A night with Calvin
Our hero hits the town with Calvin’s Sausages, a mobile food truck that feeds the masses at Reno’s bars
I love good food, and I love bar-hopping. If you’re like me, and if you’ve been out to any of Reno’s downtown bars the past few weeks, there’s a good chance you’ve met Calvin. If you haven’t yet, allow me the honor of introducing him: Calvin’s Sausages is the name of a mobile food truck that travels around the downtown area serving up gourmet sausages, falafel and fries to hungry folks at bars that don’t otherwise serve food. “Calvin” refers to a fictional character painted on the side of the truck, but in this article, I’m going to perpetuate a trend I’ve already heard catching on: referring to the truck itself as “Calvin.”
Mobile food trucks have been around the area for years, but this truck specifically targets late night diners at bars, and the food is a few notches above what you probably expect from a “roach coach.” If the hand-painted exterior and its food defy the expectations of the typical mobile food truck, these expectations are completely fulfilled by the car horn tune that Calvin blasts to announce his arrival outside any given location: “La Cucaracha.”
Last month, I did a short interview with Ryan Gold, one of the owners of Calvin’s Sausages, as well as of the Lincoln Lounge and Imperial Bar & Lounge, about the truck and its mission to make late night diners happy.
“We wanted to be able to serve food at Lincoln [Lounge],” he said. “As we were brainstorming how we wanted to do it, we were like, we should just get one of those trucks, a mobile kitchen, and that way we can do it at Lincoln and then drive it around and go bar to bar.”
Well, there are few things I enjoy more than going bar to bar, so the life of Calvin immediately appealed to me. I proposed to Gold that I tag along with Calvin for a night as an embedded journalist, like riding along in a Marine Humvee—but the battlefield I’d be riding into would be Reno’s bar scene.6:00 Lincoln Lounge
306 E. Fourth St., 323-5426
At 6 p.m., on Friday, May 7, I showed up at Calvin’s home base, Lincoln Lounge, to meet Zach Rawlinson, who was going to be working the truck that night. It was like the beginning of a blind date.
As far as blind dates go, it was a pretty good match. Rawlinson, 27, is energetic and immediately likable. He moves like an athlete and talks in a deliberate, step-by-step way. He’s prone to philosophizing, and you can sometimes hear him thinking through an idea as he speaks. His hustling and bustling energy and obsessive-compulsive work ethic are nicely balanced by a down-to-earth sense of humor and a natural, easygoing way with people.
“The good thing about food trucks is that it’s a showcase of front of the house and back of the house,” he said. There are sometimes two people working in the truck, but Rawlinson often works alone, and it’s a job that sometimes requires one person to be chef and maitre d’ simultaneously. He remembers everyone’s names and gets their orders right.
Rawlinson was born in Truckee, lived in Reno as a child, but spent his high school years and early 20s living in the South. He moved back to Reno after his home in Biloxi, Miss., was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. He spent a few years working at a local casino, a job he was happy to quit to come aboard and captain Calvin.
And he’s passionate about food.
He has a quarter sleeve tattoo of Vietnamese food on one arm, and a taco truck called Tacos del Reno on his thigh.
“I wanted to kill two birds with one stone,” he said. “I wanted a Reno tattoo, and this is where I was introduced to street food, and this is where I found my passion for food, so that led to a taco truck.”
He’s excited about his role and the response Calvin has garnered thus far.
“We’ve got a strong following,” he said. “All we have to do now is take it a step further and pass the stereotype. People don’t think anything good comes out of these. … Right now, in bigger cities, it’s a big deal. You can get, like, foie gras, like everything and anything, creative things, coming out of a truck.”7:25 Imperial Bar & Lounge
150 N. Arlington Ave., 324-6399
After some getting-to-know-you time at Lincoln Lounge, we headed out.
“We can’t just sit in one spot,” said Rawlinson, as we were pulling away. “We’ve got to go where the people are.”
Our first stop was Imperial Bar & Lounge for supplies. Food trucks are required to be supported by a commercial kitchen for storage and preparation, and Calvin’s support kitchen is at Imperial.
