A few years ago, in Los Angeles’ primordial past, herds of taco trucks roamed the land, bringing carne asada and lengua to construction workers, late-night club-dwellers, and hotties with headshots. These mobile kitchens were called, perhaps uncharitably, perhaps honestly, “roach coaches.” Yet the trucks were popular because they offered immediate gratification in a geography that frequently denies—or, at least, delays—it.
Over time, this success led to an evolutionary bloom in the trucks. Just as birds in a rainforest develop ever more elaborate calls to stand out in the cacophony, the trucks began taking on strange and different forms in response to the pressures of hunger and profit. They began offering a lot more than just tacos. Should you hear the haunting cry of their Twitter updates and follow the feeds, you’ll find trucks serving vegan burgers, Indian food, grilled cheese sandwiches, Korean barbecue tacos with kimchee (which have developed a cultish following), pancakes, cupcakes, French fries, hot dogs, sushi (which, because of the intense cultural mutagens of Southern California, can be served as something called a “sushi burrito”), Italian fruit ice, and kebabs. Oh, and artisanal cheeses.
Not long ago, real live Southern food joined the ecosystem. Chris Rattican cruises around town at the helm of Mattie’s Southern Kitchen, a blue-green truck bearing fried chicken, pulled pork, gumbo, shrimp and grits, and all the necessary sides for a Sunday-afternoon supper. Rattican hails from Roxboro, North Carolina, and got his start here working up an honest Southern meal for his friends in advance of the Carolina-Duke game.
In eight years, the gathering has grown to fifty guests, which keeps him in the kitchen for three days before and twenty hours the day of the game. “It’s kind of an insanely absurd feast,” Rattican says.
Now Rattican’s living the LA story. He started as a writer for reality shows like ROAD RULES and THE REAL WORLD and came to realize, as many in the fabricated-reality business do, that the fate of his very soul was imperiled. So he left TV Land and launched his Southern Kitchen in October of 2009. He dedicated it to Mattie Bradsher, the family housekeeper who took care of the young Rattican. He learned his love of Southern food at her elbow. “I would just watch her cook,” he says, from fried apple pie and biscuits to her staple: “fried chicken that I’ve never been able to replicate.”
But he gives it his best shot every weekday (his Twitter feed will alert you to his whereabouts). Seek him out and you’ll get a meat and two sides for eight bucks. One mid-seventy-degree afternoon in January, I find Rattican downtown and order fried chicken, mac and cheese, and collards. He helpfully offers a few condiments—Crystal hot sauce or Red Rooster, and a vinegary potion to top it all off. I’m not sure how Mattie did it, but Rattican’s chicken is great—peppery breading and tender meat, leaving my fingertips shining in the SoCal sunshine. The mac and cheese is creamy, large-noodled, and seemingly bottomless and the collards are a hearty treat in the land of microgreens.
Rattican tells me native Southerners look dreamily at the chalkboard menu. Locals, too, are enthusiastic, even if they need a primer. “I think I’ve explained hoppin’ John four hundred times this week alone,” he says. And almost every day, someone scans the menu for a traditional carne asada taco. “If you can find a taco like that,” he wants to tell them, “by God, I’ll make you two for free.”
So here we see that the legacy of the taco wagon hangs like a vestigial tail from every food truck’s backside. Which requires adaptation. Serving up late-night food, Rattican quickly realized that people wouldn’t order a pulled-pork sandwich. Put it on a tortilla, though...and so pulled-pork tacos and fried-chicken tacos slid onto the menu.
Rattican keeps his staples but changes out the sides—he recently added Sloppy Joes on cheddar-cheese biscuits, and meatloaf sandwiches. More work for the one-man kitchen who works seventeen-hour days at his craft. “But in that way, I don’t get bored; I get to cook new things,” he says.
Which is good, because in this ecosystem there’s always competition. A recent addition to the scene is the Asian Soul Kitchen, a hybrid beast from the minds of Akiko Konami and Richard Wright. A New York transplant, Wright says Asian soul reflects the best flavors of his and wife Konami’s food cultures. The Japanese restaurant and the soul joint, on wheels.
The menu offers Lollipop Chicken, sweet as General Tso’s on a stick. Collards with turkey and braised string beans join Thai black rice in the sides, but the spicy mac and cheese is a tongue-singeing beast, even without the Sriracha. Sometimes, contrary to nature, the strangest hybrids thrive.
Which also seems to be the case with Willoughby Road, the newest of LA’s Southern-food trucks. Jeshua J. Garza and Adrian Ochoa are Cordon Bleu–trained locals, and they know how to put out a rib. At 10:30 one night, I found myself eating spare ribs with an apple-cider-chipotle glaze, smoked for nine hours, with Fontina-cheese grits, and, as always, mac and cheese. The ribs were sweet and tender and the grits were a revelation—smooth as a puree, and able to out-cheese even the mac.
Garza, raised in nearby Indio, fell in love with Southern food in the least likely of places, Boston, smoking meats at his uncle’s famous Blue Ribbon BBQ after he graduated from chef school. When he moved back home, Garza wanted to take his act on the road. “Barbecue’s always been a thing I really love doing,” he says. “It kinda brings people together.”
The hybridization of French classical training and smoked pork butts is evident in the menu: Willoughby Road’s candied yams replace marshmallows with blue cheese and truffle honey; the grits can be had with baby shrimp, serrano peppers, and curry oil; and their version of greens features Swiss chard cooked with smoked bacon and shaved, sliced fennel. Even the fried pickles get the Jimmy Beard treatment: double-breaded and served with garlic aioli. Garza feels it’s only appropriate out here. “That’s what Southern California is, right? It’s a fusion.”
Mobile Southern food will likely endure, not just because it’s so damn pleasant, but because it seems made to travel—whether in a picnic basket or a truck. “People all over America are becoming accepting of Southern food,” says Mattie’s disciple Chris Rattican, “because they’re looking for food with an identity.”
Photographs by Brandon Reynolds