It’s a tired trope in food writing: the reluctance of the writer to describe publicly an unsullied treasure, when a great deal of what’s worth treasuring is the absence of other people. People ruin everything, you know. Somewhere, a dissertation is being written this very minute about the self-loathing incurred by discharging one’s duty, common to executioners and restaurant critics.
As I am not a member of that haughty tribe, and have no fear that swarms of mythical readers will descend upon an unsuspecting hole-in-the-wall, like so many locusts, as a result of my humble recommendations, I can write without hesitation about Figueroa Produce’s as yet un-congested weekly gathering of food trucks. It is, I’ll wager, one of the few gigs in town where you can find more than five gourmet food trucks (or GFTs, as the kids are calling them these days) at a time without encountering the ridiculous lines that so often discourage would-be adventurers. If you had the gut, the money, and the will, you could easily sample five or six trucks in an hour’s time.
Figueroa Produce announced plans for these events in October; the first one seems to have been on February 8th. They take place Tuesdays in an unassuming parking lot in Highland Park, at the corner of Figueroa and York, in the shadow of a 99¢ Store. The hosts, Figueroa Produce, are a neat little organic outfit, vegan friendly and community oriented (they sell no booze or tobacco), all at discounted prices. They’re also very active Tweeters; they’ll take 10% off your grocery bill on Tuesdays when you mention “Twitter” at the register, and they run a steady steam of contests through the medium (“Nectarine is the smooth skinned version of what fruit? First right answer gets a free deli sandwich”). They have a separate twitter feed dedicated to the weekly event, Highland Park Din Din A Go Go.
Though you cannot see the store’s entrance, or even really any signage, from the corridor of food trucks, Fig Produce makes their presence known to diners in a more delicious way. Every week, they provide the GFTs with a special ingredient—leeks, cauliflower, kale, and squash so far—which the trucks then either build a dish around, or incorporate into an existing one. A simple, brilliant idea, though its success depends almost entirely on how well the trucks make use of the ingredient.
On the night of my visit, the ingredient was kabocha squash, a vegetable of Japanese extraction that’s somewhere between a pumpkin and a sweet potato in flavor and texture. In the one dish I tried with kabocha in it—the taco sampler from Don Chow Tacos—the squash seemed an afterthought—flavorful and well-dressed, but a lazy topping, with no intelligible relation to the other ingredients. Other trucks had more integrated dishes, such as Mandoline Grill’s Vietnamese vegan curry of kabocha, sweet potato, potato, carrots, onions, and seitan. But I didn’t eat that. For all I know it could have been a mess, though if the grilled pork bánh mì I had from them on Friday at the Eagle Rock Brewery is any indication, it was probably quite good (at least for vegan food).
What did I eat, then? There was the aforementioned taco sampler: three tacos for $5, which, among GFTs, is a steal. I tried the Chinese BBQ pork, the Kung Pao chicken, and the soy ginger tofu, all topped with cubed kabocha in a sweet sauce. Despite being a fusion food, the meat tacos lacked a strong Asian flavor profile. Grilling chicken does not it Kung Pao make. The soy ginger tofu taco was easily the most robust, with a nice play of acid, spice, and sweet. It came with pico de gallo and avocado, in addition to the standard salsa, and benefited the most from the kabocha topping.
After failing to convince one of my companions to order the Vizzi Truck’s $24 lobster risotto (highway robbery even for a GFT), I had to settle for a bite of his braised Wagyu beef sliders, the thought of which is making my mouth water slightly as I write this. The sliders are braised for an eternity or two in a maple-balsamic concoction, given a measured dollop of chimichurri-crème, enclosed in an evolved White Castle bun, and then served on a bed of white truffle popcorn, three to a plate. Like everything else Vizzi makes, they aren’t cheap ($9, few bites), but they’re so damn good one is forced to consider the possibility that the lobster risotto might be worth a try. Vizzi, it’s also worth noting, is the only truck I’ve ever seen with TVs affixed to the outside. They were showing Dr. Phil.
I also managed to snag a bite of a different friend’s Korean fried chicken with spuds from Ahn Joo, which serves dressed-up Korean pub grub. Korean fried chicken, it turns out, has an incredibly thin crust. All the fat is rendered out of the skin before frying, and the meat is only barely dredged and battered. The resulting fry is crackly and flavorful, but insubstantial, with none of the knobby texture of its American cousins. It was good, but underwhelming. Ahn Joo’s spuds, on the other hand, were delightful: also fried, perfectly crisp on the outside and creamy on the inside, lightly bathed in a garlic sauce. Those would be an addicting bar snack.
Last but not least was Lomo Arigato’s lomo saltado, a dish I first tried at a Sino-Peruvian restaurant in the Upper West Side. It consists of a marinated meat, usually steak, stir fried with onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and… French fries (!), served over rice. Lomo Arigato makes a mean lomo saltado: tender tri-tip marinated in soy sauce and red wine, veggies well-grilled and -seasoned, fresh cilantro, and crispy French fries—too crispy on their own, probably, but as one digs in, the contrast of textures is quite pleasing. It’s served with a strange green sauce, a faintly spicy quasi-aioli that goes nicely with the rice, which is on the bland side, making it a suitable vehicle for soaking up the many flavors in play.
Also present, but sadly untested, were the Grill ’em All truck (burgers), the Rokyo truck (Ramen), Mandoline Grill (Vietnamese), the Boba truck, and some girl scouts, who packed it in early. I never saw a line with more than four people in it, with the exception of Grill ’em All, who have been riding high on a wave of critical attention and good press, the apex of which is their victory on the Food Network’s “The Great Food Truck Race.” They were constantly swarmed. When my party arrived on the scene, I noticed a white-haired young woman in thick-rimmed black glasses at the back of the line. As we left, maybe 45 minutes later, she was just picking up her burger.
The crowd seemed to be mostly locals, a diverse mix with a healthy dose of young families, as well as the obligatory hipsters. And lots of vegans, one of whom I overheard berating Don Chow Tacos for not knowing the difference between vegan and vegetarian—evidently her order had cheese in it? She got her money back. They’re a forceful presence, those vegans, and they seem to have a supportive ally in Figueroa Produce.
I’m going back, and soon. Who knows how long before the hungry hipster hordes overrun what is, for the time being, a joyously low-key community event? If you’re curious about the food truck phenomenon but haven’t sought them out for fear of the stampedes, this is your chance. Highland Park Din Din A Go Go: I urge you to check it out before, as a wise man once said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
The Figueroa Produce Market, 6312 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park, 323.255.3663, figueroaproduce.com. Tuesdays, 5:30 – 9:00 p.m. See twitter.com/FigueroaProduce or twitter.com/HPARKDDAGG for up-to-date truck information.