The Limelight, a profile of Orange County’s native food truck team that drives through the history, design, and gentrification of food trucks. Published in Kiosk in 2012.
A boxy neon green truck rolls down Teller Street in Irvine, California. It turns left into an empty parking lot not associated with any business or building, one of those ignored in-between spaces perpetually under construction. A cement mixer idles in one corner. The asphalt is rough, and the white lines on the ground faded. In another corner of the lot is a raised square of sidewalk with six food trucks parked along its curb: Barcelona on the Go, Flavor Rush, Seabirds, Home Skillet, Taco Maria, and the Lobsta Truck. The Lime Truck pulls in to join the line, head to head with The Lobsta Truck and Barcelona on the Go. Three employees in black aprons and lime green sweatbands pop out of the cab and start setting the stage for today’s top billing: lunch.
Dan and Adam lift a metal flank of the truck, revealing a screened storefront window over a low metal counter. They shovel ice from a cooler into metal shelves and nestle in rows of peeled coconuts and bright bottled drinks. Dan is a big, broad guy who looks built to wear a tall white chef’s hat. Adam is skinny, Asian, with thick black Clark Kent glasses and a quiet aura that diffuses Mark’s intensity. Mark is striding around the truck with the Lime Truck menu under one arm, talking so loudly that his voice echoes jarringly in the still-sleepy suburban parking lot. He lights down briefly in front of the truck to set up the menu, a chalkboard marquee of the truck’s “California cuisine”: carnitas fries, ceviche, lamb sandwiches, mango lime-aid— everything fresh and citrus and slightly startling.
The Lime Truck anchors its identity in place, its home state, and it’s in your face about it. Their electric green theme embodies the essence of their own incarnation of Southern California: organic and energetic. Their raw ingredients come from local, all-natural suppliers with friendly Californian names like Melissa’s Produce, business partnerships advertised on the side of the bright truck. The boys are done setting up, but the curtain doesn’t rise for another half an hour, so they polish their gleaming metal stage with white cloths. If you could be leaning, you could be cleaning.
“Never eat a purple coconut,” Mark says as he eyes Dan, who is turning each shrink-wrapped coconut so the label faces forward. “If it’s purple, it’s bad. I once got a coconut with nothing in it, but it was free, so I didn’t care.”
I’d never eaten a coconut, a confession met with noisy, joyful disbelief.
“You’ve had a coconut before,” Mark says accusingly. I deny it. Mark turns to Dan in mock shock and curses. Dan tosses a white coconut to Mark. Mark is suddenly behind the counter wielding a thick butcher’s knife. It glints blue in the light of the truck’s tinted window. With three swift hacks he pries the top off the coconut and hands it through the window to me. “Cococococonut,” he sings.
Water sloshes out of the coconut onto the pristine metal counter. Dan swabs it up almost before I register the mess—coconuts hold more water than they look capable of containing. Mark tells me to pry the soft white flesh off the inside of the coconut when I’m done drinking it through the neon straw. It smells sweet and summery and slightly artificial, unexpectedly like coconut-scented sunblock. The water is cold, welcome in the glare of the sunlight reflecting off the trucks in the square. As high noon approaches, the vehicles hiss and fire up their grills. Mark leans through the window to scoop up a coconut for himself. He drinks them in the humid truck to stay hydrated. Forget Gatorade—he’s convinced that the coconut’s electrolyte-rich water is on the verge of becoming the next smash hit energy drink. For today, it’s powering the Lime Truck.
Already, crowds gather for the lunchtime matinee. The spectators snake into a line under their canopy, examining the menu and the rows of coconuts and the bright green wall of bumper stickers with slogans like “Roaming Hunger” and “Bacon is a Vegetable!” and “Pirate Coast Paddle” and “Got Food Trucks.” A man in a baseball cap buys a coconut. Dan sings cococococo to Mark, who whips out his knife again with a sharp grin.
I thought they were showing off for me, that was just the dress rehearsal.
Food trucks were once known in popular culture for peddling slightly suspect dishes around Los Angeles parking lots and curbsides, and until recently they have been part of a quiet and unassuming working city dependent on car culture. In the late 2000s, food trucks took an exit into the mainstream of Los Angeles— in two directions. Traditional Mexican taco trucks, called loncheros, began to face zoning issues in recently gentrified neighborhoods that had once welcomed them. These disputes were popularized in local media as a taco truck war between city and neighborhood ordinances and the grassroots vehicle owners. At the same time, L.A.’s food trucks were re-imagined by Mark Manguera, who fused Korean barbeque with tacos and began driving a colorful truck called Kogi around the city, giving away food to club bouncers and food bloggers to gain publicity.
