ELLIOT GOLAN / The Bull
Updates from social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook set them off. From the farthest corners of the San Fernando Valley to Los Angeles and everywhere in between, people line up, eager to feed their need.
The drive and wait is often extensive, but when biting into juicy free-range chicken in tomatillo-tamarind sauce served over tender sweet potato fries, the journey and the delay are forgotten.
“Fries that eat as a meal.” That is the mission of Frysmith, one of a recent phenomenon of gourmet food trucks that are becoming ever more popular in Los Angeles.
Reliance on the Internet to spread the word has cultivated a younger following, ranging from people in their late teens to early 30s. But people of all ages are now slowly starting to catch the craze.
The brainchild of husband and wife Erik Cho and Brook Howell, Frysmith had its grand opening on Nov. 20, 2009 at The Brig, a bar in Venice where many of these trucks can regularly be found. The two met while attending the University of California at Berkeley. Cho, a film major, and Howell, a comparative literature major, have been inseparable since.
Cho attributes his interest in food to experience. Short order cooking has always been familiar to him, having worked in burger joints that his mom owned when he was young.
“I used to put all kinds of weird shit on chili fries,” says Cho, whose seemingly permanent smile personifies the laid-back, casual style of the truck.
Howell’s interest stems from both a love of food and having always been a fan of everything mobile. She even dreams of living on the road one day.
“Not gonna happen man,” says Cho, laughing and shaking his head playfully, eyes focused on the pavement below him.
For years he tried to get into screenplay writing, but he says life has taken him in a different direction. After college, he worked in the film industry when he could.
“Through my life I’ve developed very few marketable skills,” says Cho, drawing a chuckle out of nearby Howell. He says writing, cooking and music are the only things that he does well. Cho has been playing the tenor saxophone since he was 10 years old.
The workspace inside the light metallic gray mobile kitchen is 18 feet long and 30 inches wide. It is Cho and Howell’s second home.
“I hardly have any spare time,” says Howell, shaking her head, her eyebrows rising as she mentions her 70-hour workweeks.
They both agree that the most popular dish made in the truck is the Rajas fries. Shawarma-marinated steak sits atop crispy fries that share the plate with poblano chiles, caramelized onions and jack cheese. A dash of cilantro completes it.
More than just making the food, Howell has made Frysmith as eco-friendly as possible. Plates and forks given out are made from easily biodegradable materials.
They have taken their concern for the planet to the gas tank as well.
Oil is fuel at Frysmith. The truck runs almost exclusively on the canola oil they use for the fries. Only a tiny amount of diesel fuel is required to get the engine hot and blast them off.
The only motivation Howell has for this is environmental consciousness.
“It really doesn’t save you any money,” she says.
She added that conducting business in an environmentally responsible manner is important to her, even limiting the amount of plastic bottles the truck sells.
Working in the confined space has not been a problem for the crew at Frysmith, since they have all known each other for a long time. Howell, as well as the only two full-time employees, Zach Hanstein and Amanda Mead, all grew up on Christy Avenue in Lake View Terrace. Hanstein, Mead and Howell’s brother, Forest, who helps on the truck occasionally, even vacationed together last year in Europe.
This comfortable, family-like feel keeps the mood light and carefree on the truck.
“Erik takes the most shit and doesn’t answer back,” says Mead, prompting laughter out of the entire staff, Cho included.
But just like in any business, things can go wrong.
Cho spoke jokingly of a night when Frysmith was serving an event at Bedrock Studios in L.A. The transmission failed, making it impossible for the truck to go in reverse.
“It took 30 skinny emo kids to push the car outta the lot,” says Cho.
Large, organized events such as these are advantageous to the truck. It guarantees a certain amount of orders and profits.
The Southern California Mobile Food Vendors Association (SCMFVA) helps the new fleet of trucks find events.
The two functions of the SCMFVA are to help truck operators understand the regulatory schemes in the cities they operate in and to help keep these rules the same, according to Vice President Matt Geller.
“We now have the information that lets us stand up for ourselves,” says Maxson Smith, owner of The Tasty Meat Truck, which offers a spin on Turkish food.
One of the largest endeavors of the SCMFVA is the setting up of mobile food courts. Their first attempt, on the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and 14th Street, The Santa Monica Food Truck Lot, survived for one day. Zoning regulations within Santa Monica shut them down.
Geller has a Google Groups page set up for regular communications with the trucks.
“If I don’t hear from somebody, I get nervous,” he says.
He believes there is a lot of anxiety for truck operators to try and find popular spots for business.
“With a (food truck) lot, they don’t have to worry about it,” Geller says.
The organization’s first meeting had 13 members, but as the phenomenon grows, so does the group. Frysmith is one of more than 50 current members.
The association seems to have created a community among trucks. All of them are friendly with one another and regularly trade food.
Smith is very fond of the menu and people at Frysmith, referring to both as “the best.”
The SCMFVA is not worried about the spreading of the trend or oversaturation of trucks.
“Right now, people who are thinking about opening trucks still feel like there is more demand than supply,” Geller says.
As more and more trucks start rolling, popular cuisines are copied.
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Legendary Kogi BBQ, though a four-truck fleet and untouchable street institution within the food truck community, has an abundance of competition from other mobile kitchens offering Korean barbecue cuisine.
Frysmith stands alone.
“I think a lot of people are hesitant,” says Hanstein. Regardless of their odd choice of fare, Frysmith is succeeding.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad item here,” says Vincent Diamante, 28, a video game music writer.
One popular way for “foodies” to find their fix is at food truck events.
Special occasions, such as the Los Angeles Street Food Fest that took place on Valentine’s Day, attract huge crowds and, therefore, dozens of vendors. Hanstein says that Frysmith turned out 1,000 orders at the festival, more than quadrupling the amount made on an average day.
As their followers grow, so does Frysmith’s ambition. Cho and Howell are currently discussing the idea of starting a second truck, with Hanstein at the head.
“Word-of-mouth is viral,” Howell says.
Their eclectic menu, which even includes vegan chili fries and cookies, evolves regularly. Specials such as a twist on the popular Canadian dish poutine can be found on the truck from week to week.
As every day starts and ends, Howell and Cho keep their patrons close to heart, ignoring their often-overwhelming fatigue and forgotten free time.
Nodding his head in affirmation, his normally spirited demeanor overtaken by a more placid and profound sense of satisfaction, Cho says, “My favorite part is that we get to have our food eaten by a bunch of people at a bunch of places.”