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Napa's kitchens on wheels

Food trucks offer tasty meals from cramped quarters
2012-09-15T23:00:00Z 2012-09-16T23:34:40Z Napa's kitchens on wheelsCHANTAL M. LOVELL Napa Valley Register
September 15, 2012 11:00 pm  • 

In a food truck, where space is tight and diners are hungry, organization is a necessity. Napa’s food truck operators seem to have it down, working like well-oiled machines inside a 3-by-10-foot space when the lunch rush hits.

For the Tacos Garcia truck, which operates in the parking lot of the Arco station at Lincoln Avenue and Jefferson Street, the crush of hungry customers arrives at 12:30 p.m. when Napa High breaks for lunch.

Speaking through a translator, owner Gabriel Garcia said he and his two employees have a system for pushing out the food and avoiding chaos. “Everyone gets a number,” he said in Spanish. “We make the food and call the number.”

The Mark’s the Spot truck uses a similar method to deal with the 80 to 100 Napa Valley College students it serves on the Napa campus each Wednesday.

Outside, students casually chitchat while waiting for their orders to pass through the truck’s windows. Inside, three employees move quickly but seamlessly, back and forth, to assemble sliders, salads and french fries.

“Tight spaces make for a pretty close-knit group of people,” said Connor Maple, who was assisting truck owner Mark Raymond in preparing orders while Dena Jackson worked the window.

The truck has everything a restaurant would need — grill, refrigeration, freezers, sinks, counter space, deep fryer and more. Equipment and ingredients are constantly reorganized as Raymond finds better homes for them to make his truck run more efficiently.

At Crossroad Chicken, which often operates in the parking lot of the former JV Wine & Spirits on Silverado Trail at First Street, the food is as seasonal as a fancy sit-down restaurant’s.

“I try to use what’s in season,” owner Kevin Simonson said, echoing the trend of many gourmet food trucks operated by trained chefs who create complex — or “fun” in Simonson’s case — flavors.

“It’s going to be a little less expensive than what’s out of season and it’s going to be of a higher quality,” Simonson said. His meals average around $10, as do Raymond’s dishes. Raymond lowers prices slightly when he serves at the college, and meals from taco trucks average just under $10.

During a recent lunch service, there was a slight, behind-the-scenes hiccup as employee Sabrina Corella tried to master the recipe for a new menu that Simonson changes weekly.

With Simonson’s instruction, she put together a wood-fired vegetable sandwich and placed it in a box held shut with a wine label before passing it out the window to one of the truck’s regulars.

“I change my mind a lot,” Simonson said. “This morning, I changed my mind for next week’s menu three times.”

When asked when he gets his best ideas, Simonson said, “It’s a constant thing.”

So, too, seems to be the work of a food truck operator, who is often more than a chef.

“Sometimes I’m crawling under the truck fixing stuff,” Simonson said, a few moments after explaining how he recently had to climb on the truck’s roof to reattach the wood oven’s smoke stack after the truck ran into some low branches.

Contrary to wide belief, running a food truck isn’t all that much cheaper than operating a brick-and-mortar establishment, if at all, Raymond said.

“The truck gives me a lot of opportunities to make money, but it also takes away a lot of that money,” Raymond said, citing rising gas prices as one area in which his business has taken a hit while keeping prices stable.

Food truck operators must maintain their trucks and the commercial kitchens, or commissaries, they often rent. The health code requires food served from trucks to be prepared outside the truck in such a kitchen.

Raymond and Simonson share a kitchen and are hoping to find a third truck operator to join in.

Garcia uses the kitchen of a Mexican market on Jefferson Street, just north of where his truck operates. In June, he was displaced from his previous kitchen at Jefferson and Pueblo Avenue and put out of business for 12 days when it was destroyed by a fire of undetermined origin.

Garcia said he prefers working the kitchen to assembling food on the truck because he has worked in kitchens before and was once a butcher. He is usually the Tacos Garcia employee tasked with preparing the food for lunch and dinner service.

Raymond said he and his wife got into the food truck business to get out of standard restaurant kitchens.

“We get to see so many beautiful parts of the wine country, we're not stuck in a kitchen looking at a wall the whole day,” he said while grilling a burger for a Napa Valley College student.

His food truck can be retained for special events. “We could be up on Howell Mountain or up in Anderson Valley. We get to get out and meet a lot of great people,” he said.

Corella said she believes recent reality TV shows have increased the popularity of the mobile eateries, along with diners realizing that the trucks can be a source of healthy and tasty fast food.

A number of the local trucks in Napa tout locally grown, organic ingredients as staples of their menus. Additionally, those running the trucks are typically seasoned chefs.

Simonson, Raymond and Garcia all spent years in the wine and restaurant industries before starting their food trucks about two years ago.

“It’s something that’s fairly quick and, in relation to other restaurants, they tend to be a little less expensive and they’re down to earth,” Simonson said. “If you can get good, quality food that’s healthful for your Monday afternoon lunch, what are you going to do? Are you going to get some fast food that you don’t know where it came from or who prepared it? A lot of people want to know (where their food comes from).”

For Crossroad Chicken, the bills are paid not by the food served at lunch in Napa, but primarily through the special events that take the rolling oven Upvalley and throughout the Bay Area.

“This is more marketing, to get people interested so they can taste our food,” Simonson said during a lunch service on Silverado Trail.

Crossroad Chicken is hoping to be booked by wineries to provide food during harvest. Mark’s the Spot has been catering weddings, either serving directly from his truck or using servers to carry the food out to partygoers. Recently, Raymond used his truck to cater his wife’s birthday party.

It’s a good life, Raymond said. “My wife and I wanted to do something of our own, create our own story, and we thought this would be a great way to do that,” he said.

“It gives us a lot of options, rather than just staying in one place all the time. We can look at doing festivals in San Francisco, or drive up to Sacramento for an event. Basically, you’re just following the cash.”

Napa Valley Register Editorial Assistant Alex Loyola served as a translator for this story.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(2) Comments

  1. chunk215
    Report Abuse
    chunk215 - September 16, 2012 9:38 am
    $10 for a lunch? Wow. In Chico while I was in college the taco trucks were $3 for huge burritos. $4 for a burrito with sour cream. That's why they were so popular. What are they serving for $10.
  2. Napkingirl
    Report Abuse
    Napkingirl - September 16, 2012 11:17 am
    Dim Sum Charlies is excellent.
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