In the last 10 years or so, popular interest in food and an explosion of diversity in ingenuity, ingredients and dining concepts evolved dramatically, particularly in Greater Los Angeles’ culinary scene.
It could also be argued that the wider boom in popularity and interest in food, restaurants and chefs over the last decade began in Los Angeles, in the wake of grim economic circumstances, not unlike those we face now. The primary cultural, culinary phenomenon that emerged out of the financial crisis of 2008 and sparked a nationwide renewal of popular interest in food still exists and still thrives in the pandemic—food trucks.
Roy Choi’s Kogi Taco Truck was the original. A novel fusion of tasty local influences, Choi’s Korean short-rib tacos became a sensation fueled by social media posts and served at a reasonable price from variable locations. Choi still runs four Kogi trucks, one of which parks on Hill Avenue and Locust Street for lunch on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Freed from the burdens of rent, insurance and front-of-house management, the nouvelle food truck concept, as conceived by Choi, provided a low-capital entrée into food for a cadre of inspired young chefs. A variety of trucks began to proliferate. From lobster rolls to gourmet grilled cheese and poutine, the offerings became exotic and imaginative. Many trucks served as bridges for chefs to establish brick and mortar locations, including Choi.
In the wake of adversity, the food truck provided a new portal for culinary creativity and imagination, while reducing overhead and improving profit margins. It’s no wonder they are thriving during the pandemic lockdown and that we are very likely about to see a new wave of food trucks soon.
Not quite a year old, one of our own locally born food trucks—Funnel Birds—launched in September 2019. Beginning with a “soft opening pop-up” in the Goodyear Tire shop parking lot at Walnut Street and Mar Vista Avenue, Funnel Birds is the brainchild of Nshan Tashchyan, 31, and Tigran Gevorkian, 27, boyhood pals who attended Marshall High School together. Within a few weeks of the soft opening, the pair rolled out their colorfully painted truck onto our streets.
By the middle of November, the Funnel Birds truck landed at its customary location on the east side of North Lake Avenue in Altadena, just north of East Calaveras Street, next to Aldi’s. As Nshan explained, “We wanted to stay where we grew up, in the Pasadena-Altadena area. We wanted to serve that community.”
The signature namesake sandwich is a riff on the classic soul food dish of fried chicken and waffles. At the Funnel Birds truck, this comprises Nashville-style “hot chicken”—fried chicken in a spicy crust laden with cayenne pepper—stuffed between two slabs of fresh funnel cake. Yes, funnel cake. Like at the county fair. The sandwich is dressed with cheese, slaw and pickles, and a choice of five heat levels is offered for the chicken, as depicted on a vertical cartoon painted on the truck to the left of the order window. Starting at “country” with no spice and advancing upward to “mild,” “medium,” “hot” and the ominous, “face off!”
Painted on the truck, the menu is simple. Aside from the eponymous “Funnel Bird,” “The Big Bird” is basically the same sandwich but with a brioche bun replacing the funnel cake.
The “Love Me Tender” eschews any bun for three chicken “Tenders.” The “Nashville Melt” is a spicy grilled cheese take.
If you’re just here for the alluring promise of funnel cake, “Funnel Vision” fulfills the urge with hunks of latticed funnel cake dressed out with powdered sugar, whipped cream, fresh strawberries and Nutella.
These “entrees” are all priced at $15 and the sandwiches are bedded on well-seasoned crinkle-cut fries. “Nugz”—hot chicken nuggets—and fried pickles are available for $8. The portions are huge.
There is also a whiteboard list of specials. After trying the “Funnel Bird,” in which the funnel cake nearly overwhelmed the juicy, perfectly fried cutlet—spiced at “medium”—I returned to sample “Hayk’s Special,” which featured the hot chicken on Texas Toast with extra coleslaw and pickle. Created by Tigran’s cousin Hayk Kalantarian, it’s a novel twist on the standard menu sandwiches. I ordered Hayk’s version at “medium” heat and an order of the tenders, which I impulsively ask to be prepared at “hot.”
Suffice it to say, “medium” provides a manageable challenge, while “hot” delivers a metallic thwack of cayenne that will forcibly rip open your sinuses and make you openly weep like a baby—in a good way. “Face off?” My advice: keep your face on. You might need it.
Nshan is unabashedly ambitious and realistic.
“The intention from the beginning (was) to get really big, but you gotta start somewhere.” So far, so good. The truck and its hot chicken and funnel cake sandwiches continue to enthrall and accrue enthusiastic raves on Yelp and Instagram. There always seems to be a gaggle of folks ganged on the sidewalk, next to the pick-up window.
“We both have a passion for cooking at home,” Tigran said. “Both of our moms are really good cooks! A lot of our spices and seasonings we learned from our moms. Even our coleslaw is not a traditional American coleslaw. It’s actually a kind of Armenian salad that goes along (well) with many fried foods. It’s Nashville hot chicken but with our own twist on it.” Take note Howlin’ Ray!
Business dipped predictably for Funnel Birds in the first month of the lockdown but has begun to rebound. The two partners employ a couple of friends to assist in the truck and no layoffs were needed. As to business now? Nshan offers, “It’s decent. We can’t complain.”
Dreams of expansion are on hold. “We don’t want to rush into anything right now,” Tigran said. However, the aspirational optimism of these two friends is inspiring. “We’re very excited for the journey that’s coming our way,” he said.
Get on board!