Manguera took advantage of the social aspect of food as well as the allure of an underground quest for unusual food by utilizing networking sites like Twitter to announce the truck’s quickly-changing locations and daily specials, generating instant crowds that transformed mundane urban areas into carnival spaces. As this second generation of food trucks grew more popular, the food trucks spidered out into Los Angeles’ satellite cities, like Irvine.
Southern California culture drains out of Los Angeles and into the suburbs. In City of Quartz, Angeleno writer Mike Davis writes about how freeways and roads were built out of the city before there was anything to build to, showing the confidence and drama of those early urban planners. Instead of filling gaps between cities, roads became part of the city itself. Because of this, Los Angeles streets are not blank transitions—they’re the stage where the dramatic movements of the city take place. The horse-drawn tamale carts that rolled down those early roads of the nineteenth century are today’s sleek second-wave designer trucks.
Southern California understands itself through fiction. It’s the birthplace of movies and was the stage for Americans’ idealized visions of the future. Food trucks capitalize this drama by casting themselves as a traveling troupe of entertainers: dinner and a show. As a dramatic experience, food trucks trucks turn empty lots into curbside stages, drawing customers into the spectacle of the kitchen by pressing them close to the action. When you order, you pick dishes that you can smell stewing and yell your choice over the clanging of the kitchen.
When food trucks trickled down the tributaries of the 5 and 405, they escaped a lot of the issues of the city. Los Angeles is a fragmentary place, an eclectic collection of neighborhoods pushed uncomfortably close to each other. These neighborhoods struggle with each other over identities in flux. In 2008, just as the second generation of food trucks cropped up across town, areas that once welcomed loncheros began exiling them from the streets. Neighborhoods like East L.A. and Boyle Heights began citing parking regulations and health codes to litigate food trucks out of the area. These neighborhoods had become gentrified; here, upper middle-class Angelenos bought up cheap property, forcing low-income residents out by raising property value. The changing demographic rejected the Mexican loncheros as leftovers from previous occupants, seizing on them as an outdated cultural symbol and citing vague public space regulation laws to demarcate physical and cultural boundaries. While this power struggle over public space occupied the ubiquitous loncheros, similar demographic areas of Los Angeles were embracing the highly-branded, designer wave of food trucks, whose only zoning issues stemmed from resentful brick-and mortar restaurants.
Compared to the grassroots loncheros and even the first designer wheels, the Irvine-born Lime Truck is the sheltered suburban kid brother of food trucks. The land that became the Irvine Ranch was carefully sewn together from three different Mexican estates just after the Spanish-American War. The Irvine Ranch industrialized along with the university starting in the late 1950s and was meticulously master-planned by architect William Pereira, whose goal was not just to design a university but also to orchestrate a contained society around it. He wrote that his vision was a “properly balanced community” with a “daily influx of scientists, artists, and technicians who will shop in the town center and participate in the activities of the university,” and “prove a great advantage”— the right kind of people. Pereira cast these archetypes to populate his town and scripted a highly-designed space that orbited around commerce. Fifty years later, the pop-culture food trucks fit right in. The Lime Truck celebrated its first birthday a few months ago. It was conceived by Daniel Shemtob and Jason Quinn, two guys who were just out of college when they bought a truck and designed a menu for it.
To find The Lime Truck for the first time, I needed wheels. I don’t drive often. At home I borrow my brother’s car, which was currently nesting fifty miles north in our garage. At school, I walk everywhere or volunteer as navigator and gas money source for my more mobile friends. Like the Lime Truck, the Zipcar rental company provides a mobile service for the spontaneous and commitment-phobic. At a last-minute hourly rate, you can reserve a Zipcar, pay online, then walk to one of the many parked cars on campus without once interacting with another person. Each car is emblazoned with a lime green circle with a Z inside. I reserved the Zipcar the night before and printed out directions to Laguna Canyon, Irvine, where I planned to catch the Lime Truck in action at its Tuesday stop.
