Going out to eat these days doesn’t always involve sitting down to a meal in a popular dining destination, or even wolfing down a burger or chicken tenders in a fast-food emporium.
Grabbing a bite with family or friends is not all about bricks and mortar anymore.
For years now, Napans have joined their Mexican-American brethren standing in line at various and sundry so-called taco trucks parked on highways and byways all over wine country, particularly in the City of Napa.
We’ve been told by experts our palate for street food is growing, evidenced by the food truck boom in big cities from coast to coast.
Last fall, the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone turned the spotlight on street food at its prestigious annual Worlds of Flavor conference, attended by big and little shots in the world of American gastronomy, from big name chefs to foodies from home and abroad.
This summer, an energetic member of a respected Carneros wine family, Ariel Ceja opened a downtown Napa eatery, Bistro Sabor, specializing in Latin American street food.
No longer just a trend on someone else’s turf, street food is really taking hold in wine country. For a while, Phat Salads was the sole alternative to curbside tortas and tacos.
In the past couple of months, Crossroad Chicken and Dim Sum Charlie’s have entered the food truck lineup in Napa, with one more, a slider venture called Mark’s The Spot, hitting the streets a few days ago.
Here’s a little background on these roving kitchens, who’s cooking, what’s on the menu and where you can find ’em:
“Make it ‘phat?’” Gia Sempronio asks a customer at her Phat Salads and Wraps truck.
“Phat” doubles the amount of protein she adds to the wraps and salads she makes up for a steady stream of customers who line up outside her truck, which she parks on California Boulevard in front of Healthquest gym, Monday through Saturday,
8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
It’s been almost four years since Sempronio pioneered the idea of opening a Napa food truck that wasn’t serving tacos.
“I’d been through a divorce,” said Sempronio, “and I was working three jobs.”
She was a fitness trainer and P.E. teacher and a limo driver. The first two jobs had sparked the idea of serving up fast but healthy food options. Driving a limo, she said, meant she spent a lot of time waiting for clients, and she used this to research her idea of a food truck where she could make and sell salads, wraps and soups.
The biggest obstacle, she said, was finding a truck. “I kept looking online,” she said, “but most of the ones available were pretty dilapidated. I needed a lot of refrigeration — healthy foods was really my priority.”
Finally, she said, she took her savings, flew to Los Angeles and put down a deposit on a truck built to the specifications she needed. “Three months later this 18-wheeler pulled up in front of my house and I thought, ‘Oh, God, I’ve really done it.’
“I’d had years of restaurant experience,” she said, “but it was all front of the house, serving, managing — and I’d worked a long time as a bartender.”
She put all her skills to work in her one-person operation. Four years later, she has built up a following of ‘Phat fans’ for her menu, which include the “New Yorker,” “Caesar,” “BLT” “Asian” and “Santa Fe” wraps or salads, along with freshly made tortilla soup and kids menus. In the morning she serves breakfast wraps from 8:30 to 10:30.
“It’s part of the bartender thing,” she said, “to know your customers and know, ‘You want the New Yorker, right?’”
It’s hard work she said, but she’s enjoying it. “I’m just grateful to have my own business — to have a job and to have customers who keep coming back — and new ones too.”
When his chef/wine educator position at Acacia Winery was eliminated after 11 years, Kevin Simonson took his culinary talents on the road — literally.
Teaming up with his wife, Sandy, and brother, Colin, Simonson outfitted a truck with a wood-fired oven as a traveling kitchen for his new venture, Crossroad Chicken.
You can find Kevin — and two or three days a week brother Colin washing dishes and helping prep — and his goodies-laden truck parked at 1050 Soscol Ferry Road, south of Napa.
Kevin’s love of tasty, simply prepared meals prompted him to launch Crossroad Chicken in late August.
“I have to thank my wife who cashed in her mutual funds so I could buy the truck that we found on e-Bay,” he noted. “And my brother has been really helpful, even though he already has a full-time job.”
Simonson’s travels abroad served, in part, as inspiration for his latest culinary effort.
“I recall being in France where you could go just about anywhere and find a rotisserie chicken, a loaf of country bread, some local cheese and a bottle of wine,” he said. “And, voila — you’ve got a meal.”
At the moment, Crossroad Chicken is serving up lunchtime fare — chicken and pulled pork sandwiches, chicken tacos, Rancho Gordo bean chili, cole slaw and a farmers market green salad with tomato jam and melted fontina cheese. Sandwiches will set you back $8.95, while you can get a bowl of chili for under five bucks.
In the near future, Simonson plans to offer a complete dinner — that’s a whole roasted free range chicken with Rancho Gordo beans and salad for 3-4 people — for “around $25.”
He’s sold on Mary’s Chickens, a ranch located in Sanger, using its poultry exclusively.
“The whole idea is that I wanted to have food available that I myself would want to eat,” the Napa chef adds. “I know that we have lots of good taco tracks in Napa. There’s no reason why there can’t be other options.”
Well known locally for catering private affairs, Simonson said he’s been attracting a lot of hungry customers from nearby corporate parks as well as friends and family in Napa.
He’s also been leading the local discussion focused on finding a spot where food trucks could congregate daily, patterned after similar efforts in Portland, Ore.
For now, Crossroad Chicken is serving lunch fare between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday at 1050 Soscol Ferry Road. “When the weather turns, we might park under the Southern Crossing bridge or some other sheltered location,” he added.
To receive a current menu and to order ahead, e-mail Simonson at email@example.com.