While Rawlinson ran into the kitchen to get the provisions he needed, I wandered the bar. It was packed with people from that weekend’s Reno River Festival. Imperial’s a great bar but infinitely more enjoyable on an off night, say, a Tuesday or a Wednesday, than it is on a slam-packed Friday. I said hello to a few friends and was happy to be on my way.7:45 The Hub Coffee Company
26 Cheney St., 323-3482
Our next stop was The Hub. Primarily a coffee shop, that night they were hosting a cigar and wine tasting. There was a relaxed, older crowd sitting outside, enjoying the finer things in life—cigars, whiskey and some old timey jazz. Rawlinson said hello to a friend and asked if he wanted anything to eat.
Rawlinson will sometimes comp some food, just to whet the appetites of the rest of the people around. “You go in, see who’s there, find a friend, make ’em something, and make the bar smell like sausage or falafel,” he said.
It worked like a charm at The Hub. A line formed pretty quickly. Calvin usually has two workers on Friday and Saturday nights, so because the truck was a man down that night, I’d agreed, as part of my ride along, to help work the truck, taking orders and money whenever it got busy. (For now, Calvin is cash only.)
It took me a minute to find the right groove for working the counter, but I started to get into the swing of it: “Do you want all the toppings? Sauerkraut, onions and peppers?”
If the customer said, “Everything,” I’d write a little “E” and draw a circle around it.
“That’s part of it!” said Rawlinson, ever the philosopher. “Getting out of your safety zone!”
The customers were consistently impressed with the food and the concept of the truck.
Surprised exclamations of “Wow! This is really good!” abounded at The Hub, affirmations that continued throughout the night.
After a while, the crowd thinned out. Rawlinson took a minute to field some phone calls and change some light bulbs in the truck.
“When it’s slow, you do prep,” he said.
I took those few minutes of down time to watch one of those long, epic, purple Nevada sunsets.8:58 Rainshadow Community Charter High School
121 Vesta St., 322-5566
Just before 9 p.m., we pulled into the parking lot of Rainshadow Community Charter High School, where the Holland Project was hosting an all-ages rock show. It was a delicate job maneuvering Calvin into the narrow parking lot, but Rawlinson handled it like a pro. There were a lot of people I knew there—regular patrons of the live music scene—so I wandered away from the truck for a few minutes to make the rounds and say a few hellos.
When I got back, a modest crowd had gathered around the truck, and I felt a little guilty about abandoning Rawlinson, though he didn’t really seem to mind. He’s what you might call a trouper.
I jumped in the truck and started taking orders. This crowd included a lot of young and idealistic punk rockers, who wanted to know if there were vegetarian or vegan offerings. (The falafel’s vegetarian, and there’s a vegan kielbasa.) Because I knew a good chunk of the people there—more than once somebody came to the window and asked, “What the heck are you doing in there?”—I had to repeatedly explain my status as “an embedded journalist.”
The plus side of the familiar crowd was that I got really warmed up and comfortable with my behind-the-counter bantering.
“You’ve got to go to Chicago for a better falafel!” said my friend Clint, with deliberate, though not necessarily inaccurate, hyperbole.
“Nah,” I said, “You’ve got to go all the way to fuckin’ Iran!”
A little subsequent research has taught me that falafel is not as popular in Iran as it is in Egypt or the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. But whatever. The line got a big laugh at the time.10:15 Chapel
1495 S. Virginia St., 324-2244
A little after 10 p.m., we left Rainshadow and headed over to nearby Chapel Tavern. This time I completely abandoned Calvin. Tim Blake was DJ-ing, spinning great stuff, mostly ’90s indie rock and punk rock. My fiancée was there, looking pretty, and I kept bumping into old friends, so I had a drink or two and completely forgot about Calvin outside until Rawlinson came in and told me it was time to go.11:05 Arco Gas Station
1390 S. Virginia St., 329-9594
We stopped to fill up Calvin at a nearby gas station. While Rawlinson was filling up the truck, I got out and was just standing there, minding my own business until I casually glanced over and saw a drunken-looking guy urinating in a trashcan.
“Whoa, dude!” I exclaimed. “I just saw your dick!”
