The big red food truck with a maple leaf emblazoned on the back gets ready for employees who will shortly spill out of their office buildings for lunch.
The Hebrew word “Hai,” (Life), is prominently displayed on the truck to remind everyone, in chef Michael Israel’s words, that “Judaism is at the center” of classic Jewish deli cuisine.
And on the front of the truck is this advice to anyone craving Montreal-style food: ‘GIMME MOE!’
That, of course, is ‘code’ for the truck’s entire raison d’etre: “Give Me More Montreal Open-Ended Egg Rolls.”
“Montreal egg rolls are a classic…delicacy that has kind of fallen out of the mainstream,” says Israel, who, with his wife Emily and assistant Mathew Haney, operates the food truck in west L.A.
Today, the truck sits in a long line of other trucks here in Santa Monica, and if Israel has his way, Montreal egg rolls will be back in the mainstream very soon.
Israel trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York and has been running the truck for about a year and a half. (Haney is also a CIA grad).
“Basically, what makes Montreal egg rolls unique,” Israel explains, “is that it’s an egg roll that has open ends, so there’s filling from end to end, and the ends, as they cook, get really dark and crispy…”
And why does Israel specialize in Montreal Egg Rolls?
He has close family ties to Montreal, and though he wasn’t born there, the rest of his family was.
“I’m the first American-born in my family,” he notes. “Everybody else was born in Montreal. I have a very strong familial connection to Montreal, and most of my family is still there.
“A big part of what defines me as a chef and what formed my viewpoint on food and what I think tastes good…is really…from classic Montreal cuisine…like the egg rolls…and Montreal deli.”
Anyone familiar with Montreal’s famed Schwartz’s deli will understand that the truck’s red-and-white awning is what Israel calls “our tip of the hat to Schwartz’s,” since Israel’s menu also features a healthy serving of deli.
His deli-style egg rolls feature classics like a Reuben, smoked turkey, and a Chinese BBQ-style brisket that is slow-cooked, sliced in a deli slicer, and combined inside the egg roll with mango slaw.
The egg rolls are all fried and rolled to order.
Israel’s menu also includes the “Big Tuna” egg roll -- a layer of tuna salad and what he amusingly calls ‘smashed’ potato salad, served with a house-made spicy sauce called moe’racha, a play on sricha, a Southeast Asian chili sauce.
As soon as they pull into their spot on the street, the truck trio gets busy preparing lunch.
Inside it’s cramped quarters, but that’s the norm in the fast lane of Southern California food truck culture, which spans the city’s many immigrant tastes and food styles.
Israel and his wife met while the two were working at a restaurant in SoHo. She was also studying musical theater at Hunter College, but now, she jokes, the truck is her ‘performance venue,’ where she uses voice projection to call out orders.
In between mixing ingredients, Israel tells me that there’s a “huge influx of young chefs in the country” serving great street food out of trucks, a movement reflecting both the creative aspect and economic reality.
“Even the most basic of restaurants is enormously expensive,” he says, “so in my opinion, the greatest part of the whole food truck movement is that it gives young chefs the ability to create a menu and a dining experience unique to their own perspective in a way that’s approachable for many customers."
In the beginning, Israel’s food truck was kosher, but going the kosher route proved too costly.
“After one year of business,” Israel says, “we realized that it was critical for our ability to survive financially to no longer use keckshered (kosher) meat. The way we approach our menu now is…‘kosher-style.’ It’s not heckshered; however, there’s no pork, shell fish or dairy on the truck.”
Israel also serves deli sandwiches, like pastrami with lettuce, pickled red onion, tomato, and house-made slaw on rye bread.
During our visit, my wife and I sample two items overflowing with rich flavors and textures. One is the veggie egg roll, made with spinach, artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, and roasted garlic – all wrapped in an egg roll and served with a spicy horseradish sauce.
While the ends of the egg roll are crispy, the center maintains a nice softness, more like a sandwich.
We each eat a half, which is more than enough, considering that the entire egg roll weighs almost a pound!
Next, we try a bulging, multi-layered tuna sandwich made with white albacore house-made tuna, red onion, celery, house-made mayonnaise, and seasonings -- all layered with ‘smashed’ potato salad and a spicy mustard deli dressing with mixed greens, sliced tomato, and pickled red onions.
The savory sandwich is served on rye bread with a side of Montreal-style coleslaw (green cabbage and shredded carrots) in a garlic-vinaigrette dressing.
Both of these offerings are $9 each.
For information about the truck’s locations, visit www.moeggrolls.com