The Lime Truck Is No Lemon
Those naysayers who dismiss this so-called food-truck movement as a fad will probably be right someday. There will be a time when all the wheeled kitchens are turned into regular ol' loncheras instead of their current luxe incarnations, and the whole idea will go the way of the drive-in theater and the dodo. But for now—since last year, really—you needn't look any farther than a weekly food-truck meet-up such as the OC Din-Din-A-Go-Go event at Irvine Lanes on Wednesday nights to see entire families with foldout chairs and tables having a great time. In 20 years or so, they will remember it with the same fondness their grandparents might carhops.
For these diners, trucks accommodate food promiscuity like no other. It's the best way to sample new inventions without the formality of restaurants. Ask yourself: Where else but on a food truck could Kogi BBQ's addictive Korean-Mexican amalgamations become a national sensation instead of what UC Irvine and UCLA students have been creating since the 1990s? And where else but a food truck could the brilliant Dos Chinos and others inspired by Kogi continue innovating?
Also, it could be argued that if it weren't for Kogi, we might have never become acquainted with the Lime Truck—one of the most inventive and successful luxe loncheras to debut since Roy Choi got behind the wheel. In little more than a year, the Lime Truck's Daniel Shemtob and Jason Quinn have enjoyed an enviable trajectory, gaining groupies willing to fly across the country to root for them as contestants on The Great Food Truck Race, a competition currently airing on the Food Network that they seem poised to win. Quinn is getting ready to open a burger joint in Santa Ana, while Shemtob lined up a semi-permanent brick-and-mortar parking spot for a second truck at Costa Mesa's SoCo. If they've become the poster boys for OC's vibrant luxe lonchera scene, it's because they fit the profile. Like their peers, they're still ridiculously young. But with it comes the kind of brazen confidence that only youth can create. Shredded-duck confit profiteroles with passion-fruit coulis and honey gastrique? Why not?
More than their contemporaries, Shemtob and Quinn have recognized that people don't come to a food-truck event to eat regular food. The Lime Truck guys know their repeat customers are not only open to something new, but they also expect it. Quinn and chef de cuisine Jesse Brockman are cuisine-agnostic, as apt to adopt a Filipino seasoning technique to make sugary-delicious tocino tacos one day as they are likely to ditch it the next. The Lime Truck crew is one of the few food-truck kitchens that truly improvises; the guys are encouraged to cook on their toes. With attention spans as itinerant as the vehicles, the team rewrites the whiteboard menu daily, especially after a brainstorming session at Quinn's house every Monday. What seems to be a permanent fixture is the lamb sandwich: Though it may be called "Yum Yum" today and "Slamin' Lambin" tomorrow, it remains largely Greek-inspired, with a mint-seasoned patty sizzled to crispness and served on an open-faced pita with yogurt and squiggles of Sriracha.
This kind of chronic ADD has become the Lime Truck's virtue. The chefs aren't afraid to fail and jettison a clunker when they see one. One day, a Sloppy Joe that tasted like nothing more than chili on a bun despite featuring bone marrow disappeared later in the week, never to be seen again. A stunning deep-fried risotto cake embedded with mushrooms and looking like a square Japanese corokke has also yet to return.
The Lime boys do recognize that a few constants are sometimes needed to keep loyalists happy. The limeades, chilling in mounds of snow, are the most enduring signature, the lychee one being the best. Another mainstay (for now) is the grilled ears of corn. Charred black in spots, draped in a lime remoulade and tangy cotija, they're hot as hell, bursting juice and dripping—the thing you're happy to eat in the middle of a parking lot because of the mess. A winning crab, shrimp and scallop ceviche also seems to be sticking around, supplied with thick-as-tile tortilla chips for scooping. If there's anything that needs to change, it's the flimsy paper baskets prone to leaking out the ceviche's invigorating pink run-off. A version of ahi poke is good, but not as bold as the deep-fried shishitos perked up with lime juice; the latter are the perfect bites for late-night parking-lot snacking.
Still, there are moments when you figure what the Lime Truck chefs really want to do is cook in a real restaurant. You'll think this when you witness them handing heavy-set serving plates of oysters on crushed ice to customers as the night's special. It's a ridiculous sight to see, one that makes the grown-up in me wish they'd just settle down and open the Lime Restaurant already. But the kid in me who enjoys going to these food-truck round-ups isn't quite ready for that.
This review appeared in print as "No Lemon Here: Daniel Shemtob and Jason Quinn's Lime Truck is a champion on the Food Network and OC's luxe lonchera scene."
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