If you have to drive to a food truck, are you its intended audience? I reflected on the irony of having to quest for a mobile food whose appeal is that it comes to you. It felt like calling for takeout and then meeting the delivery guy halfway. I began to pass more and more construction cones, which turned into big neon signs, which ushered cars off the main road and plunged us into a residential detour. I followed the cars in front of me. We were deposited suddenly on Laguna Canyon, and I entered the goliath corporate multiplex that had top billing on the Lime Truck website as the host for the Tuesday food truck meet-up.
I’ve never gone out of my way to go to a food truck, but I’ve passed them in the nooks and crannies of UCI parking lots, so I looked for the line of trucks and milling crowd. I passed a small group of people walking out of an office building and tailed them for a minute, but they climbed into a minivan. Who drives to a food truck? The parking lot melted into another parking lot, and I realized that I was deep inside the labyrinthine Laguna Canyon business district. For the next ten minutes, the only other moving vehicle in the interconnected lots was the metallic reflection of my rental car gliding along in the too-bright windows of the office buildings. The buildings stood in cement solidarity, each one like the next, deserted. A car door slammed somewhere. I almost hesitated as I passed a grim woman in black smoking near a sleek dark Mercedes, but I kept going. She didn’t look like anyone I would cast as a curbside foodie.
Most parking lots don’t conform to rules of time and space. Drivers blatantly disregard speed limits and stop signs and painted aisle lines. Shopping carts roll into long barricades and beach themselves on curbs. Bright cars pull in and out all day, kaleidoscopic, and by night the lots are left litter-strewn wastelands. On Saturday mornings they become farmers markets; in the summer, they are fairs with collapsable rides. They’re the suburban equivalent of an open field, a commons transformed by citizens to meet their fleeting needs. On this particular afternoon, this parking lot was not fated to become a restaurant. Lot number 15240 turned inexplicably into lot number 16000, but through some trick of physics I ended up back where I started.
I car-spotted on the way home: a Ralph’s truck, a shabby pizza delivery car, and bakery supply van all passed me, but no Lime Truck. On the left side of the road, I passed streets with names like Protocol and Technology; on the right, they had pastoral names like Lion’s County. As I drove down this schizophrenic divide in Orange County, one street snaked sneakily into another. I realized that I was lost after Odyssey and Endeavor. As in all Southern California stories, I ended up at a mall.
A truck flashed in my rearview mirror as I finally turned into the university. I quickly looked back, then realized that I was getting excited about a blood donation van.
At home, I made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
As in all Southern California stories, the Lime Truck ended up at a mall. The patchwork architecture of the Orange County Mart Mix is patterned after the basic shopping center: the concrete facade is molded to look like adobe, and the doorway is a classic arch over modern sliding doors. Inside, the mall looks more like a future Natural History Museum exhibit of a twenty-first century shopping center. Rough-hewn wooden beams section off glass-walled rooms. Each room is only slightly larger than a food truck. It’s an x-ray of a mall: if you position yourself just right at the entrance you can see straight through to its back end, through the frilly stationery boutique and the warm spice shop and the rows of Ray Ban sunglasses, at once feeling as if you are in all of these places and none of them. In this glass maze, the diorama stores spill out of their clear cases, and the sales racks are camouflaged as installation art.
Immediately through the doors and to the right is the next step in the evolution of the suburban food truck: the modern food court. This large, open room is supposed to be an empty stage for whatever business—usually a food truck—that is currently renting the space. This autumn, the room is an extension of The Lime Truck. Unlike the rest of the OC Mart Mix, the room does not have glass walls: it’s framed only by its wooden beams and concrete floor. There are a few light pine picnic tables with grass centerpieces and electric candles scattered inside. Neon plastic limes—the truck’s signature decoration—spill out of tin buckets. In the back, fake day-glo green grass creeps up the side of a full service bar lit overhead by bare light fixtures. Behind the bar, a bigger version of the Lime Truck’s chalky blackboard menu displays the day’s plates as well as five-star customer reviews copied from Yelp. The campy essence of the Lime Truck spills out and possesses the space: it’s the Lime Truck reincarnated as a restaurant, filling in as a food court for the OC Mart Mix.
This is the Rotating Kitchen, and it’s not always a restaurant. Right now, the Lime Truck is its kitchen; the space is only used when the truck is parked outside. Customers can order dinner from the truck at the curb and then, with their edgy urges satisfied for the day, wander into the warm Rotating Kitchen, where they can watch TV or grab a beer. This fall, the truck was parked outside six days a week, from eleven in the morning to nine in the evening. When asked if the Rotating Kitchen was a permanent space, the Lime Truck’s owner said that their fans would decide. The Lime Truck sees its customers as a fan base, a community united by how they engage with a form of entertainment.
