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Food trucks: which ones are really good and which ones are just fads

While I think the idea of a food truck is cool, so far I've been underwhelmed by the actual experience.

The problem I see with the food truck phenomenon is that it runs counter to what street food should be: it isn't fast and it isn't cheap.

I've been periodically checking out the trucks parked at the "Truck Stop" at Mission and First and I've usually walked away without buying anything, either because the lines are too long or because the offerings just don't seem exciting or like a good value, especially compared to the other options a few yards away. Why should I stand in line to buy curry from a truck when I can buy the same thing from Cello around the corner for no more (or possibly less), not have to stand in line and have a place to sit?

Yesterday I bought a lemongrass chicken salad from the Hiyaaa Roll truck. It was fine, but nothing exciting, and while the chicken was good, and a generous portion, paying a $2 upcharge ($9) over the sandwich for some lettuce and a bit of julienned cucumber seemed excessive.

So what I want to know is, not which trucks are good, but which trucks are in some way *better* than buying the same or similar food from a more traditional outlet. Which ones would you go back to once the novelty factor has worn off?

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  1. There is an interesting article in the EB Express this week about loncheras and luxe loncheras.

    Aside from the real loncheras, the only truck that I have a hankering for is Chairman Bao. I ate there once at Taste of Berkeley? last year? and hope I run into them again sometime soon. I can't say that I have eaten at a lot of the trucks, but I'm just not that motivated. I also like Cupkates.

    As for real loncheras, I love Taqueria Novello, the one in the lot of near Fruitvale Bart. Also I eat at one of the loncheras at the Alameda Point Antique Faire and my 8 AM bacon and egg muffin always hits the spot after my first pass at the back of the market.

    -----
    Fruitvale Bart
    3301 E 12th St, Oakland, CA

    Chairman Bao
    San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

    Cupkates
    , Berkeley, CA

    5 Replies
    1. re: chocolatetartguy

      Exactly. As a nationally recognized expert on Oakland taco trucks <vbg> I'm a fan of trucks. I just don't find the new wave of "luxe loncheras" to be worth the trouble. Street food should be cheap or fast (or both). The traditional lonchera is definitely cheap and it's reasonably fast. Some of the first "luxe" trucks were serving unique food by chefs who were interested in the possibilities of serving interesting food at street food prices. But now it seems as if the majority of the trucks are people who are running trucks because they're new and trendy, not because they want to experiment with the street food concept.

      1. re: Ruth Lafler

        I agree. Besides being good (a given), street food should be cheap and fast. I find most trucks are neither.

      2. re: chocolatetartguy

        I tend not to even buy at food trucks because of the puzzling price premium. But I agree that Chairman Bao is worth getting. Soft buns, tangy pickles, juicy meats, decent price. That said, I wish I knew their schedule -- it's a great idea for trucks to update location with tweets on the day, but I like to plan ahead more, sometimes.

        -----
        Chairman Bao
        San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

        1. re: bgbc

          Off the Grid's Facebook page lists the events each week, with updates for some (not all) of the trucks. It's the best listing I've found, aside from the individual pages for trucks on Twitter.

          Most do have regularly scheduled locations.

          1. re: bgbc

            Chairman Bao posts a schedule:

            https://www.facebook.com/ChairmanBao

            -----
            Chairman Bao
            San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

        2. what's good and what are fads are in the eyes of the beholder:
          food trucks with exeptional value:
          -roli roti: porchetta sandwich (5) witness the lines
          -4505 meat: godzilla dog (5)
          -brass knuckle: snoop dog (6.50) everything but the kitchen sinks in this
          -3 sum eats : "stuffed 'shrom" burger (7) vegeterian portebella mushroom sammie
          -peter's kettle corn: tastiest out there, same price as everyone, horchata, lime flavors also

          good eats but not cheap:
          -japancurry : katsu curry
          -curry up now :tikka masala burrito
          -is it: fried chicken drumstick (2) : kwong shing deli classic
          -tom kat : singapore rice vermicelli (7) as good as any restaurant
          -taco guys: fish taco(5)
          -tru gourmet: very expensive, organic dim sum, tasty and tiny too
          -southern sandwich: interesting selection of southern comfort bbq
          -OmininjaSJ : ninja burrito(8) foot long burrito with shrimp chip sides. a lot of food, good value.
          bread kinds of numbs the tasty proteins within.
          -fivetenburger : tastiest burger out there.

          not a fan of chairman bao, cupcakes, fusion taco/burritos, most burger trucks, most banh mi trucks,

          34 Replies
          1. re: shanghaikid

            I like CurryUp Now's tikka masala burrito too, and Namu's delicious fried chicken is much less expensive than at the restaurant.