“That’s right, you did!” he yelled back, “Because I’m pissing in a trashcan!”11:20 Foxy Olive
220 Mill St., 324-4119
We stopped at the Foxy Olive, where I hopped out of the truck and ran inside to take a much-needed piss of my own. It’s a small bar, but there was a friendly crowd there. A small group of local singer-songwriters, including Eric Foreman and Grace Hutchison, were taking turns playing songs on an electric guitar and an open mic.
I stayed in the bar long enough to hear a song by Hutchison. At the time, it occurred to me that she compares favorably to early Cat Power.
Then I ran back out to help Rawlinson.
He’s a perfectionist, something you want in a cook. He has to make the fries one batch at a time, and when a batch came out substandard, he tossed it.
I worked the counter and bantered with the customers. An anxious young woman asked me, between face-stuffing bites of her falafel, “Can you do me a favor and come by here more often?”11:55 Lincoln Lounge
306 E. Fourth St., 323-5426
After Foxy Olive, we went back by Lincoln Lounge. We saw some of the same people we had seen there earlier, though they were now significantly deeper in their cups.
I bumped into Justin Owen, another co-owner of Calvin, Imperial and Lincoln Lounge.
“How’s the night been going?” he asked.
I told him I’d been having a lot of fun and that I liked working with Rawlinson.
“Yeah,” said Owen. “We found the perfect guy for that job.”12:30 Tree House Lounge
555 E. Fourth St., 786-2582
Next, we headed over to the Tree House, the club behind the Underground on Fourth Street, which was hosting a “No-Pants Party,” an event with a distinct Burning Man vibe.
This was one of the more unique and out-of-the-box stops we made, though the first conversation I had as I stepped out of the truck reminded me of the snobbery that’s one of my least favorite things about Burning Man culture.
“Dude, you look like a Burner,” said some pants-less guy.
“I’m not,” I replied. “I’ve been to Burning Man. But I wouldn’t call myself a Burner.”
“How many times have you been?
“Six or seven.”
“You’re legit. I’ve been 11.”
Inside, the local hip-hop group Black Rock City All-Stars was really cooking. They sounded great, and people were moving and getting freaky on the dance floor. And nobody was wearing any pants.
Back in the truck, leaning over the counter, taking orders, I talked to some interesting people I’d never met before. One was a guy who was hosting an art show at his house in a few weeks. I told him that my day job was the arts editor at the Reno News & Review and gave him one of my business cards, but I honestly think he thought I was giving him a card with Calvin’s phone number.
I also had an over-the-counter conversation with a redheaded woman wearing lingerie. She wanted to get philosophical.
“Why do we do it all?” she asked. “Why do we get up in the morning?”
Then she told me she was a writer, primarily of erotica, and that she was trying to find the motivation and inspiration to finish her latest novel. Make of that what you will.1:25 Biggest Little City Club
188 California Ave., 322-2480
Our last bar stop that night was at Biggest Little City Club. Pulling into the parking lot required another masterful piece of driving by Rawlinson. He parks that truck like it’s a finger that can fit into any glove. Inside, there was a hip-hop show just winding down. There was still a sizable crowd, but no one seemed very hungry. I haven’t spent much time at BLCC, so it still always strikes me as a sort of “Bizarro World” Satellite Lounge, which was the previous bar in the same location.
Calvin didn’t attract many patrons at BLCC—it was just a little too late—but the few who did eat seemed happy. There were some indecipherable mouth-full exclamations of pleasure.
“We always get that,” said Rawlinson. “Especially when you start wrapping stuff in bacon. Then, you hear a lot of vocal orgasms out there.”2:15 Family meal
Rawlinson was kind enough to drop me off at my house. On the way, we pulled over to eat a quick end-of-the-shift meal.
“It’s the family meal, your staff meal basically, where you pull something together from scraps, and you come together,” said Rawlinson. “We all work together. We work as a team. So at the end of the night, we eat together.”
He’d picked up some chorizo from Ponderosa Meats especially for the occasion and threw something together with the extra vegetables. It tasted great. We were both tired and a little delirious, especially Rawlinson, who had been working significantly harder than me, but we were both happy with how the night had gone.
“You came on a good night,” he said. “There was a lot of running around, making decisions, people calling us, ‘You need to get over here now!’”