Behind the Scenes with a Food Trucker: Mobile Kitchen Cookery
It might go without saying that cooking on a food truck is worlds different than cooking in a normal kitchen. But a day doesn't go by that a well-meaning Manila Machine customer suggests that we should serve "this" or "that" or "such and such" a Filipino dish from our roving rig. Not that we don't appreciate suggestions from our loyal followers, but preparing a whole-roasted pig on a taco truck (or even in a normal kitchen!) would be kind of difficult.
I have to admit, though. Before launching The Manila Machine, I had some misconceptions about cooking in a mobile kitchen. I imagined having multiple burners on to reduce my adobo sauces. I assumed that I'd be able to deep-fry anything to my heart's content. I even pictured myself browning and finishing chicken thighs underneath a salamander.
...I stepped onto an old taco truck that was up for lease to see what kind of equipment was on board. I soon realized that I needed to rethink a few things.
Generally speaking, a bare-bones taco truck like The Manila Machine is equipped with a steam table, a warming oven, a deep-fryer with two baskets, a large flat-top stainless-steel griddle, and some refrigeration space. There are no open flames, there are no broilers of any type.
Of course, there are some souped-up custom taco trucks out there on the road. I've seen everything from open gas burners, to microwaves, to toaster ovens, and even some really nice sound systems on tricked-out rigs. And although I do covet all of these culinary do-dads, these gadgets cost extra. Because of the high cost of buying a custom truck (upwards of $80,000 I hear) leasing a bare-bones taco truck is the route many food truckers opt for when starting their business. The Manila Machine was no different.
Although I initially imagined that I'd have certain tools (a salamander, really?) to work with on a taco truck, I realized the minimalist approach would be best for The Manila Machine menu. After all, old-school loncheros have been cranking out some of Los Angeles' best Mexican food in these trucks for decades now, so why couldn't I do the same with Filipino food? Luckily, preparing good down-home Filipino food doesn't need much in the way of tools or equipment.
So here's a look at a few things on The Manila Machine menu, and why they can be executed in the context of a food truck.
The Manila Machine serves an array of traditional Filipino breakfast plates known as "Silogs." Silogs are a combination of fried rice (sinangag in Filipino parlance), a fried egg (itlog), and a choice of Filipino meat. Combining the terms sinangag and itlog, we get "Silog." If that wasn't confusing enough for non-Pinoys, we also add a prefix to silog depending on the Filipino meat accompanying the rice and egg. For instance, The Manila Machine serves Spam (spamsilog), Longanisa sausages (longsilog), Beef Tapa (tapsilog), and Pork Tocino (tocilog) for breakfast.
Why do Silogs work on a food truck? Like all good breakfast items at your neighborhood diner, the components of a silog can all be quickly and easily prepared on a griddle.
Adobo is a Filipino cooking method that requires the braising of a meat, fruit, or vegetable in a mixture of vinegar, salt (or soy), black peppercorns, bay leaf, and garlic. Although one might not think that braising can be accomplished on a food truck, it's actually fairly easy.
Why does adobo work on a food truck? The flat top griddle on The Manila Machine gets hot enough to bring a giant pot of adobo to a boil, but the heat can also be easily reduced and controlled to simmer the same pot for a few hours. Additionally, adobos can be kept warm in the steam table of a taco truck. Adobo isn't exactly a quick cooking option, but because it's a braise, it's perfect for next-day service. The Manila Machine serves a chicken adobo, as well as a pork belly and pineapple adobo.
Before launching The Manila Machine, I knew I had to include Sisig on our menu but admittedly, I had some reservations about whether anyone would order it. After all, true Sisig is chopped pig's face. Yes, chopped pig's face. But much to our delight, Sisig is one of The Manila Machine's best-sellers with Filipinos and non-Filipinos ordering it in droves.
Why does Sisig work on a food truck? The Manila Machine's sisig is comprised of chopped pork jowls (Sisig MUST contain pig face!) that are marinated in a mixture of chilies and citrus. The jowls can be marinated and stored overnight in the truck refrigerator, and because the jowls are chopped into small pieces, they can be quickly prepared on a hot griddle.
Another important aspect of food truck cookery is being able to provide items that are easily transportable—hence the success of the taco within this new mobile food culture. But we didn't want to go the fusion-taco route with any of The Manila Machine's offerings—there are already many trucks that do fusion tacos well, and so many more that don't.
So instead of adapting our food to the taco, we simply found a way to present Filipino food in slider form by placing traditional Filipino meats (beef tapa, chicken adobo, longanisa sausages, spam) on traditional Filipino bread rolls known as Pan De Sal. For example, The Manila Machine serves what we call "The Original Manila Dip"—a slider composed of shredded chicken adobo and caramelized onions on a pan de sal roll and accompanied with an adobo dipping sauce. Think French Dip but with 100% Filipino ingredients.
Why do sliders work on a food truck? Due to the size of our griddle, dozens of pan de sal rolls can be simultaneously toasted prior to being filled with any of our meats. In addition to being highly customizable for our customers, our sliders are also easily transportable.
Speed and Consistency Make for Happy Customers
Menus vary greatly from food truck to food truck. Some trucks offer dozens of menu items, while others offer only a few specialized treats. But no matter what, in the food trucking world customers don't like to wait, and if they're repeat customers, their food better be as good as the last time they ordered.
So aside from the taste and quality of the food, perhaps the most important aspects in food truck cookery are being able to quickly and consistently churn out your menu items with the equipment available to you.
Take it from me, preparing a variety of food on a food truck is extremely difficult, but entirely doable. Even without a salamander broiler.