In a space about the size of a shower, Rogelio “Ro” Rabelo whips up French fries and hot dogs — including wiener-cheese-egg breakfast dogs — which he sells, with a smile and manner that outshine the sun, through a playhouse-tiny window. A few miles away on Emeryville’s Hollis Street, in a space not much wider than his armspan, Jon Kosorek pulls fresh mozzarella and assembles BLTs using bacon he has cured himself. He’s a trained chef. So is Gail Lillian, who, outside Pixar Studios, ladles made-from-scratch cardamom pickle, olive-orange relish, chimichurri herb paste, and sesame-seed cabbage into falafels that she sells from a spring-green truck bearing the painted creed “LOVE ALWAYS.”
At the Lake Merritt Farmers’ Market, spiced smoke wafts in knock-down draughts from the three-foot-wide rig where Matt and Charlotte Gonzalez prepare ten-pound briskets and five-pound tri-tips infused with their award-winning salt-free dry rubs. On Berkeley’s Fourth Street, Kate McEachern sells fresh cupcakes — including her popular s’mores type, complete with Graham crackers and hand-toasted marshmallow frosting — from a polka-dotted van. In a purple truck outside Oakland’s Grocery Outlet, Eric Hill and his crew craft baked beans, barbecue, catfish, cornbread, and enough spicy delights to bring the whole South north.
And at day’s end, or when the food runs out, they all shut down, scrub up, and roll away.
Street food dates way back. Shoppers bought hot lentil soup at public markets in classical Athens. In medieval Constantinople, legions of vendors proffered cheese pies, custard pies, honey cake, and baked carrots. The East Bay’s street food is all over the place, in more ways than one. Pizza Politana’s husband-and-wife proprietors Joel Baecker and Naomi Crawford imported an authentic Neapolitan wood-fired oven, lodged it on a custom-built trailer, and serve their hand-tossed, all-organic pies at the Temescal and Old Oakland farmers’ markets. Thomas Odermatt learned to honor, cut, and cook meat from his father, a Swiss master butcher. Odermatt’s Roli Roti™, another Oakland farmers’-market regular, is the nation’s first-ever rolling rotisserie.
Lillian, who earned a diploma from the San Francisco Baking Institute and once owned her own Oakland cafe, was inspired by visits to Amsterdam — where, she said, “the overall experience was about fresh, vibrant salads that made the falafel sandwich a celebration of farms, sun, health, and phenomenal flavor. I held onto that impression for years” and then launched a mobile eatery, Liba. For her patties, sweet-potato fries, and toppings — which also include roasted eggplant, herbed beets, hummus, and fiery harissa — Lillian uses only organic produce, most of it ordered from the nation’s oldest certified-organic distributor, San Francisco’s Veritable Vegetable.
After earning rave reviews as a chef at San Anselmo’s Fork, Culinary Institute of America graduate Kosorek decided to open his own restaurant. He obtained a lease on Oakland’s Auto Row: “Then the economy started to tank,” he said with a shrug. “My major investors backed out, but I thought: I’m gonna make this happen anyway.” Two years later, fervent followers track Jon’s Street Eats on Twitter. Confounding the ostensible purpose of street food, some drive all the way from Walnut Creek to sample his ever-shifting seasonal menus, which range wildly from chicken-liver mousse to scrapple to lavender ice cream. When passersby mistake his custom-designed van for a taco truck or hot-dog stand, he gives a rueful laugh: “I sell my gourmet food-cart stuff to the people who know and appreciate it.”
As a UC Berkeley student, McEachern loved to bake: “It eased the stress,” said the former English major, who wrote and edited for Dwell after graduating. But her hobby had legs and, like Kosorek, she wanted her own shop. The price of brick-and-mortar bakeries proved prohibitive, so a friend suggested street food. Finding a name was a no-brainer: Cupkates. At a cooperative artisan kitchen in Richmond, using locally sourced Clover dairy products and Guittard chocolate, McEachern bakes “very, very well into the night,” then loads up in the morning to begin her route, posting locations frequently on Twitter: “I’m the baker, the truck driver, the clerk, the accountant.” Some Saturday nights, she sells Guinness cupcakes outside Henry’s bar in Berkeley.
Desi Dog is a hot-dog stand, which Rabelo bought via Craigslist and which bears the image of his mascot, a curvy red-leotarded lady inside a bun. Hot dogs are always anthropomorphized as male figures, complains Rabelo, who sells food for half-price during Monday- and Friday-evening “happy hours.” “So it was about time we had a female version. She’s the original hottie.” But definitely not a dog. A few feet away, La Villa FreshMex is Telegraph-and-Bancroft’s answer to a taco truck, dispensing home-style carnitas, asada, al pastor, burritos, nachos, tortas, and tamales. Like other taco trucks, La Villa reminds us of why we buy food outside in the first place: because it’s cheaper. (Well, in principle. At $2, a hefty eight-inch vegetable-cheese La Villa tamale costs less than a Cupkates cupcake.)
Equipped with a grill, smoker, stove, two ovens, and four fryers, Eric Hill’s Shuga Hill rig “is a full restaurant on wheels,” beams cook Haywood Anderson. Nearly every item on his huge soul-food menu is made fresh daily, on-site — from ribs to red-velvet cake to collard greens. Like the mac-and-cheese and potato salad, Shuga Hill’s greens are meatless and prepared with a bouquet of secret ingredients. “If I told you what was in it,” Anderson taunted, “you’d make it too, and put us out of business.”
Matt and Charlotte Gonzalez were always the couple to whose house everyone always headed for barbecue. “That’s what prompted me to place us in competitions,” Charlotte remembered. “And that’s when we started winning.” After six years of awards at the Alameda Country Rib Cookoff and other contests, the couple dubbed their enterprise Phat Matt’s BBQ, acquired a custom outfit comprising two smoker chambers, warmers, and a slide-out grill. It hitches to a truck. On Sunday mornings, the Gonzalezes reach the farmers’ market at around 6 a.m. Three hours of hard work later — which doesn’t include those previous days and weeks spent procuring top-grade meat and making their dry rub and thirty-ingredient sauce — they’re ready for customers.
“The secret,” Charlotte said, “is love.”