‘Eat the street!’
The street-food revolution is beginning rise up in Chico
For locals who love food, there are few things in Chico as exciting as walking along Broadway between Third and Fourth streets during the Thursday Night Market.
Those two blocks (plus a couple of off-shoots along the way: Fourth Street and on the Main Street side of the City Plaza) offer dozens of choices for the same amount of money one might spend at the fast-food chains, and a variety of amazing flavors that far outshine those chains (and even many of the more-expensive brick-and-mortar restaurants): artisan tamales, smoking plates of fresh barbecue, Korean tacos, gourmet cupcakes, grilled-cheese sandwiches, healthful plates of organic vegetables and grass-fed beef, homemade ice cream, and authentic Filipino cuisine, to name a few.
Now a full-fledged “movement,” street food has taken over in the United States, especially in big cities. In Portland, Ore., the food “pods”—permanent outdoor food-courts where trucks park together—are some of the most popular destinations for those seeking a wide variety of inexpensive dining options as well as a vibrant place to hang out with the community. The same goes for the rotating Off the Grid street-food markets in the Bay Area. The huge Friday night OTG gathering at Fort Mason in San Francisco hosts more than 30 food trucks and features four full outdoor bars serving cocktails, craft beers and wines.
While Chico, like a lot of cities out West, has for years been fortunate to have a variety of taco trucks feeding us some of the best food in town at some of the lowest prices, the greater street-food scene is just starting to come into its own locally. With new flavors and new trucks, trailers and carts—from the cheesy goodness melting forth from the windows of the big, black Mayhem Gourmet Grilled Cheese truck to the gourmet baked goods of the Cupcake Crusader—a quickly expanding menu of choices has joined our Mexican favorites at the market, at community events and in parking lots across Chico.
What follows are a handful of profiles on a variety of these outdoor vendors—some new and some established—serving high-quality, inexpensive food choices on the streets of Chico.
First family of street food
Inday’s Filipino Food, Crazy Dog, Ethel’s Sweets
When it comes to the family business, all members of the Geiger family take part. John Geiger is the face under the umbrella of the Crazy Dog cart parked throughout the school year on the sidewalk on the Warner Street side of the Chico State campus. John’s Philippines-born wife, Ethel, is the brains behind the recipes of the Inday’s Filipino Food trailer that the couple operate during the Thursday Night Market. And even the Geiger kids, 10-year-old Geo and 7-year-old Ally, are on the street, manning the little Ethel’s Sweets ice-cream-and-snacks cart alongside their parents at special events.
“If there’s an event, a music festival or something, I’ll say, ‘Hey, is it OK if we bring [the Ethel’s Sweets cart] along to keep our kids busy?,’” said John, during a recent conversation about his businesses and Chico’s rising street-food movement. “And then we can set it up right with Crazy Dog or with Inday’s. … In fact, at Kite Day, we had all three, and they outsold both of ours!”
At a recent Thursday Night Market, the whole family was together around the cute tropical-themed Inday’s (pronounced “Ind-eyes”) trailer. John rotated skewers of chicken and little homemade pork sausages over flames on the grill set up next to the main trailer, while a smiling Ethel served various Filipino specialties—halang-halang (ground pork and vegetables), pancit bihon (noodles with shrimp, chicken and toasted almonds) and crispy little fried lumpia rolls—to a line of customers braving the summer heat for their fix. For their part, the kids were alternately chilling in little chairs behind their dad, and making friends with customers (with young Ally sharing her drawings of animals, including the magical Super Bunny).
It makes sense that the family of John Geiger would be such visible members of the Chico street-food scene. Not only is he one of Chico’s earliest outdoor food vendors, having operated the popular Crazy Dog cart continually for 14 years since opening in 1999, but he’s also become the de facto leader of the current movement thanks to his “Street Food, Chico” Facebook page. Started three years ago—and operating under the slogan “Eat the street!”—the page features photos of local food trucks and carts and the food they serve, casual food reviews, plus links to the pages of Geiger’s street-food brethren.
