Free the Trucks

By Bill Gerdes

Posted August 25, 2011 in Feature Story

From the Shrimp Pimp to Bacon Mania to Border Grill, the food truck phenomenon is the culinary zeitgeist of the moment. Contestants on Top Chef have competed in food trucks, there’s the Great Food Truck Race on the Food Network and Food Truck Revolution on the Cooking Channel. Mobile cooking is the new molecular gastronomy with chefs scurrying to throw away their beakers and fire up the trailer in their backyard. In Southern California we’re lucky to live in the Mecca of mobile cooking and one can find a solitary food truck or a whole slew of them at various locales, with many trucks operating seven days a week. Chef Roy Choi’s Kogi trucks are the breakout stars of the movement, often drawing lines of up to an hour for the fusion-filled Korean-Mexican tacos. Choi’s success has helped spearhead a culinary movement that has redefined how we enjoy food in the area—unless one lives in the IE.

“A Nation Divided Against Itself Cannot Stand”

That’s due to the fact that Riverside and San Bernardino counties are the only two in the state with a ban on most food trucks. We’re the only citizens in the state unable to enjoy trucks with such names as Fishlips Sushi, the Buttermilk Truck and Chomp Chomp Nation. We’re the only people deprived of Dogzilla Hot Dogs and the Flying Pig truck. Lincoln famously said that a nation divided against itself cannot stand. Is it fair that most of the state gets to enjoy some of the most creative cooking going today while those of us in the Inland Empire content ourselves with the occasional food truck festival, currently the only way most of us in the area get to sample what the rest of SoCal takes for granted?

The festivals themselves are great, and there are an increasing number around the area. There’s the I.E. Food Truck Fest happening Oct. 8 at the Citizens Bank Arena in Ontario, another at the Fairplex in Pomona Sept. 11; there were a couple of huge ones in June and another in downtown Riverside, the belly of the beast where the trucks got banned in the first place. While the festivals are unique, and one gets to sample a slew of varied grub, having to wait for a festival to try a truck taco becomes a tad irksome. If I loved the Grilled Cheese Truck do I really have to wait for the next festival? Or drive an hour to Los Angeles? The real question here is whether this explosion of festivals is a sign that San Bernardino and Riverside counties may soon be legalizing the trucks? That we’ll get a taste of what L.A and the O.C. have been blessed with during the truck binge? This food writer sure as Hell hopes so—how many mediocre burger shacks can one guy endure?

Roach Coach vs. Gourmet Eatery

Riverside County officially banned most food trucks in 1980. At the time the ban may have made sense. The popular image of the “Roach Coach,” a dilapidated and skanky trailer that serves up gamy egg-salad sandwiches was already popularly ingrained in the American psyche. And the Board of Supervisors at the time was no doubt acting to insure that food borne pathogens kept their literally filthy claws off the good voters in the county. Despite having wretched air quality, horrible commutes for many of its denizens, potholes the size of Buicks and a lower life expectancy than Orange or L.A. counties, Riverside officials are quite safety conscious—witness the ban on firework sales. Or food trucks for that matter.

Hence the 31-year blockade on mobile eateries. The money shot in Ordinance No. 580 reads, “It is the purpose and intent of this ordinance to prohibit the operation of certain types of mobile food facilities . . . in order to safeguard life, limb, property, and the general welfare of the public.” Lynne Wilder, Program Chief for the health department in Riverside County, agrees that the ban came about through legitimate health concerns. One concern she expressed is that water tanks often run dry and then employees are no longer able to clean up or wash their hands. Wilder also suggested that too much food in a small space without sufficient refrigeration could become a problem.

The Truth and the Myths

Jethro Naude, who owns and runs the Slapfish truck along with Chef Andrew Gruel, sees these health concerns as outdated and based on old stereotypes. As he puts it, “Food trucks are misunderstood and leagues above the old roach coaches.” They also, he points out, offer up some of the freshest and healthiest cooking around, the occasional truck focusing on the deepest of fried notwithstanding. While we’re talking, Jethro lets me sample a “Lobsticle,” basically half a lobster tail on a skewer, along with possibly the best shrimp burrito I’ve ever eaten. My only health concern at the moment is that I’m eating too much, and I leave the shade of the Slapfish truck happy, full, and convinced that Jethro Naude is right about the healthy quality cooking going on inside these admittedly small areas.

