Food Trucks in L.A.

On any day of the week, hungry residents and visitors of Los Angeles can take a stroll down Wilshire Boulevard and sample the cuisine of Korea, Senegal, India, or Brazil. Returning the next day, they might instead find gourmet hot dogs, nachos, and cupcakes. No, Wilshire Boulevard isn’t a restaurant district full of the world’s flightiest landlords and leasers. It’s one of several areas across LA that hosts a daily parade of food truck vendors.

The food truck movement is currently picking up traction across the country. In a recent episode of the Fox sitcom Bob’s Burgers, “Food Truckin’,” the titular Bob abandons his burger restaurant for a food truck, and becomes a huge hit after his pretentious customers are misled to believe that his prosaic burgers are “cruelty free,” “organic,” “bison,” “grass-fed,” and “pair well with an IPA.” In the 2012 film The Five-Year Engagement, Jason Segel’s character Tom is a disillusioned sous-chef who rediscovers his passion after opening a specialty taco truck. The proliferation of food trucks in pop culture shows how trendy they are right now, and both Bob’s Burgers and The Five-Year Engagement showed that food trucks are particularly popular with young, hip, and mutable. Food trucks cater to a society that is increasingly desirous of new experiences. Food trucks provide cultural exposure and novelty.  They provide a service that is accessible and affordable, thereby blurring the barriers of ethnicity and class.

The transformation of city curbs into ad hoc restaurant districts calls to mind what Burgess termed “succession,” the process by which communities expand into outer zones. The designated food truck curbs, like Miracle Mile on Wilshire Boulevard, are typically inner city geographically. The curbs were not being used, and so food trucks found a use for them. Beyond the curbs of Wilshire and other main thoroughfares, food trucks can be rented out to serve individual businesses and events, and then reconvene at the curb in an endless number of configurations. The forces of globalization and localization are currently increasingly influencing American cuisine, and food trucks are at the forefront of both. The communion of food trucks on the curb is what Burgess calls “a telescoping of several local communities into a larger economic unity.” Food trucks, roaming the cities freely but broadcasting their locations via Twitter, appearing en masse and then dissipating with their patrons’ appetites, are a very literal example of the “centralized decentralization” that is essential in the evolution of cities.

The advent of food trucks has not arrived without a hitch. Indeed, food truck proprietors have been repeatedly rebuked by city ordinances and bans that have threatened their existence. According to Burgess, this disorganization is endemic of populations in flux. So far, food trucks have managed to persevere, buoyed by popular demand—this perseverance is in keeping with Burgess’s position that “disorganization points to reorganization and makes for more efficient adjustment, [and therefore] disorganization must be conceived not as pathological, but as normal.”

Burgess defines mobility as the “pulse of the community.” The literally mobile food trucks are ushering in a new wave of metabolic growth in Los Angeles. This growth is being fed—by the abundant produce made available by California farms, by the rising pedestrian and bicycle traffic on Los Angeles roads—but also by the “mobility” of Los Angeles restaurant-goers and restaurateurs. A person’s “mobility,” Burgess explains, is defined by the person’s “mutability” and “the number and kind of contacts or stimulations in his[/her] environment.” Los Angeles restaurant-goers were early adopters of the food truck trend, and are much like the restaurant-goers lampooned by Bob’s Burgers in their pursuit of foods that meet certain trendy qualifications. Lampoonable though they might be, the trend-chasing are certainly mutable seekers of new contacts and stimulations.

Mobility is associated with the growth of the city, but it is more viscerally associated with “adventure.” The aspect of adventure represented by food trucks is apparent through their appropriation as plot devices in Bob’s Burgers and The Five-Year Engagement (the heroes of both stories are portrayed as being enthralled and invigorated by the possibilities of mobile kitchens). A visit to Wilshire Boulevard at lunchtime is an adventure in itself—sidewalks that once merely provided conveyance and parking are now multicultural bazaars providing windows into the cultures of the world.

Sources:

Blevins, Aaron. “Food Trucks Occupy Too Much ‘Space’.” Park Labrea News Beverly Press [Los Angeles] 5 Apr. 2012. Web. 30 May 2012.

Burgess, Ernest W. “Growth of the City.” The Blackwell City Reader. Ed. Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 339-344. Print.

