El Topo - This Food Truck is Rockin
It is dawn on a chilly November morning in Houston and El Topo food truck is rolling hard. Tony Luhrman and his chef apprentice, Angelica Lugo, swoop into the parking lot of a local music venue and swiftly set up shop. Today will be a long day, serving breakfast and lunch to the roadies and support crew and, later, to the band themselves. I soon realize that this is no ordinary chef gig and that this is no ordinary food truck.
I walk up and into a whole new side of the culinary world that I have never experienced before. I am greeted by Tony and by Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” dancing on the airwaves. The food truck’s oven is already working hard and fills the truck with aromas of bread baking below and coffee brewing in a pot on the stove above.
On his three menus for this day vegan and vegetarian options stand shoulder to shoulder with meat options. This is what El Topo does: from homemade bacon and confit potato tacos or muesli with local yogurt for breakfast to monkfish ceviche and massaged kale salad for lunch. For dinner, slow-braised Oaxacan beef tacos or celery and leek bisque, all this with desserts served all day.
This morning Tony is baking einkorn sourdough bread, which comes from a wheat that is one of the earliest ever cultivated by mankind. The flour made from this wheat is far less allergenic and has far more health benefits than regular wheat. When used in the kitchen, it has far less rising capabilities than most bread flours but produces an almost sticky and dense consistency.
Tony uses it as a perfect vehicle for his Sourdough Einkorn Toast, a breakfast dish. After the steaming loaf comes out of the oven, a giant doorstep is sliced off, brushed with butter and grilled on the flat top. Once crispy it is slathered with lingonberry jam and topped with a healthy dollop of clotted cream. Whilst munching on this luscious toast and jam and gunning coffee, Tony and I chat about our kitchen adventures over the years and how our passion for food came about. We also realize that we use the same tattoo artist—oh, the life of the chef!
I’ve always assumed food truck life is not easy: the temperature fluctuations, the cramped conditions to cook and prep in, the simple mechanics of getting the truck there and all the setup. I had never really thought about it but just try to imagine a normal kitchen with its pots, pans, utensils, cutting boards, knives, sieves and food product all rolling about in the back of a truck.
“The heat in the Houston summer is the other battle,” Tony says. “The less bodies you have in the hot confined space the better, even if you are really busy.”
He is philosophical about the whole food-truck business and it seems the city makes it difficult with all the strange rules, regulations and hoops they have to jump through. Also, the general public here in Houston still seems to be a little behind the times in their acceptance and full utilization of the food-truck community. Maybe it’s because of the way our city has been laid out, without a central area or street where people come to eat, drink, shop or just hang out like some other cities such as Austin or Philadelphia.
The challenge is also to get people to understand that using fresh, local and natural ingredients does mean that it’s going to cost a little more, like a $5 taco. Of course you could go down the road and get a $2 taco but you probably would be eating commodity meat from animals that had barely seen daylight let alone had grass under their feet.
It’s important to Tony to source locally, although he says it can be a struggle to get vendors to work with him as his needs are a little sporadic in size and shape. He’s very happy to now be a part of one of the best markets in Houston, at Eastside every Saturday. On those mornings he can get there early, purchase ultra-fresh local product from the vendors as they are setting up and cook those items straight up to his customers an hour later. Food straight from the farm, to the market and its customers at the same time. It doesn’t get any fresher than that.
He also shops regularly at the back market of Canino on Airline Drive, where he finds his special ingredients like pasilla chiles, dried shrimp and all things good of South and Central America. Other regular vendors he loves to use includes Renaissance Chicken in Sealy for its chickens, Loam Agronomics in Richmond for their produce and 44 Farms for their beef.
I visited the truck on another run, a gig in Rice Village for the holiday tree lighting. The truck was busy, Tony and Angelica were working hard, stopping only occasionally to change the VCR tape underneath the television near where you load up your tacos with salsa and toppings. This night’s epic showings included Indiana Jones and Mighty Ducks 2. Now what’s better than watching a cool old movie while waiting for your food? And plus, who cares if your food takes a little longer when it is cooked to order from fresh, locally sourced ingredients? On this night’s taco menu was the Austin with roasted cauliflower, barbecue sauce and pepitas; the vegan Oaxacan with black beans and radish; and the San Antonio, an outrageous grilled cheese with beef barbacoa, Muenster and pickled red onions on potato bread.
Later that night we discussed how the homemade corn tortillas were so amazingly good and how annoying that is. Making tortillas from scratch is a simple process but it takes some time and energy—but there is just no comparison. Tony’s are superb, I could tell they were made with some good ingredients and a whole lot of love.
Most of these guys have their eye on the prize: a brick-and-mortar restaurant and to be treated like a regular chef, with all the accolades and respect that goes with it. Tony (and I am sure a lot of other food truck owners) are making the effort to find local product and connect with local farmers. They are producing some excellent food, well put together, thoughtful and well executed with attention to detail, better than a lot of regular restaurants. This, of course, is all executed in commando conditions in the back of a cramped van, at continually changing venues, and at the whim of the insane Texas weather.
These are the guys who should be getting the awards, in my opinion.
> El Topo food truck regularly pitches up at the Eastside market on Saturdays and the downtown market on Wednesdays with the occasional gig at the West Alabama Ice House. Check out topotruck.com for a full calendar of events and locations.