But the most significant feature lately has been the page’s daily Street Food Report. Every morning, Monday through Saturday, Geiger posts the day’s location for each of the local vendors. There are currently roughly 30 participants, ranging from the many taco trucks that mostly stay put in one location, to the trucks that rotate among the best lunch-hour spots around town.
“The Cupcake Crusader really kind of started it [locally], I think,” Geiger said when talking about how the “mobile-cuisine vendors” utilize the power of social media and the Internet to keep customers up to date on their activities. “Tia Zimmerman, she was the first with a truck that moved from place to place, and [who] had a Facebook page, and she would post where she would be that day.
“I’m just borrowing from other people’s Facebook sites, really,” Geiger explained as he put the finishing touches on his Wednesday Facebook post. While he admits that he’s not really looking to be an official organizer, Geiger is excited about the growing local interest and the increasing number of street-food vendors in the area. And he’s been talking to the energetic owners of The Hunter & The Farmer truck—Jenna Hunter and Analise Farmer—about organizing a regular local gathering of vendors much like the one-stop-shop approach of the Off the Grid street-food markets in the Bay Area.
“We’re planning to do a monthly or bi-monthly food-truck rally kind of thing where we set up in one spot. People love that idea.” When asked where and when it might happen, Geiger said that they need something with plenty of parking—for trucks and patrons—and suggested that one of the CARD parks might be a possibility. The first rally is planned for July 17, 5-9 p.m., and the site will be announced on the “Street Food, Chico” page that day.
“I don’t know, hopefully they’ll show up,” Geiger said with a measure of practical caution. “This isn’t San Francisco.” Maybe not, but if the mob scenes around trucks in local parking lots and at the markets are any indication, a regular street-food rally that brought all the food and the community into one place would seem to be a fairly safe bet.
Half-brothers Mike Janosz and Benji Mallicoat have one of the biggest food trucks in town—the unmistakable Chico Chuckwagon. The 26-foot behemoth is an impressive sight, but it’s even more impressive considering its humble beginnings as a Frito-Lay step-up van.
“It was basically an aluminum box,” said Janosz, who noted that purchasing a ready-to-serve truck equivalent to what he was looking for would have cost around $120,000.
Janosz flew out to Ohio with a friend nearly two years ago to buy the van. That trip was an adventure of its own, but the real work started upon the return to Chico. That’s when Janosz and his father, Gary, a retired local schoolteacher, set to work on alterations that would transform the van, essentially a shell, into a viable food truck.
Their efforts took a year and a half to accomplish. But the result is one super-deluxe, professional set-up that includes, among other things, a large grill, deep fryer, freezer, refrigerator and—unusual for food trucks—its own restroom. Janosz and his dad equipped the truck so well, in fact, that the undercarriage required reinforcing.
“It’s pretty much an entire kitchen on wheels,” Janosz said of the massive truck he had wrapped with its distinctive logo of an old-timey chuckwagon.
Mallicoat, 34, and Janosz, 24, have both worked in restaurants, but neither had experience in the food-truck business. The brothers admit there has been a bit of a learning curve since Chico Chuckwagon hit the street-food scene back in March, but they’ve found a good rhythm. Currently, they set up outside of Build.com on Otterson Drive on Mondays, and in the parking lot of Home Depot Tuesday through Friday. Weekends are devoted to working special events.
The brothers serve up a variety of traditional sandwiches—all made to order—such as BLT, hot pastrami, grilled cheese and a spicy, very flavorful Philly cheese-steak, among others. But they also make delicious perogies—dumplings made traditionally with a filling of cheesy mashed potatoes and onions or in variations with kielbasa sausage or jalapeños—inspired by Janosz’s Polish grandmother.
“We’re kind of like bar food, but without the bar,” Mallicoat said of the menu.
Janosz noted that the truck also features some healthful options, including its popular açaí bowl—a sorbet made from the juice of those berries and agave, topped with granola, fresh fruit and berries.
Mallicoat said the menu keeps expanding based on customer feedback. Janosz echoed him, adding that the specials often become so popular that they end up as part of the menu. The brothers say they eventually would like to establish some sort of brick-and-mortar eatery, perhaps a sports bar and restaurant. But those aspirations are a ways off for now.