Molyneux, Lizzie, and Wendy Molyneux. “Food Truckin'” Bob’s Burgers. FOX. 15 Apr. 2012. Television.

The Five-Year Engagement. Dir. Nicholas Stoller. Perf. Jason Segel and Emily Blunt. Apatow Productions, 2012. Film.

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5 Comments

Filed under City Cultures, Continuing Class Discussion

5 responses to “Food Trucks in L.A.

  1. I love how this post connects our urban theory to two very recent popular cultural texts. It seems like the point you’re moving toward is figuring out the tensions at work in the food truck phenomenon. Some of them that I notice: global cuisine but also comfort food, upscale but informal, experimental without requiring a trip to a new (and possibly ethnic) neighborhood. Are the food truck customers a fairly consistent bunch of adventurous, affluent Twitterers, or do some of the food trucks go to construction sites for example? Why does a mobile kitchen seem more adventurous? How do the different patterns of development in LA, New York, and Chicago for example, lead to different ideas about food trucks and their use?

  2. jordanorr

    I LOVE this post. I am a huge fan of food trucks. I’m a huge fan of food, mostly, but anything that lets me experience food of other cultures without have to travel too far really just makes me so happy. When I read your post, I really thought about food trucks as a form of rebellion like DeCerteau discusses. It’s not a part of the planned city at all. It’s a constantly moving food establishment! It is in no way planned! Sure they used the planned traffic system of the city, but they’re not a stable part of the city or neighborhood because they may not always be in the same place. Then again, do food trucks have the pontential to disturb the flow of the planned city? If they are at the same construction site every day and then one day don’t show up? How many people are left without food? Will they get as much done that day? Will it disturb to entire flow of the city that day? Hmm.

  3. cmb0030

    I love this post. What do you think about the food trucks that we have here in Auburn? The majority of them come from Atlanta and I believe bring a taste of the Atlanta culture to Auburn’s campus! I think its great. Food trucks merge mobility and accessibility in a whole new way. I would be interested in reading about what you (or any other scholar) thinks about how food trucks are connected with connecting the different cultures of the different cities here in the states.

    There are two “Taco Trucks” here in Auburn. One is the infamous “Tex’s Tacos” which serves “Authentic Tex-Mex Cuisine” to students here on campus. It’s delicious and greasy and you can pay with your tiger card. The other is a truck that parks at various locations on Opelika road ranging from Harvest Thrift’s parking lot to Bob’s Tires parking lot. You have to hunt it down to find it and be able to be at least conversational in Spanish to successful order anything. But, the second that those tacos touch your moth it instantly becomes worth the hunt. It is owned by a family from Mexico and it is how they are making a life for themselves here in the states. I love the authenticity and the personality of their truck so much because they bring their culture to it.

    Food trucks are mobile cultural centers in and of themselves and I, personally, am very glad that they have become so popular in our culture.

  4. saltysnail27

    So I am in love with that show The Great Food Truck on the food network channel. The thing that excited me the most was the amount of income these tiny trucks made in one day. The fact that these trucks can move to where the crowd is or put up shop near a local park generated a lot of extra cash. Another thing that interested me on the show was the fact that each week, the trucks were in a different city, and while in certain cities they had to rely on locally produced products in order to recreate there hometown fiddles. Ahh this is soo cool!

    Unfortunately, I have never eaten food from a food truck. I often heard the phrase “roach coach” thrown around when they were brought up in casual conversation. I have never been able to shake off that uneasiness since. However, I would like to try it some day, and I’m super happy to see this new form of fast food being appreciated by others not only around the country but around the world. 🙂

  5. tinyopinions

    This makes me think of the food trucks that were on campus last semester. I never ate at one, but they did stir up a lot of controversy. A lot of people liked them because they brought variety to campus and students could use their Tiger cards to buy the food, but they also had downsides. They crowded up the Concourse and usually had long lines that blocked walkways in between classes. The food trucks in cities are nice because they bring food to the people, but they do so in a way that (usually) does not block traffic. A truck set up on an unused curb makes buying food an easy experience, and the varied schedules of a large city mean everyone is not leaving class and hoping to grab lunch in the same ten-minute span.

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