Mobile meals on four wheels

Jan. 4, 2011, 1:00 a.m.
Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Walking out of class in the Quad or strolling near Tresidder, you may have caught an alluring, sumptuous scent typically foreign to those parts of campus. Upon further inspection you may have spotted a truck, either non-descript or multi-colored, usually with a name strewn across — for instance, Bob’s Tacos or The Taste-Tester. Curious, you may have even ventured to its open, awning-covered side behind which a grill sizzles and busy cooks bustle about to appease a line of hungry patrons with their cuisine.

This unbeknownst gem on four wheels is nothing less than a food truck, one of many to have graced Stanford’s campus in recent years.

Food trucks have popped up all over the country, even garnering enough attention to warrant national competitions itching to crown the next Food Truck King. For instance, on The Food Network’s new reality show “The Great Food Truck Race,” food trucks from across the country compete to sell the most food to patrons, with the champ winning $50,000 to help his or her business.

The show is a testament to the growing popularity of food trucks of varying culinary specialties (Mexican, burgers, Asian fusion and even creme brulee, to name a few) from Los Angeles to New York, and in many other cities in between. The Bay Area, as well, is host to numerous food trucks, many of which can be tracked on Twitter or Facebook, and then reviewed through Yelp.

Although food trucks and stands in larger cities have been around for decades, food trucks catering to more suburban areas and serving gourmet or trendy items is a more recent novelty.

Those who frequent Union Square at Tresidder Union for lunch might be familiar with NetAppetit, the Thai-Chinese fusion food truck that is parked on Santa Teresa Street, just outside of the Humanities Center. According to a list of campus cafes and restaurants provided by the Physics Library, NetAppetit has a sister location on West Campus Avenue, just outside of the Medical Sciences Office Building. NetAppetit, Stanford’s only consistently present (that is, open Monday to Friday most weeks from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.), four-wheeled eatery, is a non-profit program that benefits refugee children from Asia.

The trucks serve up buffet-style Asian dishes, including pad thai, green and red curry and sweet and sour chicken and shrimp. Customers receive a Styrofoam take-out box, enter the truck and allow a chef to fill up their receptacles with whatever dishes satisfy their fancies, from egg rolls and curry to meat or vegetable teriyaki.

After loading up, the hungry patrons weigh their boxes on a scale, with prices ranging from about $4.50 to $5.50, and pick up either a water bottle or can of soda at $0.50 a pop. While undergraduates, who normally already have lunch included in their meal plans through Stanford Dining, have been known to grab a quick lunch at NetAppetit, mainly graduate students, faculty and staff are the regulars.

“The green and red curries are particularly good,” said Ryan Jones, a master’s student.

“I like that there’s a variety of things you can sample without having to commit to one flavor,” Nick Valenzuela M.A. ‘81 Ph.D. ‘85 said as he pointed out his favorite items in his take-out box.

Pamela Martinez ‘13, a customer who frequented the truck last year, was pleased with both the cuisine and the staff of the truck.

NetAppetit “is pretty good, and I really like the food they serve. The service is fast, and the owner is very nice and friendly,” Martinez said. One time, she said, “a friend of mine did not have any cash on her, and the manager let her get the food and pay the next day.”

While NetAppetit is a more permanent food fixture on Stanford’s campus, other Bay Area trucks cater to staff or construction workers nearby. For instance, in the Maples Parking lot, a Mexican food truck that sells the goods of a nearby taqueria in Santa Clara caters to those who are working on the buildings across from Maples Pavilion. Though a bit out of the way for students (it parks itself behind the main parking lot, invisible to students biking down Campus Drive), the construction workers enjoy the manageable prices and piping-hot tacos and quesadillas as a means of refueling for the next half of their work day.

However, Stanford students have been able to encounter the food trucks simply by stumbling upon them as opposed to tracking them online, as many patrons do.

Brian Chhor ‘12 was a frequent customer during his freshman year at both NetAppetit and a Mexican food truck behind the chemistry building that makes its rounds around the Engineering Building and Medical School. Chhor extolled the cheap prices and convenience of the food trucks in lieu of eating at non-mobile Stanford eateries like Union Square, the Treehouse or the CoHo.

“They are generally a lot cheaper, so you can get a large carton of food for about a third of the price of a burrito from the Treehouse or a [sandwich] from the CoHo,” Chhor said. “Depending on how many of my classes overlapped with my lunch period [per quarter], it ranged from every day to every other day, to only once or twice a month.”

Chhor said he has had no bad experiences with the food he’s consumed from food trucks, but at the same time, it’s no gourmet meal.

“You get what you pay for in terms of food quality, but overall, they do a good job of making people happy,” Chhor said.

Sam’s Chowder House, a Half Moon Bay staple for New England-style clam chowder and other seafood dishes, has jumped on the food truck bandwagon. The restaurant’s owners Paul and Julie Shankman co-founded Sam’s ChowderMobile a year and a half ago. Although Sam’s ChowderMobile has not vended on Stanford’s campus, it can often be spotted at other various locations near or within Palo Alto.

“We sell gourmet seafood, [including] lobster rolls, fish and chips, fish tacos and usually some meat items, like right now it’s a roast beef sandwich, something for the non-seafood people to eat,” said Julie Shankman.

Despite the flexibility of using a food truck, Shankman noted that there are various hoops one must jump through in order to be up and running in the first place.

“You need to get a county health permit for each county you’re going to be operating in, and then after your health permits, you get a business license from each city,” Juan Hurtado, the truck’s driver, said. “Every city is different. The permitting costs are different — some of them are very simple, some are a little in depth but not too hectic.”

While Sam’s ChowderMobile does not have any plans to visit Stanford’s campus just yet, citing the desire to respect Stanford Dining’s obligation to cater to its students and not take away business, their chowder truck can be spotted all over the Bay Area.

MoGo BBQ, another Bay Area food truck that has been spotted near the Oval, sells Mexican and Korean fusion food. Dishes include Korean BBQ short rib burritos or pork tacos, with all meats marinated in a family recipe marinade. The truck also offers the vegetarian-friendly option of replacing tofu with meat in any of their food items, as well as the opportunity of adding kimchi to essentially any dish to add an Asian flair.

Sam Pak, owner of the truck, is quick to note that MoGo BBQ jumped into the mobile meal game less than a year ago, similarly to Sam’s ChowderMobile, in order to capitalize on the growing food truck trend.

Like Julie Shankman, Pak also believes that food trucks sell food for cheaper than their immobile culinary counterparts.

“I think we’re a little bit cheaper [since] we don’t have the same overhead as sit-down places,” Pak said. “I think overall quality-wise, it’s very similar, too.”

MoGo BBQ is only one of the growing numbers of food trucks to visit Stanford’s campus and cater to students eager for a convenient epicurean adventure just outside class. As the trucks continue to gain popularity and these mobile-meal vehicles become a more frequent occurrence on campus, perhaps students, too, will jump on the bandwagon and enjoy what this culinary novelty has to offer — Bob’s Tacos and beyond.

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