“We want to expand to something, but we’re not exactly sure what yet,” Mallicoat said.
Food for cavewomen
The Hunter & The Farmer
Upon first meeting Analise Farmer, co-owner of The Hunter & The Farmer food truck, one thing was immediately apparent—she’s in awesome shape.
The Scottish-born Farmer, along with her partner, Jenna Hunter, have been dishing out food that adheres to the increasingly popular Paleo diet from their truck since January, but the two had been following the diet (a mix of what was available to our ancestors in the Paleolithic era—fish, grass-fed meats, eggs, vegetables, fungi, roots and nuts) well before launching their business.
“We were never overweight, we were always fit and active, and we always ate pretty healthy, or so we thought,” Farmer said during a lull in the lunch-hour rush outside of the Coffee Ranch on East First Avenue. But when the pair discovered the Paleo diet while cross-fit training at NorCal Strength & Conditioning, they realized their American diets (heavy on bread and pasta, Farmer said) weren’t providing optimum fuel for their active lifestyles.
“We noticed it in our recovery,” Farmer said of the couple’s switch to Paleo. “The benefits of working out became much more noticeable on our bodies.”
Hunter and Farmer, who met as assistant soccer coaches at Humboldt State and moved together to coach soccer at Chico State, made frequent jokes about starting a Paleo food truck using their last names. But last year, when the pair became “burnt out” from coaching, they decided to get serious about the idea.
“When we first started, we tried not to label ourselves as ‘the Paleo food truck,’” Farmer said. “It was just, ‘We’re The Hunter & The Farmer; this is what we serve.’ We didn’t want to scare people away by labeling ourselves the Paleo food truck, because you immediately limit yourself.”
But after opening, customer response—particularly from individuals with gluten intolerance, auto-immune deficiency or celiac disease—was such that Hunter and Farmer were initially overwhelmed.
“Right off the bat, we thought we could do it ourselves,” Farmer said. “In our first week, Jenna quit her other job [at Leon Bistro] and now we have four [part-time] employees.”
Last week, their rotating menu included dishes like the Taco Smash, with ground beef served over smashed yams and topped with avocado and salsa, and the Summer Salad, which included organic mixed greens with red onions, blanched green and wax beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, Chandler walnuts and apricots.
Farmer added that providing a quick bite for customers with dietary restrictions, many of whom have difficulty finding places to eat out, has been tremendously rewarding.
“Some of them were like, ‘This is the first time I’ve eaten out in years,’” she said. “We thought it was so cool to provide that for those people.”
Now, Hunter and Farmer embrace the “Paleo food truck” label, and though they champion the Paleo lifestyle, they make a point not to push it on their customers.
“We’re not saying everyone should eat Paleo 100 percent of the time,” Farmer said. “We’re just trying to get people to eat a little bit cleaner and provide healthier options for them, especially for food that’s on-the-go.”
Here Today Coffee Cart
Bobbi Tryon’s Here Today Coffee Cart is for a number of Chicoans the first stop they make every Saturday morning before doing their weekly shopping at the downtown farmers’ market.
Open from 8 a.m. until 1:30 or 2 p.m., and located on the sidewalk just outside the western boundary of the market, Tryon’s cart offers what many swear is the best coffee in town—freshly drip-brewed by the cup at Tryon’s coffee bar and available in “strong” and “stronger” for $2.50 and $3, respectively. Couple that with her to-die-for homemade whole-wheat chocolate-chip cookies and the 15 or so chairs arranged around the cart in a sort of open-air café, and it’s easy to see why some folks don’t make it into the market for hours.
“That’s one of the things about the cart that’s so great—I am instantly loved because I have coffee,” Tryon said.
Tryon—a longtime nurse who retired in April—is also loved for her cheery manner and willingness to dispense good advice. “As I am making coffee, I’m a good enough multitasker now that a conversation is usually going on, a little counseling. And I’m a nurse, so I get a lot of medical questions,” she said.
