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Jon Favreau: How food trucks became L.A. kings

By Chuck Thompson, CNN
updated 2:32 AM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Secret to success in the food truck biz? Have Sofia Vergara (right) serve up the goods. With his 2014 film "Chef," Jon Favreau (center) tracks a fictional food truck and its quick-tempered chef. Secret to success in the food truck biz? Have Sofia Vergara (right) serve up the goods. With his 2014 film "Chef," Jon Favreau (center) tracks a fictional food truck and its quick-tempered chef.
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Humble food truck goes Hollywood
Dynamic diners
Many imitators, no duplicators
L.A. institution
Kim Yum
Mexican gyros? It happens here
Coat to coast coverage
Not above a pun
Tacos, dudes
Classic L.A. taste
Food trucks and history
Food meets film
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Director and actor Jon Favreau says the food truck scene has become emblematic of Los Angeles
  • Food truck pioneer Roy Choi says he's honored by the numerous imitators of his Korean taco-serving Kogi venture
  • In L.A., the Brig parking lot on Venice Beach attracts food truck fans to a rally on the first Friday of each month

Editor's note: This piece, and several others on Los Angeles, complement the CNNGo TV series. This month's show features a food truck tour with filmmaker and actor Jon Favreau, an L.A. fashion icon's guide to shopping like a local and a visit to a bar-arcade where kidults flock for drinks and to play on its 40 restored arcade machines: www.cnn.com/cnngo

(CNN) -- In a world where the niche-hip is elevated to cultural elite on a weekly basis, it was probably inevitable: the humble taco truck has gone Hollywood.

With the 2014 release of his critically acclaimed film, "Chef," writer, director, actor Jon Favreau ("Iron Man," "The Wolf of Wall Street," "Swingers") tracks the journey of a fictional food truck and its quick-tempered chef on its rise from Miami obscurity peddling Cubano sandwiches to a place in the Los Angeles culinary pantheon.

If you think this is a quaint little movie about a minor trend, consider the group that showed up at its table.

A-listers who appear in the movie include Dustin Hoffman, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Downey Jr., John Leguizamo and Sofia Vergara. (As a softie supportive ex playing against hot-headed-temptress type, Vergara might be the most satisfying surprise ingredient in the film.)

Favreau, who wrote, directed and stars in the film as chef Carl Casper, drew inspiration from real life.

"The food truck scene has definitely become emblematic of Los Angeles," Favreau tells CNN.

"It mixes up Mexican, Korean, Jewish, health food ... every kind of culture here. It's a reflection of and a recombination of the foods and culture that make up the tapestry of L.A.

"I eat at as many food trucks as I can."

READ: CNNGo in Los Angeles: Hollywood stars, food trucks and bar-cade

Roy Choi a must get

As soon as he finished his script for the film, Favreau says he sought out the consultation services of chef Roy Choi, the unrivaled boss of L.A.'s still-booming food truck scene.

Still L.A. faves: Roy Choi rose to fame on the strength of his sensational Korean barbecue tacos.
Still L.A. faves: Roy Choi rose to fame on the strength of his sensational Korean barbecue tacos.

In 2008, Choi created the now ubiquitous Korean barbecue taco and launched it from a truck he dubbed Kogi.

Today, Kogi operates four trucks that roam the city.

Imitators of Choi's famed Korean barbecue tacos (two crisp corn tortillas, caramelized Korean barbecue short rib meat, salsa roja, cilantro-onion-lime relish, Napa Romaine slaw, chili-soy vinaigrette) can now be found from New York to Hong Kong to Amsterdam.

Rather than being annoyed by the doppelgangers, Choi says he's honored.

"A lot of them (Korean-taco vendors) are putting their own spin on it," he says. "They don't call themselves Kogi, so it's a form of love."

"DJs all have the same music, the same beats to choose from, it's which ones you choose and how you mix them up that makes you an original," adds Favreau. "Food trucks are our bootleg tapes."

Humble sizzle

L.A.'s food trucks are an extension of Southern California's long-established "taco trucks."

These are typically plain white trucks that sell cheap and freshly made tacos, quesadillas and other Mexican "fast food."

Modern "food trucks" -- sometimes owner-operated (as in "Chef"), sometimes run by larger business entities -- have taken the mobile food concept and expanded the menu options considerably.

You can now buy everything from acai bowls to greasy burgers to Maine lobster from food trucks.

The shared lineage means the terms "taco truck" and "food truck" are sometimes used interchangeably -- but shouldn't be mistaken for the similar-in-appearance white "catering trucks" (known colloquially as "roach coaches") that pull up to construction sites, warehouses and office buildings selling pre-packaged sandwiches, bags of chips, candy and beverages to workers.

MORE: 'Some People Call Me Maurice': Best Los Angeles theme bars

Apps track trucks

Food trucks travel the city and park at different places and times each day or week.

Of several apps that have been launched to help track their movements, Roaming Hunger is among the most popular.

Many trucks operate their own websites to let fans know where they'll be on any given day and time.

Kogi, whose four trucks cover all of Los Angeles County, updates its site daily and covers various social media bases.

In \
In "Chef," Jon Favreau and John Leguizamo are peppy partners in a food truck business.

From the start, social media has been instrumental in the rise of food trucks.

Kogi was established in 2008, shortly after Twitter began to gain mass popularity.

Choi used Twitter to help build interest in his fledgling operation.

One of the most famous results was the day he parked his truck at midnight on the campus of UCLA during finals week.

When he arrived he found almost a thousand students lined up for his tacos.

"Twitter, that's why Kogi blew up," he says.

In "Chef," Favreau imitates the model, with the lead character's El Jefe food truck getting a huge boost from Twitter popularity.

Four-star parking lot

At L.A.'s The Brig parking lot (1515 Abbot Kinney Boulevard, Venice Beach), a food truck rally is held the first Friday night of each month, usually starting from 6 p.m.

More than a dozen trucks descend on the parking lot, selling everything from grilled cheese sandwiches to Spam musubi to cupcakes.

The parking lot, which Favreau calls "ground zero of the L.A. food truck movement," is where Choi first parked his Kogi truck in Los Angeles.

Show up for a First Friday event at The Brig and you'll see exactly how Hollywood food trucks have gone since then.

Through the crowd of eaters, a squad of valet parkers rushes out to park your car -- while you visit a parking lot.

Only in L.A.?

Possibly. But it's a critical darling that just may be coming soon to a parking lot near you.

MORE: How to be an L.A. local: 8 tips for faking it

Have you got a favorite food truck in Los Angeles or another city? Share your pick in the comments.

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