Edward de la Cruz and his brother Joseph Ramirez run Los Hermanos Lonchera Sin Fronteras, a Riverside-based former food truck company. The brothers now operate a catering company that uses mobile grills when they cater at various functions, including parties. De la Cruz maintains that having to drive to Irvine every day to run the food truck eventually became to stressful and caused them to take a different direction with the business. He’s also no fan of the truck ban saying that he “never understood it,” and that it was “unfair.” De la Cruz also mentioned a few rumors he had heard regarding the origins of the ban, the first being that Riverside and Norco were more agricultural back then and feared the trucks would be inundated with flies. Another more macabre tale concerned a possible former food truck employee who had mysteriously burned to death in a hot oil fire started in a food truck. The Weekly couldn’t confirm either rumor, but both possibilities are far more prosaic than fears of E. coli or local restaurants fretting about competition.

The Middle of the Road

That fear, one of food trucks parking outside stationary restaurants and poaching potential customers, hovers slightly below the radar in any food truck conversation ban. Wilder mentioned this as a possible reason for the original ban saying it may have been a worry that they would take business away from stationary restaurants. Certainly Jeff Mineo, who works for Farmer Boys Inc., thinks so. At the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors meeting to determine if the truck ban would be lifted Mineo mentioned unfair competition since the trucks are mobile. Yes, although unfair competition for Farmer Boys might not be such a terrible idea.

The San Bernardino City Council wound up adopting a “middle of the road” compromise according to Supervisor Janice Rutherford’s communications director Scott Van Horne. Supervisor Rutherford who, along with Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, has been an early proponent of opening up San Bernardino County to trucks, saw her efforts to truly free them up somewhat curtailed. Instead the board will allow the trucks at festivals and some special events but only with the approval of the particular city involved. While stressing that middle-of-the-road option was not her first choice Supervisor Rutherford went on to say, “It will—at least—open the door for more food trucks and food truck-related businesses here in our county.” Rutherford also gave an All-American rationale for her support of lifting the ban in the first place saying, “I supported lifting the ban on food trucks because I support free enterprise.” Free enterprise, innovative cooking and healthy food—who could really be against such wholesomeness? Well, I mean besides Riverside and San Bernardino counties of course.

Full and Happy

On a recent Saturday I slunk out of Riverside intent on committing what in the IE might be considered a crime, aiding and abetting a mobile kitchen facility. Yes, I was going to actually eat at some food trucks. I drove west on the 91, through Corona, steely and determined not to make eye-contact with anyone lest they grasp my nefarious plan to eat food cooked in a trailer. In Yorba Linda, I was almost out of the woods; still a brief moment of paranoia as a highway patrol officer came up on my right, but then I was in Anaheim. I had made it. I was free.

Well, free to attend a food truck gathering at Servite High School, a gathering that may or may not have been a fundraiser for the football team—I was too busy eating to find out. As I walked across the track field there were trucks of all colors and cuisines. The blue Bacon Mania truck, the graffiti inspired Brats Berlin and the ultra-chic Barcelona on the Go. I sampled yummy savory crepes from Crepes Bonaparte, bacon-wrapped dates from the Barcelona truck and a roast pork taco from Dos Chinos. I didn’t get sick, just full and happy.

And I suppose that’s the point really—the bans in the Inland Empire would make sense if people were getting ill or worse from eating at these trucks. But the most people could come up with about sickness was a rumor about someone being burned alive with cooking oil. Even Wilder failed to come up with any concrete stories of anyone in other counties getting ill from eating at a truck. And people get sick from eating at regular restaurants. Living in the IE can be rough enough at times with scorching temperatures, jokes about “Rivertucky” and Ken Calvert. It’s time to free the trucks and let the good times roll.


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