Dim Sum Charlie’s
A wine industry financial adviser, Andrew Siegal arrived late in the day for a 2009 London wine fair, both tired and hungry. He checked into his hotel and then headed to a restaurant in order to ease the hunger pangs.
“They were serving dim sum — tasty finger foods in bamboo steamers,” he recalled. “People were having a blast. I’d tasted dim sum before but it never tasted that good.”
On his return to the valley, Siegal often thought of the London dim sum experience. “We had nothing like that in Napa and if you wanted to enjoy dim sum you had to drive into San Francisco,” Siegal told his friends.
“I’m also a lover of ’50s style Airstream trailers,” he advised. “So I just decided to combine the two.”
Siegal asked local chef Clayton Lewis to join him in a venture called Dim Sum Charlie’s, for the moment a refurbished Airstream trailer parked in downtown Napa that serves up all manner of dim sum, including some “highly stylized dumplings” that one would be hard pressed to find in a traditional Chinese restaurant.
“Our whole concept is ‘Blade Runner’ meets ‘Route 66.’” Siegal declared. “We’re not exactly totally Chinese.”
While their business plans calls for a dozen Airstreams serving up dim sum eventually, the partners have opened with one in Napa, parked at 728 First St., just east of Soscol Avenue and the railroad tracks. Siegal owns the home on the property.
Customers can take home a wide selection of dumplings and pork buns or dine on the picnic tables onsite. “We have a fire at night and heat lamps,” Siegal said. “We get a lot of wine industry people dropping by who bring and are willing to share wine and beer. That’s why we’re selling GoVino cups.”
Lewis said they partnered up with one of the top dim sum houses in San Francisco to provide the savory dumplings and buns that are steamed and served from their shiny Airstream. “We pick them up every morning and serve them every night until we run out,” he added.
Varieties offered at Dim Sum Charlie’s include shrimp with pea sprouts, chicken and chives, scallops with garlic, seafood, vegetarian (woodear and shiitake mushrooms with water chestnuts, or spinach and mushrooms with veggie “ham”), plus savory pork buns. There’s also another dish the owners call a snotty — a thick, gelatinous rice noodle containing barbecued pork and/or vegetables, mushrooms and tofu.
The dumplings and buns are served in individual steamers, which are placed inside old lobster steamers during the cooking process, Lewis noted.
Prices range from $6.50 for 3 or 4 pieces, to $10 (which they call “10 dolla make you holla”) for two pork buns and five varied dumplings.
Hours of operation are 5:30 p.m. to midnight Wednesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday and 11:30 a.m. “till we fall over or sell out, which is usually about 10 p.m.,” adds Siegal. “We love you long time.”
The Napa-based Airstream is mobile, he pointed out. “We go to wineries, business parks or any gorilla marketing event. We plan to have one in Sonoma, another in Marin, some in the East Bay and one for music festivals.’
Cost of an Airstream from the 1950s runs between $4,000 and $12,000, depending on its condition, Siegal noted. Cost of refurbishing one unit exceeds $60,000, he said.
Mark’s The Spot
“I never thought I’d learn how to rivet,” Mark Raymond says of his experience rebuilding what his wife, Alicia, calls “the oldest and most beat-up taco truck we could find.”
Mark and Alicia are owners of the newest addition to the wine country inventory of food truck operations. In fact, their “soft opening for friends and family” took place this past Friday night.
At present, Mark is serving up lunchtime sliders, turkey chili, duck wings and fries from a roaming vehicle he spent “three months, seven days a week” rebuilding for the new venture.
A trained chef in his native New Zealand who has cooked in restaurants from Australia to Spain, Mark met Alicia while the two were traveling in Thailand.
Was it love at first sight? Well, Mark moved to wine country in 2001 and Alicia relocated here from Manhattan. You make the call.
After settling in Napa nine years ago, Mark pursued his culinary career, working at Piatti Sonoma, The Sonoma Mission Inn and as opening sous chef for trend-setting Roxanne’s in Larkspur.
He decided to “try on a new hat,” Alicia points out, when he put cooking on the back burner to try his hand at making wine. For a few years, Mark worked in the cellars at Reynolds Family and Charbay.
“But he kept talking about cooking,” Alicia notes. “He’s always been interested in opening up a roadside cafe.”
The couple has a nine-month-old baby, so returning to cooking was something Mark weighed seriously. Launching a street food business “seemed like a great opportunity for us,” Alicia said.
“Mark wants to bring fine food to places that don’t have it. He’ll park the truck at business parks and other similar places — after all, it’s mobile and we can get around.”
Lunch is on the menu at the moment for the Raymonds. “We also want to do breakfast, private parties and maybe late night (dining) in the future,” Alicia adds.
At present, lunch specials ($10.50) include a slider sampler (any 3 sliders and a soda) or Hits the Spot (any slider with fries and salad or chii). Current slider choices are buttermilk fried boneless chicken with pepper aioli and slaw; herb braised pork butt with red onions two ways, spicy aioli and slaw; bacon, basil and brie with red onion jam; and Long Meadow Ranch beef hot dog. Sliders are $3.50 each.
Other menu choices include a pair of duck wings in sweet and spicy plum sauce ($6), turkey chili ($5), Caesar dip salad ($5), fries ($3, or $4 with chili and cheese) and French toast on a stick ($2).
Coming soon, the Raymonds point out, are breakfast and new menu items, including New Zealand style fish ‘n’ chips. Custom menus are offered for private parties.
To check truck location and daily offerings, visit marksthespot.com, Facebook or call 226-SPOT.
Features editor Sasha Paulsen contributed to this story.