use of empty space in downtown Los Angeles. A young man in his mid-twenties shouts at the truck patrons as he walks by. "Eat Mexican tacos," he yells, presumably turned off by the "gourmet" aspect of the new food truck movement-a sharp tangent from the low-key, low-budget taco trucks that laid the foundation for this surge in mobile food fancy."Shame on you!" he calls out as he walks into the distance. No one seems to notice.The sanctity of traditional taco trucks may be lost on the people out for lunch this day. Any new option for food is one to be thankful for, according to Carlos Menendez, a student at the nearby Southern California Institute of Architecture. The prospect of an ever-changing menu of mobile food on this formerly barren loading dock spurs unabashed excitement."Oh, it would be great," he says. "I'd be here tomorrow."And the trucks will be, too.Guest blogger Nate Berg is a freelance journalist and contributing editor at the urban planning news website Planetizen. He writes about cities and how they are trying to get better. He is also the editor of World Cup Planning, a news blog focusing on urban planning related to the 2010 World Cup and other major international events