Marination, the fusion food truck that has become something of an overnight sensation, is, for the same reasons, either the best or the worst thing to happen to street food in Seattle — a small and homogenous category that consists almost entirely of Mexican food.
Started seven months ago by two educated, urbane women of mixed heritage, Marination is not the kind of establishment normally discussed in this column, which is devoted primarily to the elevation and elucidation of traditional food served in inconspicuous places, in relatively uncelebrated fashion.
Marination is not, strictly speaking, traditional food, although the particular traditions it draws from — Korean barbecue, Hawaiian pork, Mexican tacos — are clear. I am generally skeptical of fusion cooking because it walks a fine line between informed adulation and lazy insult. Done hastily, fusion is little more than a cheap gimmick, a watered-down, faint-hearted, compromise that is far less than the sum of its parts. (The hugely popular but, in my opinion, highly overrated Paseo comes to mind. Its meat and beans are sweetened to excess; the flavors are shallow; the sandwiches messy and not worth the trouble.)
Moreover, Marination is by no means inconspicuous or uncelebrated. For the record, its version of fusion works spectacularly. Its flavors are extremely concentrated, giving it a very high pleasure-to-bite ratio. Block-long lines form when the truck shows up in one of its six regular parking spots. It has been Twitter'êed and Facebook'êed to extreme; it has been deservedly praised in the pages of the local papers, drooled over in blogs, and blurbed in national magazines (GQ); Good Morning America crowned it the 'êbest food cart in America,'ê although Marination is hardly a cart.
Marination (and its predecessor Kogi, a larger Korean taco truck operation in Los Angeles) has, for better and worse, raised the ante on street food, which some might see as progress, others as yet another deleterious example of gentrification, the further displacement of the working classes in favor of the intellectual elite.
The truck, called Big Blue, was designed by co-owner Roz Edison, who works at the University of Washington'ês Department of Construction Management. When raised, its three tinted sunroof panels look like sails on a yacht. The stamped, stainless-steel trim is polished to a mirror-like finish. The condiment counter and the beverage cooler are immaculate.
The relatively simple menu of tacos, sliders and rotating specials was designed by chefs Drew Airone and Catherine Calleja. The mental inspiration for Marination was not another food truck but the chic and famous Spring Hill restaurant in West Seattle, said Edison'ês partner Kamala Saxton, who used to work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation'ês education program.
Typically street food is a one-person enterprise that serves one dish. The barrier to entry is low. It does not typically require a large capital investment, a high level of expertise, or a great number of resources. To generalize, the idea is that a poor immigrant can borrow a propane burner, buy a cheap cart and a cooler, snag a permit and start selling cheap, delicious food on the sidewalk.
The bar now set by Marination is much higher. Everyone who raves about it is more or less right. The food is simple, unique, and delicious beyond any qualification. The beef in their tacos (all are $2) is flavored with a Korean marinade. The pork in its sliders ($2) and quesadillas ($5) is slow-roasted, Hawaiian-style kalua pork, salty and smoky. A bit of sauteed kimchee also makes its way into the quesadillas, deepening its flavor in a surprisingly subtle way, given kimchee'ês powerful punch. The 'ênunya'ê sauce used liberally in the tacos is a combination of mayonnaise and fermented Korean soybean paste. Marination is also probably responsible for giving yuppies and hipsters their first willing taste of Spam (an ingredient in sliders and rice balls), a staple of Hawaiian home cooking.
It can be argued that Marination is Hawaiian food more than anything else since the evolution of Hawaiian cooking involves blending the cuisines of other cultures — Japanese, Chinese, Portugese. Fusion is just everyday cooking in Hawaii, where rice is served with chili and spaghetti, where Korean barbecue is as common as hamburger and pizza are in the rest of the country. If more people of Mexican descent lived in Hawaii, the Korean taco would have probably been invented there long ago.
Kogi was a natural concept for Los Angeles, with its deep Mexican and Korean-American cultures. Saxton (who is of Korean and Polynesian heritage and grew up in Hawaii), and Edison (who is of Filipino and Chinese descent and grew up in Greece), both studied Kogi before opening Marination, a concept they believe will go global before too long. Once you taste the food, you understand why.
The addition of Korean flavoring to the Mexican format is a nearly perfect mating. It is as if the two cuisines were meant for each other. Witness Kelsey Peterson, 22, a Tuesday regular, an employee at a large, commercial public relations agency:
'êIt'ês crazy how good it tastes,'ê she said this week, two co-workers in tow. 'êI would eat here every day if I could.'ê To which she added, 'êI'êm kind of a germ freak and this place in no way freaks me out at all. It'ês super sanitary. There'ês nothing gross about it. It'ês really like a moving restaurant.'ê
When compared to the street-food culture of other countries, America'ês is thin. There are summer food festivals and, in many cities, hot dog carts. New York, with its density of people and particularly immigrants, has a large number of mobile eating options. But even there the variety leaves something to be desired.
In America, perhaps, we are just too fussy, too obsessed with order and a sense of cleanliness, to ever truly embrace street food. In many African and Asian cities, street food is how most people eat their food. Warm weather (Taipei, Singapore) and relative poverty (Cairo, Saigon) are part of the equation, but not all of it. Cold and prosperous Seoul, for example, is in love with street food, particularly on summer nights when the city'ês sidewalks are taken over by vendors in portable stalls.
'êWe don'êt have the masses,'ê Saxton said.
That will probably never be Seattle, which might not possess the density nor the personality for more than a few exceptional food trucks. Traditional Mexican taco trucks are now fairly common, and there is one Cuban food truck on North 90th Street and Aurora Avenue North. No other can boast the devotion won by Marination. If Marination is the new standard, few will be able to follow its act.
'êI don'êt know if we are the new and improved version (of street food),'ê said Saxton, who has eaten in the food stalls of China. 'êI'êve had incredible food made by one person making 20 dishes at a time and they'êve been doing it for 40 years. When I think about that I feel incredibly humbled. Making street food is new for us, and it'ês new to Seattle.'ê
A side effect of running such a popular food truck is the sense of community that has come to surround it, the owners said. They know regulars by name or face. Customers are very 'êwell-trained,'ê Calleja said, pointing out they know to arrive early, wait patiently and order promptly. The lines encourage conversation between strangers, often about the food, sometimes about other things. Sometimes, one lets another have a dollar if someone is short. Early on, when the owners were unable to process bank card transactions, they simply issued 'êIOU'ês,'ê Saxton said.
'êOur customers looked at us like we were crazy,'ê she said. 'êEvery one of them came back and paid us.'ê
It might be that a traditional food cart would never work in Seattle. Perhaps it was waiting for something like Marination, a food truck that is, for all intents and purposes, simply a restaurant that happens to live in a very nice truck.
If you go: Marination, open for lunch only, 11 am-2 pm, at the following sites: Monday in South Lake Union at Cascade People'ês Center, 309 Pontius Ave. N.; Tuesday in Belltown at KeyBank, 2500 First Ave.; Wednesday in Fremont at Indoor Sun Shoppe, 160 N. Canal St.; Thursday in Beacon Hill at Pacific Medical Center, 1122 12th Ave. S.; Friday in SODO at Safeco Field, intersection of Edgar Martinez Drive South and Occidental Avenue South; and Saturday in West Seattle at the corner of Southwest Graham Street and 35th Avenue Southwest. More details at Marination's Website.