Bus Stop Tacos, or How I Dove Into L.A.’s Food Truck Culture

All I wanted was a taco. A Kogi BBQ short-rib taco, to be precise.

In search of this taco, I flew across the country. I stalked Twitter and plotted my route to a busy Los Angeles street. I waited in a long line on a cold Saturday night. I ordered, paid, and waited longer. When my order was up, I grabbed my food.

Only then, after I had come so far, and was so close to finally digging in, did I realize I couldn’t eat dripping tacos standing up. But I was at a food truck on a dirty sidewalk, and there was nowhere to sit. Except…

That’s how I ended up on a bench at a bus stop along L.A.’s Miracle Mile, scarfing down tacos. But my bus stop surroundings seemed to fade away as soon as I inhaled the spicy aroma and took my first bite of the deeply flavored caramelized short-rib barbecue and smoky salsas topping two crisp corn tortillas. I sensed people milling around me, yet I was so absorbed in devouring the delicious tacos that I was completely surprised when an L.A. Muni bus pulled up and passengers boarded. This was no place to linger, so after a satisfying last bite, I wiped the sauce that had dripped onto my hand and down my arm and headed back to my hotel.

As far as plum assignments go, writing a story for National Geographic on L.A.’s food trucks was pretty plummy. Not coincidentally, I’m the magazine’s managing editor. Yet after we approved the story as part of our Future of Food initiative, I hadn’t given it much thought. Until I received a late-night message from the editor: “I just had a genius idea,” she wrote. “Or maybe it’s crazy and unworkable and wrong, you tell me. What if you were to write the food trucks story?” Then she listed a bunch of reasons why I should—among them that I’m from L.A. and had worked there as an editor at Bon Appétit—and one reason why I shouldn’t: “You have enough stuff going on already.”

She was right. As managing editor at a major magazine, I already had a lot on my plate. Adding a feature story assignment on top was crazy. But I couldn’t shake the idea, and the next day I accepted the assignment. I had already planned a trip to visit family in Los Angeles, so I tacked on several extra days to report the story.

What I found was more than just a story; it was a way of life, a way of eating that has become part of the fabric of this city, and many others across the country. Of course, Los Angeles street food encompasses much more than just tacos. There are hundreds of food trucks throughout the city, many of which gather where pedestrians flock together: Venice and Santa Monica beaches, downtown, and cultural landmarks. A flurry of street food tweets led me to 16 trucks lined up on a single block across the street from the L.A. County Museum of Art one afternoon.

Picture of a fountain

Photograph by David Brindley for National Geographic

The “eclectic smell,” as one of the hundred or so customers milling about observed, is a heady combination of diverse dishes and cuisines: burgers and barbecue to bahn mi, currywurst, kebabs, pierogi, and Thai “bombs.” Bonus: steps in front of the buildings provide plenty of places to sit.

One of my favorite meals was from Vizzi Truck, which uses French cooking techniques to create Asian fusion dishes. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, I found Vizzi parked in downtown’s Pershing Square. Spicy bonsai bacon burger sliders were served on sweet Hawaiian rolls, and freshly chopped parsley and chives topped the confit grilled potatoes with lardoons. The flavors weren’t subtle, but the combination of ingredients and preparation were surprisingly sophisticated.

I had come to Los Angeles in search of tacos, and came away with a deep appreciation for the wide variety of street food options throughout the city. Photographer Gerd Ludwig captured that mix in his evocative portraits of trucks, dishes, and customers for the July feature story on food trucks.

While L.A. is where the gourmet food truck craze took off, the trend has now spread to other U.S. cities. Almost half of us have eaten at a food truck, (see our video, Food Truck Nation,) and the industry raked in more than $800 million last year, thanks in large part to the trucks’ low start-up costs and social media savvy. And of course, cities all over the world have celebrated street eating for centuries (See Your Shot: The Global Appeal of Street Food).

So be sure to join our #streetfood photo challenge and share your own favorite food truck photos and stories. Join National Geographic’s Your Shot community and submit your image tagged #streetfood before June 30. The images are shared online and discussed by the community, and then a National Geographic editor selects the top images. The winners will be featured right here on National Geographic’s food blog, The Plate, on July 7.

David Brindley is the managing editor of National Geographic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @wordies.