By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Around 5 p.m. on any given Sunday evening, a party starts on North Fair Oaks in Altadena.
In front of the Metropolitan Baptist Church, food trucks and vendor tents host small throngs of foodies and the benignly ebullient atmosphere prevails along the half-block strip.
This is The Food Truck Spot, a weekly and diverse rotation of food trucks and vendors who convened out of shared necessity in the throes of the pandemic.
One thing doesn’t change: The large yellow truck housing Big Grandma’s Kitchen: Salvadoran Soul Food. That’s because the truck’s manager, Syl Lima, is the inspired impresario who created and curates The Food Truck Spot.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Big Grandma’s Kitchen is a family operation. Conceived by Lima and her younger brother/executive chef, Guillermo, the recipes are family secrets. The siblings share a home in Altadena with Guillermo’s partner and their 13-year-old daughter, Sophia. Everyone helps at the truck.
“When I tell you it’s a family business, it’s truly a family business,” Syl said.
That’s from the early days until now.
“It was my brother and my mom cooking. Myself, my sister-in-law and my niece, Sophia, we would be doing cashier, packaging, just taking orders all of that. It was a whole Lima family circus,” Syl said.
Launched last July, The Food Truck Spot idea started years ago at the family home, on the corner of Summit and Penn, in northwest Pasadena.
The idea of cooperative snacking was ingrained early in the Lima household.
“My parents started a small candy store right out of our place,” Syl said. “We were known as ‘The Candy House.’ Even kids who would come by with no money, my parents would just say, ‘That’s OK. Just give me whatever you can. Next time, next time.’ Never really following up on the tabs, just making sure that everybody got a snack in the afternoon.”
By the way, the “parents” are Guillermo and Sylvia.
“They might have thought they were going to forget their kids’ names,” Syl joked.
Her brother, Guillermo Jr., harbored a passion for the kitchen, guided by their mother, Sylvia, who is also the eponymous “Big Grandma.”
“He (Guillermo Jr.) loves the kitchen,” Syl said. “He was always there with her. They made pupusas for the family.”
The experience fueled Guillermo’s professional ambitions.
“My brother has been in the industry since he was able to work,” Syl said. “He’s also worked in several other food trucks.
“He made a goal for himself. By the time he turns 30 years old, he would have his own business, regardless of what it was.”
The pupusas business model came on a random weekend afternoon. Salvadoran “soul food” is defined by the iconic pupusa. Hand-formed patties of corn masa stuffed with savory fillings, pupusas at Big Grandma’s features a choice of asada, chicken, chorizo, beans, spinach or squash.
“My mom is known for always cooking for everybody,” Syl said.
“There was a weekend here, when we were at home in Altadena, my mom and my brother were making pupusas. Some friends from Guillermo’s soccer club stopped by and, after gorging themselves on the family’s fresh pupusas, returned the next weekend insisting on purchasing a big batch to take home. So that’s how we started: my brother and my mom selling pupusas to our friends.”
Purists should try the pupusa revuelta with a mix of beans, cheese and chicharron or loroco, with the buds and flowers from the plant native to El Salvador.
Guillermo adds a Lima family touch, topping his pupusas with an unusual purple, pickled cabbage curtido.
“It’s his signature: the purple curtido,” Syl noted.
The pupusas are $5 each or a combo plate of three and a drink for $14.
For the next six months, the Lima family’s experiments in the pupusa lab simmered in the home kitchen.
“We started doing every other weekend, just selling to friends and family. It was booming for us. It fulfilled all of us because it was something that we shared with my mom,” Syl recalled.
Appropriately enough, the family business’ first real public launch occurred under a tent at the local and legendary Altadena Farmers Market in March 2018.
“(Market director) Stacey Whitney helped us a lot,” Syl said.
“We decided to look into sellers’ permits and everything we needed with the city to be there. With the guidance of Stacey, we were able to get there. It was just a pop-up. It was a tent, a grill and a table right out front for me as cashier.”
(By the way, the locally beloved Altadena Farmers Market is set to reopen for in-person service on June 30.)
Pop-ups also ensued at the West Covina’s Farmers Market, Latina Fest and notably at the Altadena Ale House, just up the block from The Food Truck Spot.
“Gail (Casburn) gave us the opportunity to come there. That was great. It was a lot of locals. We adore her,” Syl said.
A dedicated food truck for Big Grandma’s Kitchen had been a passing notion between the Lima siblings — then the pandemic arrived.
“We had been thinking about (a food truck) but not fully looking into it. We needed to do something,” Syl explained.
“COVID hit and we were scared. Nobody was doing any events. We got shut down, basically. We stopped working for about four months. That had to change. My brother had become the sole breadwinner for his family. He went full blown with the pupusa business,” Syl explained.
By July 2020, the family figured it out.
“We scrounged pennies together,” Syl said. “We made it happen. We were able to get a truck. It was amazing, to be honest. To even think about having his own (business), it was amazing for the family and for my brother. Just thinking about it makes me feel very emotional.”
Having a functional food truck and a talented chef was a good start, but finding an accessible, reliable and safe location was also vital.
Syl scouted the area, hoping to find something close to home. In September, she found a spot at Metropolitan Baptist Church and its parking lot. Syl contacted the church’s event director, who brought the proposal to the board. The idea was quickly approved, and the Lima family was back in business.
“To be honest, the community was waiting,” Syl said. “We started that next Sunday.”
Big Grandma’s Kitchen operated alone at the church for the first three weeks, but Syl recognized a larger need.
“By having that space available, we noticed that a lot of our other vendor friends were struggling because there were no other events. (There were) other food trucks looking for a place to be.
“Big Grandma’s Kitchen is all about family. It’s community. We decided to bring other vendors to help the community, to give vendors a safe place to be. Especially since we know how it is, as vendors, to not have a place to go or an actual location.”
Upcoming vendor lists are published on The Food Truck Spot’s Instagram page (@thefoodtruckspot). Recent participating trucks and vendors include Wicked Kitchen from Bell Gardens, with its exotic sandwiches and dressed fries; the new Lockdown Barbecue truck; Pasadena Pozole Company; agua frescas from Awas y Mas; Wendy Tobar’s MNM Crafts from Monrovia; and fresh Mediterranean fare from the Shawarma Hub.
“We were doing first-come, first-served, but we do try to rotate vendors. I try to do 10 vendors or less. It all depends on who applies and who’s available,” Syl said.
“Starting The Food Truck Spot, we just wanted to give ourselves a place to be at home basically,” Syl said.
“Because this is our hometown. We wanted to give our community what they needed. Even though it might not be a huge event, we feel the support the community gives us. It’s been great. We want to thank you and everybody else that comes by. Whoever comes by and supports us, they’re truly supporting a dream.”