Sitting on the tailgate of her station wagon, Karen Greco of Irvine feasted on surf and turf—skewers of Kobe beef and tiger shrimp. She follows the Chomp Chomp Nation truck, which riffs off Singapore street hawker food. If she misses it on Sunday in Irvine, she goes to wherever it'll be next.
On a recent Tuesday, that was at Forest Lanes, a popular bowling alley in Lake Forest.
Food trends don’t typically start in suburban communities such as Lake Forest, or even find their way to them until they are so mainstream as to be unremarkable, but the city’s location at the juncture of the 5 and 405 freeways made it a prime location for a food truck meet-up.
“I’m from Laguna Hills and was familiar with Forest Lanes and thought it would be a good spot,” says Stephanie Morgan, one of the chefs who run the Seabirds Truck, which serves a vegan menu and was recently a on The Great Food Truck Race on Food Network. Last fall, she called bowling alley owner Charlie Kinstler and pitched the idea of a food truck lineup on Tuesday nights. Kinstler was willing to give it a try.
“Lake Forest has been great,” Morgan says. “It’s been really receptive, and it’s been growing each week that we’re here.”
Lake Forest resident Helen, a vegan, has made the truck a regular stop for almost a year now. She likes that it’s only a two-block walk from her house.
Local, Organic Ingredients
Besides the novelty and variety, the appeal includes the chefs’ focus on local, organic and handmade ingredients.
Chef Jennifer Norton of Barcelona on the Go, which specializes in Spanish cuisine, buys parsley by the case for her chimichurri sauce—a blend of garlic, parsley, olive oil and spices that tops the truck’s signature dish of steak over fries. She buys prime meat, the best grade—rare even at steakhouses—and artisanal sausage made in Harbor City.
“There are certain ingredients that I absolutely use organic for,” Norton says. “Our corn salsa, I use organic corn. It holds better, it has a beautiful color, it has a beautiful texture, so that’s a consistent thing that I buy, and I buy it in bulk. Our pasta for our mac and cheese, I use organic pasta because the other pastas just fall apart and crumble, and I want a solid organic semolina flour that’s going to hold and be strong and rustic and I can serve mac and cheese all shift long, three hours' worth, and it doesn’t just completely turn into mush. The idea is that we use the best we can and do the best we can with what we have.”
The lineup, scheduled by Morgan, can change from week to week. In addition to Seabirds, trucks that make appearances include Barcelona on the Go, the Lime Truck, Louks to Go, Chomp Chomp Nation and Longboards Ice Cream.
'Lots of Families'
Mike Stebinger, owner of Longboards Ice Cream, likes coming to Lake Forest.
“More and more people are coming out and getting excited about us coming down, so it’s a good place, lots of families, so we love that,” he says.
Robert Zuetell, one of the partners in Chomp Chomp Nation, has brought the Singapore truck to the Lake Forest gathering three or four times in the past 10 months, but he’s hoping to make it a monthly event.
“We like it here," he said. "The people that come here for the trucks come here for the food. I’d like to see some of the bowlers eat more of the food, but the gathering that comes for the trucks is awesome.”
Customers follow their favorite trucks, are invited by friends, or hear about the trucks through television or social media. First-timer Jacqueline Barlow of Lake Forest was enjoying the avocado tacos from the Seabirds Truck and fries and cheeseburger sliders from the Flip Truck.
“I heard the fries were fantastic, and I love cheeseburgers,” she says. “The avocado tacos were delicious. I was going to try the manchego mac and cheese [from Barcelona on the Go], but they had erased it off the board for the night. I’m definitely bringing back my husband. It’s a do over again and again and again.”
Her friend Crystal Wishart of Foothill Ranch comes every Tuesday. She’s not a vegan, but she’s a fan of Seabirds’ beer-battered avocado tacos and likes to try items from the other trucks as well.
“It takes some time to build interest in vegan food,” Morgan says. “A lot of people don’t think it’s for them because they eat meat, but we’re trying to show them that they can have a great meal full of flavor that doesn’t include meat or cheese and still feel really satisfied.”
Business Is Back
Visits to the trucks started off strong but slowed significantly last spring after the Seabirds team left to compete in The Great Food Truck Race, Norton says. Thanks to the interest generated by the show, as well as Morgan’s return as scheduler, people are showing up again. Siena, age 11, and her brother came with their parents and grandparents because they had seen the show.
“This is our first time,” she says. “We came for the Seabirds Truck, and we went to the Flip Truck.”
The location is a bit hidden, but word of mouth is helping it grow.
“It’s a good family night, it’s a good date night,” Morgan says. “I think that word is spreading and people are telling their neighbors, and lots of people are coming out.”