This September, the Here Today cart—which also sells hot chocolate, mochas, chai, fresh-squeezed lemonade and assorted teas (all drinks, including the lemonade, are available hot or iced)—will have been in business for 13 years, at the exact same location. Tryon and her husband and “right-hand man,” Bob Speer (“the other Bob Speer,” she noted, referring to the fact that her husband has the same name as the recently retired editor of the CN&R), conceived of the idea after a vacation in Thailand in January 2000, when they were still a new couple.
“We saw a bunch of things [food items] sold in the street,” Tryon said of their trip. “And also, we were kind of sick of getting lousy coffee” in Chico. Planning the coffee cart—which Speer built—was their “pillow talk.”
Besides, “I have always liked to have a little business going,” Tryon said. She used to make sandals, and she and Speer make the wood-and-canvas festival chairs that Here Today patrons relax in on Saturdays.
What’s the secret to Tryon’s delectable coffee?
“It’s freshly ground that morning, and it’s a finer grind than what people normally use,” she said of her special blend of dark and light Thanksgiving Coffee Co. beans. “And simply because it’s made individually by the cup, nothing sits around. …
“And I use a lot of coffee—that’s another reason probably.”
Tryon has recently begun selling a new variety of her fabulous cookies—laced with ground coffee, “and people are liking them,” she said with a smile.
And yes, it’s not all about the caffeine at the coffee cart: “I sell decaf, too,” Tryon said.
Fire in the street
After sampling a slice from a trailer-mounted wood-burning pizza oven while vacationing in Oregon last year, Chico lawyer Michael Shepherd immediately called his son, Andy, and asked if he wanted to start a business. A few short months later, in late April, the younger Shepherd hitched his own custom-built mobile pizza machine to the back of his truck and hit the streets.
Thus began Pop’s Pizza, which Andy named in honor of the Shepherd patriarch. After a few months hopping from location to location, Andy found a good spot in the lot of Spike’s Bottle Shop on East First Avenue, where he can now be found most days, cooking and serving delectable artisan-style pizzas with his two-man crew.
In a town full of great pizza, Pop’s has carved a significant niche in just over a year, largely via word of mouth, a Facebook profile and catching the eye of curious passersby.
Though it lacks walls or any other perks of permanence, the spot has its own charm, especially evident on a recent Friday when Andy invited fellow food-trucker Ike’s Smoke House to set up shop on the other side of a picnic table from the Pop’s oven and adjacent tent. Reggae music filled the air from a PA system in front of the liquor store, and a few dozen people came to eat at one—or both—of the trucks.
“We’ve got a great spot, which is important since we don’t have the luxury that some of the trucks have, where they can pull up on the side of the road anywhere,” Andy said during a brief respite from his station in front of the oven, detailing the pizza truck’s symbiotic relationship with Spike’s. “We pay rent—a very fair price—and I think we complement each other nicely. We don’t have to worry about selling drinks, so we can bring more pizza stuff.”
Pop’s Pizza trailer is a marvelously efficient creation. A sink is built-in near the hitch, and everything they need—the tent, various tools of the trade and a large refrigerated pizza table—can be stored beneath the large stone oven covered in glass tile. When loaded with burning wood, the oven maintains a temperature between 550 and 600 degrees, giving Pop’s pies a distinctive, wood-fired character.
Pop’s menu is always changing. It generally offers a few standbys, like pepperoni, and Hawaiian, and a weekly special with toppings largely dictated by what Andy picks up on his weekly trips to the farmers’ market. A recent example was the white-zucchini pizza, featuring feta cheese, roasted garlic, zucchini, olives and mozzarella over a lemon olive-oil base. They also have vegan selections and secret specials advertised only through Facebook, such as the recent Fig and Pig, which featured figs and prosciutto with feta and garlic on a red-sauce base.
“Pop”—Michael—still plays an active role in the business, as does Andy’s mother, Tesa, who keeps the books. Andy said, other than family, his employees include close friends: “It couldn’t be any more fun. We’re a tight-knit group with a lot of trust and a lot of love.”
Michael also praised his extended-family-of-sorts, Chico’s growing food-truck community. “It’s a great group of people, and there’s a lot of great trucks out there right now,” he said. “But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Other towns are filled with food trucks, and that’s going to happen here. Chico is perfect for it.”