Food trucks are the newest craze in San Francisco eateries

After the Monday lunch rush dies down, Tan Truong washes his hands, pulls a few paper towels from the dispenser and quickly dries off before tossing the crumpled towels in the recycle bin and steps down from his truck. He leans against the front of his food truck to shield himself from the slight breeze that has picked up in the nook between two buildings on Mission Street where he and two other trucks have parked from 11 am to 2 pm. Over the gentle roar of the generator, thirty-six-year-old Truong divulges the secrets behind his success with his latest business venture, Kung Fu Tacos.
Growing up in San Diego on traditional Chinese cuisine, Truong moved to San Francisco fifteen years ago to study International Business at SF State. After starting his own ground stable restaurant, Candybar, on Fulton Street, he decided to challenge himself with something new in August 2009. He saw the success of the food trucks in Los Angeles and thought that the idea would pair well with San Francisco.
“I think that people in San Francisco are drawn to new and exciting ideas, especially when it comes to food,” Truong says. “Food trucks and street food vendors have really pushed the envelope with different cuisines and concepts. It’s a good opportunity for folks to sample from a variety of different vendors in a fun environment.  It’s like a party with great food. Everybody loves parties.”
So what inspired the menu for the truck?
He remarks simply, “I love tacos.”
For Truong, the combination of childhood staples like roast duck and BBQ pork marinated in a variety of Chinese spices pair wonderfully with salsas inside two warm corn tortillas. Originally planning on just running his truck outside his dessert bar during happy hour, the idea quickly expanded into much more. Right now, Kung Fu Tacos works independently, but also teams up with groups like Truck Stop SF, and of course, usually runs three to four services a week with the illustrious Off the Grid.
The question begs to be asked though, other than the fact that San Francisco residents are total food lovers, why have food trucks become so popular in the city specifically? Matt Cohen, the founder of Off the Grid, contemplates momentarily before disclosing his main theories.
“Markets are a great way to have spontaneous interactions with your neighbors [because] you’re all standing in line together, it’s inevitable that you will start talking to someone,” he says. “It makes neighbors very approachable if you see someone eating something delicious it’s so easy to ask them, ‘Hey, where did you get that?’”
But perhaps the most fundamental reason is space. With the clear geographical restraints that are the city limits, there is only so much commercial space available to young chefs looking to make a name for themselves. Living in a food obsessed city can hurt as well. With almost every other retail space on the streets occupying some sort of eatery, the obvious lack of space leads to extremely high monthly rents for a tiny space that would not encourage people to cram inside. With low overhead and the ability to come to the customers rather than forcing them to crowd inside a small space, food trucks allow talented foodies a vessel for them to create a following in an open air area.
“Once you get past the initial price of the of the truck and the repairs, it makes much more sense,” says Ben Goodnick, an employee at the food truck, Little Green Cyclo.
Twenty-one-year-old Goodnick has worked just about every position from cooking and driving since the truck’s inception in September 2010. Now he mostly sticks to the front of the bus, always taking orders with enthusiasm – no matter how long the line. He just makes sure to stay out of the way of the chefs who crank out orders with speed. He believes that the biggest downfall of food trucks is the lack of space within them.
Despite the tight quarters, food trucks still manage to produce dishes that keep the customers following the trucks around the city every day.
“No matter how banging a restaurant is, they will not do the same numbers as a food truck,” he states.  “At the end of a busy night, I look down at the tickets and realize we had four hundred customers.”
It seems that any truck that joins forces with Off the Grid is guaranteed success due to the cult-like following that surrounds the group. Cohen had no idea when he started Off the Grid in July 2010 that it would take off the way it did. Originally planning to open his own late night food truck, he became extremely familiar with permit codes, which led him to work as a consultant for food trucks. After working with the trucks for a while and seeing the lack of organization, he decided to put a group together of the best of the best and host events for those trucks to work alongside each other.
Cohen’s philosophy for the food trucks themselves is based more on quality than quantity and not just any truck can join the ranks. After the initial application process, trucks must undergo taste tests, and periodically throughout the season, their products will be tested. As of now, seventy trucks rotate around eleven venues, with Fort Mason remaining by far the largest venue with thirty vendors. Cohen is adamant about keeping the number of trucks relatively low at each location.
“Our core commitment is all about a win-win situation,” Cohen says. “I want every truck to have a good night.”
He explains that having too many trucks in one location would dilute the overall cash flow for individual trucks. There are plans in the works, however, to expand location-wise throughout the Bay Area. By the end of the year, Cohen aims to bring his fleet of trucks to San Jose and Oakland, with plans for locations in Marin by 2012.
Standing outside his truck at dusk, with the cold wind common in the Upper Haight blowing the curls of his peppered hair that have escaped from under his blue baseball hat, Jim Angelus smiles big and calls out to approaching customers, “What can I get for you tonight?” With his pen and paper at the ready, he looks eagerly at the small crowd gathering around his new truck.
