Traveling Kitchen : The Review

As I was leaving a gallery opening in Santa Monica last spring, I walked smack into a truly movable feast. Out front sat a catering truck, the sort I regularly avoid. But I happened to notice a sign for blue cornmeal and millet corn bread and a menu listing caramelized onion, basil and garlic-enriched sorts of things. "Who are you?" I yelled out. "The Four Wheel Cafe," a pretty woman answered. "Take the list of our routes."

A couple of weeks later, I decided to track the truck down and went back to the gallery site at the appointed time. I felt as if I was waiting for Joe, my ice cream man, circa 1964, to arrive. No movable feast came.

A couple of days later a friend and I got there early and tried again. No luck, no truck. But we were famished and went into the gallery to ask if they'd heard of the Four Wheel Cafe? "I think it's in the back alley," someone said. Yes, there it was; they'd moved the location. The pretty women were serving corn bread azul to the Rhino Records crew.

Barbara Linton and Janet Smith's "Mobile Menu" consists of five disc-thin pizzas, four or so thick sandwiches served on long onion rolls, a made-from-scratch soup of the day, one or two specials and at least four made-from-scratch heady desserts. In fact everything, except for the samosas and empanadas, has a made-from-scratch pedigree.

Smith rolls out the individual part-rye pizza skins each morning; Linton conjures their lush toppings. For $4.75 you get more pizza--on a crunchy crust--than anyone with a sedentary job could justify, along with a green salad topped with Linton's addictive truck (as opposed to "house") dressing made of extra-virgin olive oil, orange juice, pressed garlic and soy sauce. For $2.75, the salad comes with half an individual pizza.

I vote for the "citrus chicken pizza" with big soft strips of poultry, and the "more is more pizza," so loaded with soft grilled eggplant, toasted pine nuts and caramelized onions along with a sheer layer of mozzarella and Romano cheeses that Linton and Smith refer to as "our pudding pizza." Succulent tastes on that interesting ultra-thin crust.

Soups run around $1.75 per cup, depending on the variety. I'd hang around for the Tuscan vegetable-rich broth loaded with raddiatore , and I'd definitely follow them off the next freeway exit for the zesty, dairyless carrot-ginger soup. Linton says leek and potato soup, lentil and brown rice soup and black bean soup will be coming along soon. Kick in another buck for a hunk of their nubby, maple syrup-laced corn bread.

My favorite Four Wheel sandwich is a toss-up between the marinated chicken breast lightly daubed with rather delicate sun-dried tomato pesto, and the "veggie sandwich" with wonderfully oily leaves of eggplant and vigorously green raw spinach served on a white miso -dressed roll. The smoked turkey sandwich leaves me cold: it has a processed, commercial taste.

The piece de resistance in the salad category is the dressed-to-order sensuous chicken salad--long, lovely strips of moist chicken tossed with radicchio, toasted pine nuts and cilantro. For $2 you will get a satisfying caprese salad loaded with lots of very fresh cubes of mozzarella and really ripe tomatoes. A rice-and-corn salad had been overly marinated. I didn't spot it on the truck again.

Some customers wait simply for Linton's desserts. Her Kentucky butter cake is a direct shot of butter and sugar. Her blonde butterscotch brownie is a blonde dream. One dessert always on board is the "CCBC" or chocolate chip banana cake, a sublimely orchestrated creation. I'm waiting for the "double chocolate Rudy cake" and "little Esther shortbread" to appear because a) Linton's track record's so good, and b) I like the names.

I hear Linton and Smith are thinking about replacing their standard-issue horn with some exquisitely sung aria. Whatever tune they want--so long as they don't change the food.

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