Gail Lillian is one busy street food hawker. The seasoned chef just launched a brand new lime-green truck bearing the Liba label and in a typical week she and her crew of five can do nine food service shifts around the Bay.
Case in point: Lillian dished up her trademark falafel sandwiches and sweet potato fries at last Saturday’s San Francisco Street Food Festival, where some 50,000 people chowed down on mobile food fare.
On Monday she spoke on a panel at the National Street Food Conference, also sponsored by La Cocina, the incubator kitchen serving mostly low-income female cooks of color.
Liba Falafel is a regular fixture at Off The Grid in North Berkeley, where folks can find Lillian tonight, and she will return on Saturday for the first of the Off The Grid: Golden Gate Fields, billed as the biggest food truck hub the Bay Area has seen — so far. In between her Berkeley service she dishes up savory curbside eats in Emeryville, San Francisco, and other OTG food hubs in the city.
Inspired by falafel bars in Amsterdam, Lillian makes her falafel from scratch. She serves these crisp chickpea patties with unique add-ons like chimichurri herb paste, harissa hot sauce, and dill and cardamom pickle, in a pita pocket or on a bed of greens (prices $5-$9).
Side salads draw on different ethnic origins and include olive-orange relish with thyme, red cabbage with black sesame seed, and roasted eggplant in tomato sauce, along with condiments like rosemary peanuts and tomato ginger chutney. There’s a weekly seasonal salad that rotates. A recent salad paired red and yellow watermelon with mint, red onion, and sumac. Her fries come generously doused with cilantro, lime and garlic. Hungry yet?
Lillian, 39, recently moved to a commercial kitchen space that houses Trumpet Vine Catering in South Berkeley. We caught up with her while she was prepping for another day on the streets.
What do you like about your new kitchen?
I live a few blocks away in North Oakland, with my partner Sal Bednarz, who runs the Actual Café. This neighborhood has been fun to get familiar with. I love that it’s an industrial neighborhood, the buildings are beautiful. There are interesting small, craft businesses around here, like a furniture place down the street and a store where the owner sells bags made of recycled materials.
How is the Berkeley Off the Grid different from the other OTGs?
It’s very busy and it’s much more family oriented. I think people are more familiar with what falafel is, too, which is really great for us.
Why did you get a new food truck?
We needed something bigger with more refrigeration. And I’ve wanted to add cool, creamy, custard desserts. I think that would pair well with falafel. I have a pastry diploma, my sous chef is a pastry cook, we like desserts and have been wanting to add desserts for a while.
And we want to do house-made beverages, including a version of horchata, and a lemonade sweetened with stevia.
Do you have some favorite food picks from other OTG vendors?
Kasa Indian Eatery just joined and I’ve been loving their kati rolls. I’ve had the vegetarian and the chicken. I get them spicy; they do a great green hot sauce. It’s delicious, hand-held food. HapaSF is always a go-to for me, I love everything they make. I have their chicken adobo sandwich and they occasionally make pinakbet, slow-cooked, julienne-cut vegetables like squash, zucchini, and eggplant. It’s like a Filipino-style ratatouille but a lot tastier. It comes over rice.
I’m also a fan of the squash tacos from The Taco Guys. And Senior Senig, although it’s a pretty pork-based truck, does a great vegetarian taco too.
The tiramisu is my favorite cupcake from CupKates. Kate is a friend of mine, we started our street-food businesses the same week, we have gotten new trucks the same week, and for the longest time we worked out of the same kitchen together, The Artisan Kitchen, a cooperative kitchen space in Richmond.
What brick-and-mortar joints do you like in Berkeley?
Ippuku is definitely my top restaurant pick in town. Such fine food and the atmosphere is amazing; they remember my name after I haven’t been there in months. Their ramen is spectacular; the broth especially. They do a perfectly-cooked, succulent beef tenderloin. And their drinks are fun, they do sakes and sweet-potato based liqueurs.
Also Cha-Ya in North Berkeley because I know I can find lots of vegetables. And Guerilla Cafe because it has a lot of personality. I’m also impressed with their operations out of such a small space.
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.
Ebbett’s Good to Go debuts tonight at Off the Grid [08.17.11]
Why does the street food scene bypass Berkeley? [10.18.10]
Crowds turn out for Berkeley’s inaugural Off The Grid [06.02.11]
Off The Grid to launch weekly street-food event in Berkeley [05.17.11]
Berkeley Bites: Keba Konte (Guerilla Cafe) [04.09.10]