The Rotating Kitchen opened up to coincide with the Lime Truck’s debut on Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race, in which a slew of American food trucks were sent across the country to compete for a cash prize. The show’s host engineers rivalries (creating nicknames like “the Slime Truck”) and contrives what they call “speed bump” challenges for every episode—a flat tire, a broken stove—to thwart each truck’s successes. The Rotating Kitchen threw a party for the show’s season premiere. All the episodes had been taped and the show had wrapped in real time, but the twists were still secret. The space was packed with customers eating Lime cuisine while watching the story on multiple screens, participating in an extension of the truck both physically and fictionally.
In the first episode, The Lime Truck and their direct competition, the vegan Seabirds, are told that they can no longer use their primary source of fuel. In the back of Seabirds, a girl with day-glo sunglasses and feathered blonde hair accepts the challenge on a pink cell phone.
“We can’t let the vegan community down,” she says solemnly.
The Lime Truck cast adjusts their neon headbands, ready for the fight.
The Lime Truck is a work in progress. Last Tuesday, the Laguna Canyon food truck meet-up was cancelled due to construction in the area. The truck has come a long way from the one vehicle run by two guys just out of college, but they still have to improvise. The trucks have staple dishes, but no set menu, unusual even for food trucks. The original Lime Truck trio won the Great Food Truck Race and used the winnings to buy two more trucks, which are staffed by local kids like Mark and Dan and Adam. On any given day, the rotating cast of employees can be in Costa Mesa or Irvine or Fullerton. One truck is dedicated to Los Angeles alone. Despite this, the crew finds themselves stabilizing their schedules in response to their stationary audience base—the suburban food trucks are a lot less spontaneous than their brethren in Los Angeles, even more stationary than when their franchise began last year. At night, the trucks sleep in a holding lot nicknamed the commissary, where other food truck franchises also store and clean their vehicles to comply with California health and safety laws.
Mark and Dan and Adam the rest of the gang from the other two sister trucks turn up at the commissary on weekday mornings to find out which vehicle is their traveling circus for the day. At the commissary, the crew spends two hours stocking their trucks with the cash box and change, the credit card machine and extra rolls of paper, plastic utensils, napkins, water, trunks of ice, raw food supplies, and clean cooking materials, not to mention coconuts and other concessions. To streamline this process, the Teller and Michelson crew decided to rearrange their opening scene this Wednesday: instead of pre-preparing every cup of lime-aid with slushy crushed ice and a paper-tipped straw before leaving the commissary in the morning, the Lime Truck crew has decided to try handing out empty cups like most fast food restaurants and directing their customers to a self-serve table with two large barrels of guava and mango flavored lime-aid.
There’s another new addition to this week’s Teller stop: Amelia. Today is Amelia’s second day on the job and her first day on the truck. She spent yesterday in meetings, something she thought she’d escape in the food truck world. Today is her first day behind the curtain.
Amelia may be new to the Lime Truck, but she worked at a catering company called lamroN for years before. Not many women hack it in men’s kitchens. It’s strenuous, and lamroN threw Amelia into catering massive staged events like the sprawling spectacle of the Coachella music festival: cooking during two weeks of living in the desert, no showers, smoke in your sunburned face, swarmed with rabid music fans who have been camping out in tents in Indigo Valley drinking and smoking pot.
Amelia surveys the businessmen who’ve started to hang back behind the truck even though it’s only half-past eleven in the morning. She thinks she can handle the Lime Truck, but today she’s being thrown into the kitchen, baptized by fire
“Highty-ho!” Amelia yells. She claps her hands and jogs over to Dan to help him pull out the plastic drinks table, which they arrange at a right angle at the nose of the truck. Dan is big enough to amble back into the truck and bear hug both barrels of lime-aid out at once. While he sets them out among the napkins and utensils, Amelia steps back to criticize the scene.
“Catty-corner the table,” says Amelia. “It looks more appealing and gives us a little negative space.”
“That’s awkward!” Dan says.
“It’ll channel people out to the side instead of walling them in by the register.” Amelia runs over to the side of the truck and mimes being trapped against the table, hands akimbo.
Dan rolls his eyes, but he pulls the table out diagonally.