Up until three months ago, Angelus was working grueling twelve to fourteen hour shifts at a restaurant downtown. That all changed when his wife became pregnant with their second child. He decided right then and there that he wanted to be a family man first and a restaurant man second. With food still a driving force, he knew he wanted to stay in the culinary world. While at the downtown restaurant, Angelus had made attempts to bring food trucks to the neighborhood in order to attract that demographic to his restaurant for a full meal after sampling the truck treats. That is when he got the idea to open his own truck and join the fast growing food truck culture. But what to cook? Having no formal training, Angelus has always relied on the words of wisdom imparted to him by his mother who was a chef, and his natural instinct.
“I wanted to do a truck that was based more on, I guess you could say, comfort food,” he explains.
Angelus recalls group outings with friends to Off the Grid and the skepticism he met when he would suggest something like a kimchi taco from Seoul on Wheels. He laughs as he admits that some of his friends may not be as adventurous as he is when it comes to culinary concoctions. It was his friends’ timidity, however, that inspired the theme of his truck.
“Everyone seems to love bacon,” he says. “As an ingredient, it’s magical, it’s sweet, it’s savory and can be used in every meal.”
Thus, Bacon Bacon was born. Despite only being in business for about eight weeks, Angelus and his bacon have acquired quite the following – something he attributes to the bacon hype that seems to have captivated society. Mostly though, it might be his marketing and prominence in the community, currently running about five to eight services a week, with roughly three of those at Off the Grid events.
After going to Off the Grid for the first time last week, Angela Thang introduces her friend Ryan Leake to the wonders of the Fort Mason gathering. On the group’s busiest night by far, the two huddle together to avoid getting in the way of the lines of hungry foodies, at least ten people long at Pica Pica Maize Kitchen and Onigilly Samurai Snack. While sharing a platter of fried plantains from Pica Pica, Thang talks about her love for the event. She explains, in great detail, everything the two have tasted and the dishes yet to come. In her excitement, she has to pass the red and white checkered plate of plantains to Leake to avoid spilling them. With her hands now free, she gestures to all the trucks she has tried that night and pushes up her wire-framed glasses as she attempts to look over the crowd to see what she may have missed because of her short stature.
“Everything is so creative, I can’t help but wonder, how do they make this on a truck? But then I remember – it’s San Francisco, it’s so diverse.”
Taking advantage of Thang’s distraction, Leake, a fourth year culinary student, casts his light eyes downward as he devours most of the plantains, stopping only to comment on his surprise at the reasonable prices the trucks offer.
“It’s not horribly expensive, everything ranges from three to nine dollars,” he says in between bites.
For the two, pork was the favorite ingredient of the night. They split the “MC Hammer” from Brass*Knuckle, a slow roasted ham, melted cheese and jalapeno pepper sandwich. Next up is the Thai braised pork sandwich topped with a foie gras mousse and pickled cucumber. Their favorite, though, is the tender pork belly bun with pickled daikon radish from Chairman Bao Bun Truck, one of the more popular trucks.
The bun truck, which usually boasts a menu of six different baked or steamed buns, is run by Kevin Kiwata and Curtis Lam. Originally started by Mobi Munch, a company based in Los Angelus in May 2010, they decided to sell to Kiwata and Lam in early 2011.
Lam, a chef, had been looking for a way to break into the culinary world, and when the opportunity arose to take over a truck, he and Kiwata knew they had to pounce on the situation. Thus far, the venture has proven to be a successful and viable way to support themselves.
Kiwata mentions that he loves working with Off the Grid specifically because more trucks bring more people. He does make note that the general demographic is younger than ground stable eateries.
“Some people won’t come out because they prefer an enclosed environment with somewhere to sit,” Kiwata says.
This minor hitch has not deterred locals and tourists alike from flocking to the various locations around the city. During his ten day vacation to San Francisco, twenty-seven-year-old Jon Korecki stumbled upon the offshoot where a few food trucks were parked to try the acclaimed buns from Chairman Bao. Korecki, who owns a restaurant similar to Kung Fu Tacos in his native Ottawa, Canada, came to try the wonders of the food trucks with his wife Anusha, his brother Kevin, and his friend Jarrod Stewart. Peaking out of the white compostable container in his hands are the four buns featured from the truck that day, all neatly individually wrapped and waiting to be eaten.
A big fan of street food vendors, Korecki loves the overall vibe of street food culture and the positive addition the trucks have been to the city. He hopes that one day Ottawa will offer the same.
“It’s great. Not only are you supporting your community, but these food trucks are reflective of some of the best foods in the world,” he says. “Some of the most interesting meals come out of street vendors standing around talking among themselves and to customers.”
Coming up behind the group after surveying Chairman Bao’s truck, twenty-six-year-old  Stewart adds, “It’s fast and convenient, but not processed like McDonald’s-type shit.”
At the end of a busy night at Fort Mason, when the live music has stopped and the last customers have trickled out, the various trucks survey their leftovers. After cooking and sampling their food all night, those who run the trucks are ready to try their comrades’ concoctions. Truong notes that he loves being able to sample what the other trucks have to offer and share his own in exchange, a quality that truly embodies the community spirit that Off the Grid creates for its attendants.
“We usually over order ingredients, at least by a little bit, so at the end of the night we go around and share with the other trucks,” Goodnick echoes. “The guy who runs the cupcake truck loves our coffee so we like to trade.”