Serious Eats

Street Food Profiles: LIBA Falafel in the Bay Area

"The Bay Area is a little late to the street food game."

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[Photographs: LIBA Falafel]

Name: LIBA Falafel Truck
Twitter: @libasf
Vendor: Gail Lillian, who does all of the shopping at a variety of local produce markets, including Berkeley Bowl and Jack London Square's early morning commercial market.

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What's on the menu? Falafel with over 15 unconventional toppings. All of the recipes are Gail's and tie in with Mediterranean food but draw from regions all over the world.

Location and hours? 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday in three different locations in both San Francisco and the East Bay.

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Gail Lillian showing off the falafel.

How long have you been street fooding? I was lucky enough to coincide my business launch with the Eat Real Fest in Oakland. I started my route a week later, on September 8, 2009.

How has Twitter affected business? It helps business thrive and reminds people, right in front of them when they get to work, that today is the day! Even though I have consistent daily locations, Twitter remains a great tool for street food in general.

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The menu.

Why a mobile business over brick-and-mortar? The Bay Area is a little late to the street food game. When I started planning LIBA a year ago, it seemed like a great way to make a splash in business ownership—it's hard to come up with a food gimmick that's unique. It would allow me to have some balance in my life while owning a food business. Owning a restaurant, on the other hand, would make it much more difficult to travel and have a life on the side. Of course, it turns out my days are usually around 16 hours, but I'm loving it. And I took two weeks off over the holidays.

Who are your typical customers? I'm humbled by how many regular customers I have! One of my locations is on Wednesdays and Fridays; the other is on Tuesdays and Thursdays. People show up both days of the week, every week, to each, which thrills me. My customers are all shapes and sizes, but the common theme—they all get excited about fantastic food.

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Toppings bar.

Describe a typical day from start to finish. I wake between 4 and 5 a.m. I may go to the produce market at Jack London Square to shop, then head to our co-op kitchen in Richmond where I prep with my incredible employee, Gene Kim, from 6 to 9 a.m. Then I take off in the truck and go to my location. Gene meets me there and helps serve sandwiches as I stand outside to take orders and socialize with customers.

On the way back to the kitchen, I may run errands, like drop off our used fry oil at BioFuel Oasis, where it's turned into biofuel, and buy more produce at Berkeley Bowl. On early days, I'm home by 4:30 pm. More likely, I'm home around 6 p.m.

What were you doing before this? I've been in the food industry for 18 years, mostly as a chef. I'm trained also as a pastry chef, and though I'm working with possibly the most savory food around (falafel), my heart really lies with pastry work.

What makes your food so special? The LIBA menu is one-of-a-kind because of its unconventionality. Items like our olive-orange relish, which is really utilizing a traditional Moroccan combination, works well on our menu because the components marry so well with Mediterranean flavors. It's got my own personal stamp on it. Plus, it's a help-yourself falafel bar on a truck (which is pretty special).

How would you define "street food"? Accessible, both financially and in terms of portability for the consumer. And most of all, it shouldn't take itself too seriously.

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You want fries with that?

Best street food city? I'm pretty fond of Portland as a street food city. In addition to it just be a damn charming place. It has this thriving street food scene—400 trucks and carts in such a small place!

Your comfort food after a long day? Always Asian noodles with lots of sauce and condiment offerings.

Advice for an aspiring vendor? My advice is to not romanticize this work—it's exciting and so rewarding, but much more like owning a restaurant than one may be able to anticipate. If you don't like problem-solving, really like it—not just tolerate it—you'll struggle with this.

Previously

The Green Gringo in Boulder, Colorado
The Grilled Cheese Truck in Los Angeles
Local Sixfortyseven in Virginia
Marination Mobile in Seattle, Washington

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