The March issue of Smithsonian introduces Jonathan Gold as the magazine's new food columnist. His first piece is on the Los Angeles roots of the food truck phenomenon.
If you want to see what eating in Los Angeles is like, beyond the gold-plated Beverly Hills bistros and the bottle-service clubs that count the Kardashians among their clientele, you could do worse than to pull into a deserted parking lot late at night, check the coordinates on your iPhone and watch the stretch of asphalt fill with hundreds of hungry people. They, and probably you, have been summoned here by a Twitter blast from the Kogi truck, a retrofitted catering van serving Korean short-rib tacos, kimchi dogs and other edible symbols of L.A.’s famous cross-cultural inclusiveness, dripping plates of food drawn straight from the city’s recombinant DNA.
In the city that gave birth to the celebrity chef, Kogi’s Roy Choi is the culinary star of the moment, with awards and an international renown usually reserved for those who command palaces of cuisine. His success has inspired fleets of similar trucks, with followings for their sushi, dim sum, Brazilian barbecue, Greek sausages, red velvet pancakes, Vietnamese sandwiches, cupcakes, Indian dosas, Filipino halo-halo, Texas barbecue and any of a hundred other things. You can wander between dozens of them on the streets near the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Yahoo offices, Venice boutiques or the UCLA dorms.
The intersection between food and wheels has driven culture in L.A. since at least the 1930s, when the city was already famous for its drive-ins and roadside hash houses designed to look like coffee pots. Food trucks may be nothing new in the U.S.—every Hawaiian can tell you her favorite plate-lunch wagon, and Portland, Oregon, can seem like a locavore food-truck plantation—but in L.A., where on some afternoons they can be as thick on the freeway as taxicabs are on New York’s Sixth Avenue, they define the landscape. Kogi represents mobility in a city that worships mobility; it is a vehicle for traversing lines of race, class and ethnicity; it is selling a social experience as much as it is selling Blue Moon mulitas and Blackjack quesadillas.
Michael Caruso, the former editor of Los Angeles magazine, took over as editor in chief of Smithsonian in October. Gold, of course, was hired a couple of weeks ago as a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times — a hire first reported here at LA Observed.