            Part of what makes the truck events good is the variety--you can have sisig, I can have Chairman Bao. And cupcakes. Downtown the value may be less apparent because there are more restaurants, so it's less of a feeling that the food has come to you.

            Does Peter's Kettle Corn come to the Sunday Stonestown Market?

            -----
            Namu
            439 Balboa Street, San Francisco, CA 94118

            Chairman Bao
            San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

            1. re: Windy

              If OTG is in your neighborhood then the food is coming to you. But if you're trekking out to Fort Mason, then it's become a "destination."

              One of these days I'll have to try Chairman Bao, but so far I've resisted standing in a long line to pay three bucks for a pork bun.

              -----
              Chairman Bao
              San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                There wasn't a line at Chairman Bao in the Haight between 5 and 6. I had a pork belly on an open bun that was very good.

                My comment about the trucks coming to you was the origin of several of them, in parking lots in otherwise industrial areas near Oracle or Virgin in Burlingame. Little Green Cyclo is a more exciting offering in an area that's far from the bahn mi shops of the Tenderloin.

                -----
                Chairman Bao
                San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                Little Green Cyclo
                San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                  The Chairman Bao lines at the Civic Center OTG aren't usually that bad, that's where I've had them.

                  -----
                  Chairman Bao
                  San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                    Does the Chairman come to the East Bay anymore?

                    I did have to wait a bit, but what you are getting for $3 is no ordinary cha sieu bow. I had one with duck, one with pork belly and something else and all were very good and fair-sized.

                    1. re: chocolatetartguy

                      chairmao bao comes to emeryville sometimes. not sure which day. either mon or tues.

                      1. re: chocolatetartguy

                        Answering my own question. OTG is coming to Golden Gate Fields across the freeway starting this Saturday and running thru mid September. Chairman Bao is slated to participate.

                        I assume they will set up in the lot, but if not there is a $6 charge to enter the track. Have not been there in a long, long time, so not sure if there is a parking fee. You can, however, have lunch and play the ponies.

                        -----
                        Chairman Bao
                        San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                        1. re: chocolatetartguy

                          got an email from off the gird. parking will be $4 and $6 to enter GGF. i assume ofg will take place inside GGF.

                          1. re: shanghaikid

                            According to the TV ads, on some weekend days hotdogs, sodas and beer are a buck. I did not know there was room enough to park trucks inside GGF, but I was last there pre 1980.

                              1. re: kc72

                                Thanks for researching. I notice Chairman Bao not mentioned. See no Chairman Bao, hear no Chairman Bao, eat no Chairman Bao. I guess the Trib was wrong.

                                So who likes food truck food enough to pay $10 to get access to the trucks, unless you were going to the races anyway.

                                I think I will go ahead and go to the Chez Panisse/Openrestaurant birthday food event at the University Art Museum instead.

                                -----
                                Chairman Bao
                                San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                  Chairman Bao is listed on the OTG site

                                  http://offthegridsf.com/goldengatefields

                                  -----
                                  Chairman Bao
                                  San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                  1. re: kc72

                                    i saw that too so i rechecked my emailed entittled "your extensive guide to ...."
                                    and chairman bao wasn't on the list. only 23 trucks listed.

                                    your guess is as good as mine.

                                  2. re: chocolatetartguy

                                    OTG website says it's a rotating list of vendors over the 4 weeks. The GGF link is just for the 1st week so CMB may make an appearance later in the series.

                                    It also says admission to the races is $6 so it sounds like not required to get to the trucks.

                                    > We know you'll come for the food, but remember to stay for the HORSE RACES!
                                    > Admission to the races: $6, children 17 & under free

                                    1. re: drewskiSF

                                      i spoke to a otg rep at sf food festival. my impression is the trucks are inside ggf and you need to pay $6 to get into ggf to get to the food trucks.