As the most senior member (he’s worked here a whole eight months), Mark is the lead of the Teller lot truck. Dan is on station one, the cashier; Adam and Amelia are on the grill. They clamber back into the truck just as lunch begins. The peeling maroon vinyl seats are pushed forward towards the nose of the truck to make more room for Dan to man the cashier. Milk crates filled with binders are piled on floor by the drivers seat. A cleaning checklist and instructions for the cash register are taped above the dashboard. The truck is cut lengthwise down the middle by a narrow aisle about a yard wide. Metal counters line each side, crowded in the long back with sinks and used utensils. The grill is in the short butt of the truck—called the “back of the house”— directly behind the driver’s seat. The long side that faces the line of customers is the show side. Mark tosses condiments and coconuts, pulls silly faces, and hams it up for the customers cluttered around the concession window waiting for food. The rest of the four-man crew orbits Mark, and the truck shakes beneath them, bursting with movement and smoke and metallic clamor. The blue plastic gills on the roof are open, slanted up to release smoke; they give the aluminum in the truck a humid aquatic tinge. As the line grows, time moves faster. Mark is the voice of the truck, yelling orders from Dan to Adam and Amelia on the grills.
“Two tacos rolling in solo!” Adam nods and slams two short rib tacos with ghost chili, guacamole and curled purple jalapeno threads into separate cardboard boats and slides them out the window.
“Carnitas fries all day!” Every order on the queue is carnitas fries.
“Cococococonut train!” Mark’s knife flies out, and a confetti of coconut joins the stray fries and peppers quickly littering the floor. Dishes clang in the sink and timers ring.
In the back of the truck, the soft-spoken Adam tries to show Amelia how to make a lamb sandwich, but he’s drowned out by Mark shouting orders. Dan keeps forgetting about the new cup system, and customers are crowding the delivery window demanding drinks. Mark runs out and distributes cups, chanting bam bam, thank you ma’am at every lady in the crowd. One wants a picture of her food, so he swipes the cardboard serving boat piled high with ceviche and holds it out to her, pouting slightly at the camera and making a serious chef face for his photo opp.
“I saw someone do that pose in the L.A. Times,” he says. Someone yells his name in the truck and Mark bounces back up, crowd pleased.
Six men in sweater vests linger over a flat stone bench as if it were a water cooler. A trim middle-aged man in argyle takes inventory of his newly-acquired stock.
“I got the sweet and sour steak carnitas,” he says, “seven dollars, with the mango lime-aid.
The mango lime-aid he holds up is vivid against his gray sweater. Behind him, the Lime Truck matches the drink’s bright green. Groups of professionals with portfolios and ID cards squat on the sidewalk surrounding the men and crowd next to strangers on the three splintery, leaf-littered picnic tables. In half an hour, the business men will brush the leaves off and go back to their workers comp office in Santa Ana, but for now they’re outside in the sweet haze of barbecue smoke mingling faintly with exhaust. The stately columns of trees that line the sidewalk plaza dapple the sunlight. Smoke billows from the roof of the Lime Truck and metal spatulas hammer on metal grills. Beyond the screen of the hot, frenetic kitchen, the parking lot is serene.
In the OC Mart Mix’s Rotating Kitchen, the scene is changing. The Lime Truck’s decorative tin basins of plastic limes now lean against a trash can, temporarily abandoned. It is now the dwindling end of autumn. A truck branded “Panfiniti: Panini and Beyond” will take the Lime Truck’s place as resident food truck and is already parked in the Lime Truck’s space at the curb of the mall. The Panfiniti truck is a tasteful off-white, and its logo is painted on in graceful italics. It contrasts with the brash color of the lingering Lime Truck decor.
Inside the Rotating Kitchen, the bar where the Lime Truck served drinks is still covered with the truck’s signature fake grass; however, it’s now covered in spools of fabric, Juicy Couture shopping bags, and the disembodied torsos of mannequins. A gaggle of middle school girls hovers around them. The girls are ignoring the weird hybrid scene, chattering loudly about whether leggins should be worn as pants. Above the rough-hewn wooden restaurant tables, the handwritten chalkboard menu has been wiped clean. Taped over it is a sign that identifies the girls as the “OC Fashion Camp” in a trendy sans-serif print. The fashion camp is borrowing the space while maintenance workers redecorate for Panfiniti. With the cluttered change of scene, The Lime Truck props—bales of hay, bare minimalist lightbulbs, grass centerpieces—are pushed to the side, waiting to be put into storage until the truck’s next large spectacle.