Long known for its culinary innovation at sit-down restaurants, the Napa Valley has lagged when it comes to the number, diversity and quality of its food trucks.
But that is changing.
And along with a growing number of options within what is being called the “farm-to-tire” movement, Napa Valley food trucks are fast becoming their own must-visit destinations.
To catalog them all in one article would be a monumental task, so let’s start with three standouts.
Calistoga-based Crust is fired up about traveling pizza
Making pizza was nothing new to Aldo Nunez, owner of La Prima Pizzerias in St. Helena and Calistoga. But as he lay in his hospital bed after being diagnosed with leukemia and narrowly escaping death, he had a vision.
“When I realized how close I’d been to death I thought that if I made it through I’d blend my two passions into one business — my love of old cars and making pizza,” Nunez said. “It would allow me to get outside more and interact with more people, which is something that I really enjoy doing.”
But first Nunez needed to survive.
On Nov. 10, 2012, Nunez went to the St. Helena Hospital because of mysterious bruising on his arms and head. Almost immediately he was rushed into emergency chemotherapy after being told he had just hours to live.
“Hours turned into days, days turned into weeks,” Nunez said. “I underwent 63 rounds of chemotherapy and had over 30 blood transfusions, but now I’m in full remission.”
Immediately after recovering, Nunez went about fulfilling his vision. He purchased and renovated a 1946 International Harvester truck and fitted it with a wood-fired Mugnaini pizza oven from Italy. Now you can see and taste handmade pizzas, salads and roasted items cooked by Nunez and his crew at local events such as the BottleRock music festival, sprint-car races, rodeos, wineries and private parties.
The pricing is based on the number of items included: $30 per person for a salad and pizza or $35 to include appetizers such as Buffalo wings and caprese skewers with fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes. Paying $50 provides any pizza, salad, appetizer, fresh fruit, cheese and charcuterie.
St. Helena’s Bruschetteria — setting the standard for traveling wine country cuisine
The Clif Family Winery opened its Bruschetteria food truck in 2014. And although sometimes this mobile restaurant can be found parked at special events throughout the valley, it can more often be found parked alongside the Clif Family tasting room just off of St. Helena’s Main Street. It is open for lunch Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the team stays open until 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays for their weekly “Street Food” celebration where they serve ethnic or themed meals, such as their recent “Israeli” or “Breakfast for dinner” menus.
Executive Chef John McConnell is not unfamiliar with Bay Area cuisine — he’s been the executive chef for Hillstone Restaurant Group (Rutherford Grill and R+D Kitchen), chef de cuisine for Michelin-star-rated Campton Place Hotel in San Francisco and chef de cuisine at Terra in St. Helena. For the last four years, he’s guided the Bruschetteria from merely a good food truck to a venue for showcasing locally sourced products in creative and delicious ways.
“Having a strong team, access to our nearby commissary kitchen and produce, eggs and olive oil from our own farm makes a big difference,” McConnell said. “And for our guests, they can order food from the menu, take a few steps to grab some wine at our tasting room and then take their time eating and sipping wine on our patio — it’s a unique experience.”
McConnell’s menu is seasonal with most ingredients coming from the certified organic Clif Family Farm in Pope Valley or other local purveyors. Options include salads such as the surprisingly tender cavolo kale greens with garlic anchovy vinaigrette, pecorino cheese and crunchy chunks of apple ($6 for the small version and $10.50 for large).
As nibbles, the deep-fried golden saffron-infused rice arancini served with chunky salsa pomodoro ($6) are best eaten quickly to savor their creamy centers and crispy exteriors. Unlike many bruschettas, those offered here are more similar to plate-sized open-faced sandwiches that have been cut into pieces to encourage sharing. That speaks to the inspiration for opening the truck in the first place.
“The motivation for the Bruschetteria Food Truck came from our owners’ (Clif Bar founders Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford) experience cycling through the northern Italian Dolomites, where they were fueled by bruschetta made by and shared with friends around the table,” said Linzi Gay, general manager of the winery and food truck. “We opened the truck because we wanted to create a gathering place and a place to share food, wine and community, which is what the Napa Valley is all about.”
A range of bruschettas is available. Referred to as “California on a plate,” the cured smoked salmon with avocado, paper-thin-sliced jalapeño and creme fraiche ($14) is accented with Clif Family “everything seasoning,” which transforms the visually striking dish into an Italian version of a New York-styled bagel and lox creation. The fungi version is covered with chewy, earthy mushrooms and melted fontina cheese and is a nice complement to the Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon available in the tasting room ($20 for 4 ounces).
To finish off the experience, try the warm cookie ($3). Made with chocolate chips from the Bay Area’s TCHO, roasted hazelnuts and a sprinkle of Jacobsen sea salt from Oregon, what appears to be a simple dessert sustains the wow factor of the other menu items.
Napa-based PICO Modern Taqueria — super-stylized tacos with a distinct Napa Valley influence
Two years ago, a group of friends became business partners and called themselves Element Group. Their first project is their PICO Modern Taqueria, a food truck that makes “Authentic Mexican dishes but with a big Napa twist,” explained the managing partner and chef, Alex Soto.
Twist is an understatement. The team members are Latino by origin but have lived and worked in the Napa Valley for years, often at locations such as the Michelin-three-star-rated Restaurant at Meadowood. With their histories and experience, they’ve transformed simple tacos into works of art.
“I’ve always found working with food something that I loved to do,” Soto said. “Early on, I liked the life of a cook — it’s a fast life within the four walls of a kitchen and even more so within a truck. I always wanted to share my cultural heritage through food with the people living here in the Napa Valley, to blend both experiences but at the same time taking them to another level.”
PICO Modern Taqueria can often be found at the Napa Premium Outlets or at Napa’s St. Clair Brown Winery and Brewery.
The menu is limited, with only six tacos available ($7 each or $15 for three). Each creation begins with different handmade tortillas and is then topped with a range of items that are more reminiscent of Chez Panisse than your typical Mexican fare. I have never witnessed a taco being made with tweezer-placed micro cilantro and sprinkled with sun-dried tomato dust. But at PICO those are just the finishing touches to layers of crafted ingredients such as duck confit with roasted almond and cacao nibs or crispy fried squash with poblano cream or the hearty slab of pork belly with slivers of finely julienned mint and chilies, accented with perfect tiny brunoise cubes of pineapple.
“We might take a little longer than other trucks,” Soto said. “But we want to make sure that in every bite you get the full experience.”
The future of food trucks in the Napa Valley
This is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of Napa Valley food trucks. The range and diversity of options reflect the community and the desires of the dining public to have food that is both fresh and of the highest quality but presented in a manner that is relatively quick and convenient.
Food trucks were first devised in Los Angeles, where Mexican food trucks drove to construction sites to serve their patrons. Now, the Abbot Kinney neighborhood in L.A. — a long boulevard in Venice — has taken the food-truck culture to new levels with “First Friday.”
Once a month, ultra-hip, cutting-edge food trucks arrive to serve the eager residents everything from hybrids of Korean and Mexican food (think kimchi on tacos instead of salsa) to vegan options of grilled veg-Philly sandwiches with cashew “Cheez Whiz ” or French fries with shredded tikka masala chicken and mint gravy.
Will the Napa Valley ever have its equivalent of Abbot Kinney? Who knows? But already, we are seeing some passionate innovation. Watch this space for insight into some of the potential leaders of this new and exciting trend.