                                      don't forget about the $4 for parking.

                                2. re: chocolatetartguy

                                  I've been to GGF $1 Sundays. If you want to kill some time and it's warm outside it can be nice time but the hot dog and beer are a waste of time/calories. It's a boiled Oscar Meyer and Bud in a tiny cup. You can do better at 7-11.

                                  There's also taco truck at the Gilman St. entrance, on non-GGF land. I've eaten there a couple of times. It was good but non-memorable either way.

                                  p.s. when I read about the Taco Truck with fish tacos I think oh boy...until I read the price. In LA you can get giant Baja fish tacos for a $1 (daily special).

                                  1. re: ML8000

                                    During the week, there is a lonchera setting up outside the Oakland GO that sells 1.75 fish tacos that are well worth the price. It's cheaper than flying to LA. They also have shrimp at the same price point. The regular tacos are 1.25.

                                    1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                      Are they Baja fish tacos? I've been to the truck at GO, it's a good solid place but the Sinaloa truck at 23rd and International is better for grilled fish tacos ($1.50 ea.) and ceviche tostadas. These are as good as LA...but I haven't found Baja tacos up here as good or at the price of LA.

                                      1. re: ML8000

                                        Not familiar with Baja fish tacos. There is a stand at the Temescal Sunday Farmer's Market that sells fish tacos for 1.75. It might be associated with the Mexican restaurant catty corner from Bake Sale Bette on Telegraph.

                                        1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                          We got a taco from the Taco Guys Friday and it's not a Baja-style taco. It was big (two small pieces of breaded fried fish) and good with pickled onions and slaw. And yes, it was $5, as were all their other tacos.

                                        2. re: ML8000

                                          I haven't tried them yet, but there's supposed to be a lady at the Jack London Square Sunday farmers market who makes good (but pricey) fried fish tacos.

                                          -----
                                          Jack London Square
                                          70 Washington St # 207, Oakland, CA

                                          1. re: abstractpoet

                                            Cholita Linda

                                            2 for something like $7-8. basic, but really well executed with fried tilapia, cabbage, and some salsa & crema.

                                            -----
                                            Cholita Linda
                                            No fixed address, Oakland, CA

                                            1. re: drewskiSF

                                              They were the ones I saw at Temescal. Maybe I got the price wrong but I thought they were "only" 1.75 a pop.

                                            2. re: abstractpoet

                                              I tried them. They were okay but over-priced and small.

                                              Instead of lament like a NYer and bagels, I just wait until I go to L.A.. Bigger, better, on average $2.00...and there's once place that has a Tuesday special for $1 ea, about twice the size of CL, if not larger.

                                      2. re: chocolatetartguy

                                        Worst hot dog ever.

                                        Speaking of Sundays, though, has anyone been to the food carts outside the church on Gilman? They seem to be there around 1PM Sunday. I'm always on the way somewhere else.

                                  2. re: chocolatetartguy

                                    just looked at chairman bao's schedule for week of 8/29th. no emeryville appearances.
                                    just a maybe for ggf on saturday.

                                  3. re: Ruth Lafler

                                    They aren't pork buns in cha shao bao sense, but modeled after Taiwanese gua bao, a la David Chang, Eddie Huag et al.

                                    http://is.gd/HCZtXX

                                  4. re: Windy

                                    windy:

                                    peter's kettle corn goes to many places like otg fort mason, oaktown flea market. haven't seen them listed as a vendor at stonestown. did not see them earlier in the year when i went.

                                    1. re: shanghaikid

                                      Thanks shanghaikid.

                                      I saw them today at the Mission Community Market, and I'm pretty sure they're the same people I remembered (favorably) from Stonestown.

                                      -----
                                      Mission Community Market
                                      E 22nd St, Oakland, CA

                                      1. re: shanghaikid

                                        We got Peter's kettle corn at Ft. Mason, and while I balked at the price ($5 for a small bag), it was great, and they overfilled it. Had to fight with the four-year-old, who wanted to "hold" it.

                                        We also enjoyed all the weird drinks from the various trucks: mango lassis, chicha morada, canteloupe lemonade. These were $2-3 each, so comparable to takeout or restaurant prices.

                                        1. re: Windy

                                          hmm. a $2 premium over their regular price. probably goes to cover part of the 10% that goes to otg and the rest goes to staff expenses......
                                          wonder if other vendors have pricing upticks here?

                                          1. re: shanghaikid

                                            Markup is noticeable for all vendors at the farmers' markets. For example the same vendors charge considerably more at Ferry Plaza and Marin than at Alemany and Civic Center/Heart of the City.

                                      2. re: Windy

                                        I second CurryUp Now! Their chicken tikka masala burritos are mouthwatering, flavorful, and spicy.

                                    2. I like Spencer on the Go. The prices are modest compared with the restaurant and you can eat in Terroir, which provides seats, tables, roof, and wine.

                                      4 Replies
                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                        Cosign on Spencer on the Go; and I liked the Pizza Hacker that showed up 'round that same area for the same reason--Terroir is a congenial place to gather, drink and eat whatever you bought outside.

                                        In general, I'm annoyed at being charged crazy $$ in order to eat on a sidewalk--I thought the purpose of the truck phenomenon was to keep overhead low, but that hasn't been passed along to customers.

                                        1. re: pane

                                          This is the thing that drives me crazy about the trucks -- if I'm going to pay restaurant prices, I may as well go to an actual restaurant where I can sit at a table and have a drink. I do really like JapaCurry, partly because it's something that's hard to find around here and also because it's really good, the FiveTenBurger truck has one of the best burgers around, and at a good price in comparison to other gourmet type burgers, and I did like the Curry Up Now truck, though I don't know what the lines are usually like.

                                          -----
                                          Curry Up Now truck
                                          Shaw Rd, South San Francisco, CA

                                          JapaCurry
                                          San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                          1. re: pane

                                            Spencer on the Go was one of the trucks I was thinking that really did seem to be doing something creative in turning French food into street food.

                                            1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                              Some of Spencer on the Go's dishes are too messy to really work as street food.

                                        2. we get food trucks at my work every day (and there are hardly any other food options).

                                          Curry Up Now always has an insane line. I think their food is really good and filling, but I don't go there on a regular basis.

                                          Japacurry is one of my favorites. I don't think there are that many Japanese curry places to begin with, and I like their version a bit. They don't come often and I get curry from them every time they do.

                                          51st state was my other favorite. their brunswick stew was outstanding and my co-workers swear by the Mochika chicken. Unfortunately, they've decided to stop being a food truck.

                                          Chairman Bao also draws long lines and is consistently good.

                                          I think hiyaaa, little green cyclo, Seoul on wheels are all good, but I wouldn't travel to any of them.

                                          -----
                                          Chairman Bao
                                          San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                          17 Replies
                                          1. re: margieco

                                            Oh, I'm sad to hear about 51st State. I really liked the things I had from there.

                                            On my list of trucks that I will track down:

                                            JapaCurry
                                            Liba Falafel
                                            The Taco Guys (very good fish tacos)
                                            Sanguchon (I had an excellent chicharrones sandwich from them recently, from the Mochica folks)

                                            And, I'm looking forward to trying the new Kasa truck.

                                            Generally, I end up at trucks often because it's fun, or because I'm with friends who want to go, but I really don't think that they're the be all and end all of flavor. And there are very few where I will deal with the line. A RoliRoti porchetta sandwich is one of my favorite things in the world, but I'll only eat it if there's a reasonable line (read: when it's raining).

                                            Also, FWIW -- The FiveTen burger I tried a few weeks ago was decent, but I would take many burgers over it any day (namely: the 4505 cheeseburger).

                                            -----
                                            Mochica
                                            937 Harrison Street, San Francisco, CA 94107

                                            51st State
                                            , San Francisco, CA

                                            JapaCurry
                                            San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                            1. re: Fig Newton

                                              I don't think of Roli-Roti as a food truck, even though I guess technically it is, mostly because they have a stand outside the truck (plus they only do farmer's markets, they don't show up on regular streets). The best place to get Roli-Roti porchetta is at the Grand Lake farmers market, where I've never seen a really long line. They'll also sell it by the pound there, which I don't think they do at the Ferry Building.

                                              Does 4505 have a truck? I'm just aware of the booth at the farmers market. Same with Namu.

                                              1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                The Roli Roti truck does show up on the street in front of Blue Bottle in Oakland, but that's only once a month (it used to be once a week, then they cut down).

                                                -----
                                                Roli Roti
                                                , Hayward, CA

                                                Blue Bottle Cafe
                                                66 Mint St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                                                1. re: JasmineG

                                                  1st Friday of the month. Never seen a long line.

                                                2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                  ruth lafler:

                                                  4505 goes to certain events like eat real festival. while they don't have a food truck, i just put them in the same genre for convenience.

                                                  1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                    Apropos what is actually a truck, is Little Green Cyclo a 3 wheel vehicle or an actual truck? Is the name some sort of mashup of Cyclo and The Scent of Green Papaya, both directed by the same person?

                                                    -----
                                                    Cyclo Cafe
                                                    6038 Stevenson Blvd, Fremont, CA 94538

                                                    Green Papaya
                                                    2016 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704

                                                    Little Green Cyclo
                                                    San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                                    1. re: chocolatetartguy

                                                      Little Green Cyclo is a truck, not a cyclo.

                                                    2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                      Alas, the Roli-Roti truck at Saturday Grand Lake farmers market has stopped selling the porchetta sandwich (apparently prepping the pork is very labor-intensive and staff was unable to keep both Saturday trucks supplied); now just the roast chicken, potatoes, ham hocks. Only the Saturday Ferry Bldg farmers market has the porchetta now.

                                                      1. re: dordogne

                                                        Darn! The ham hocks are pretty good, though.

                                                        1. re: dordogne

                                                          Roli Roti is at the Ferry Building on Thursdays selling their porchetta sandwich.

                                                          1. re: ronnabay

                                                            Yes, but the line gets crazy long (like, 40-50 people deep, easy).

                                                      2. re: Fig Newton

                                                        I had a really excellent sandwich from Sanguchon - pork with a fried yucca slice. One of the better food truck sandwiches. Also a great purple (housemade) fruit drink. Lots of clove flavor.

                                                        I was quite disappointed with little green cyclo. There's much better banh mi around for less.

                                                        1. re: boris_qd

                                                          The purple drink is chicha morada, a Peruvian drink (available at all the Peruvian restaurants in the area) made from corn and cloves. Good stuff.

                                                          I do love that weird basil seed drink from Little Green Cyclo. And regretted not trying the spring rolls with duck last time.

                                                          -----
                                                          Little Green Cyclo
                                                          San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                                          1. re: boris_qd

                                                            +1 re Little Green Cyclo - banh mi was very light on filling and not much flavor to what was there, and too expensive for what it was.

                                                            -----
                                                            Little Green Cyclo
                                                            San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                                            1. re: boris_qd

                                                              Little Green Cyclo is good, but not their banh mi.

                                                              -----
                                                              Little Green Cyclo
                                                              San Francisco, San Francisco, CA

                                                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                  The lemongrass quail salad and sweet potato fries.

                                                        2. Interesting discussion Ruth. I am a fan of the more creative food trucks, not the taco trucks (partly because I don't really eat soft tacos). But I agree with you that sometimes it doesn't seem like a value, and while I understand the whole discussion about "quality ingredients," these trucks are saving on lease costs and typically labor. So not sure they have much of the overhead argument going for them.

                                                          That said, I second Chairman Bao. What works for them are the relative price and the tasty creative menu, with changing specials. They keep it interesting.

                                                          I also like Brass Knuckles for really tasty and creative food and recently had a huuuge Cubana at 3-Sum which I thought was totally worth the money.

                                                          I go to Cupkates for the convenience because they seem to be the only dessert truck around and the price is comparable to other cupcakes around town. So mostly because it's there.

                                                          I recently had a bad experience at Onigilly. The price for a rice ball is pretty high, and this one particular one I had was really dry, falling apart in my hand. They seem a bit faddish to me. If they expanded their menu to some teriyaki skewers or octopus balls, that might help them.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: singleguychef

                                                            This was the second time I tried CupKates, and we liked them a lot. They have a lemon ginger cupcake which is lemon frosting on gingerbread. The cupcakes are very fluffy.