Forty food trucks and pop-ups now dot the Santa Cruz County landscape. Call it global food tourism — within 30 minutes. Here’s where to find dumplings, Cubanos, yakitori, adobo, tapas and so much more.
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The pandemic might have been the best thing that’s ever happened to the food truck and pop-up scene in Santa Cruz County. While COVID-19 steamrolled over traditional restaurants, many of which are still struggling to bounce back from operation restrictions, staff shortages and supply chain issues, small food businesses unencumbered by a brick-and-mortar space exploded. Prior to 2020, there were a couple dozen pop-ups and food trucks regularly operating in the county; in this guide, you’ll find more than 40. This summer seems to be the season of special plenty.
Entrepreneurs who recently launched their food businesses share some of the same motivations. Some, like Lance Ebert of S.C. Bread Boy and Charlie Funk of Funk’s Franks, are restaurant industry veterans who decided to finally launch their passion projects after the service industry shut down in the spring of 2020. Others, like Laurel Tisserand of LaurelBakes, used quarantine to hone cooking and baking skills that became side projects that turned into businesses.
They are just the latest surge in a wave that reaches back nearly a decade. Veteran food trucks and pop-ups like Saucey’z, My Mom’s Mole and Ate3One have graced parking lots and drawn crowds since long before the pandemic, and prove that these kinds of businesses have staying power.
But wait — what’s a pop-up? Most people are familiar with food trucks, even if they’ve never eaten at one, but the edges of what constitutes a “pop-up” are fuzzy.
For this guide, a “pop-up” refers to a non-brick-and-mortar business that serves a curated menu of prepared food. Most prepare their food ahead of time to serve at events or breweries. Some, like Happy Dog Hot Dogs, can be found week to week in the same spot. Others, like Full Steam Dumpling and Chubb’s Chicken Sandwiches, have regular hours in a space with walls. They could almost be considered restaurants, but if one were to visit them, you would understand that they are something else entirely. One thing pop-ups do not have is their own brick-and-mortar space — that’s the key difference between them and restaurants. And cottage food businesses, by contrast, do not typically leave their homes or kitchens.
One could argue over a single definition over a cold beer and several plates of yakitori, but it’s best not to get too bogged down in the details. Enjoyment of pop-ups and food trucks is enhanced by keeping an open mind.
Unlike places like Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas, Santa Cruz County doesn’t have designated food truck areas. Here, food trucks and pop-ups are limited in where and when they can serve, and you’ll often find them partnering with private businesses like wineries and breweries and at special events. Why are they limited? We’ll get into those questions in Lookout this summer, but for now, enjoy what we have where we have it.
Over the past decade since food trucks and pop-ups started emerging in Santa Cruz County, some have wondered whether they would pose direct competition to restaurants, but those fears haven’t really materialized. The dining experience at a pop-up or food truck — outdoors with little to no seating, no table service, often a changing menu — is quite different from a traditional dining experience, and these businesses seem to coexist in harmony.
A vibrant dining scene makes living in Santa Cruz County more fun. Many food trucks and pop-ups fill niches in our local food options with specialized offerings that weren’t available before, like vegetarian cubanos, Venezuelan arepas and Ukrainian comfort food. Ever-changing menus, driven by the seasons or the cook’s whims, keep the experience fresh.
Use this guide to find out where your favorite pop-ups and food trucks will be next and discover new ones to try. Some have regular haunts; others float among events, breweries and wineries throughout the county. Most use Instagram to communicate with their fans, so follow your favorites. Hours and locations vary, but finding them is part of the fun.
There are also many wonderful food stalls that appear each week at local farmers markets, but you won’t find them in this guide. There are too many to include here — watch for a special guide on Lookout that will help you navigate those offerings.
I’ve also marked pop-ups and food trucks that are consistently good with creative offerings that are worth seeking out. Look for the 💥.
The dollar signs denote the average price per item: $ is less than $10, $$ is $10-$20 and $$$ is greater than $20.
New pop-ups and food trucks launch all of the time, and we’ll be updating this guide regularly. Email me atto see your business added to the list.
We’ve given you a couple of ways to find your faves. We’ve organized the guide below by cuisine. And we’ve created a sortable cheat sheet you can play with: Find the food of your choice by my own picks, where it’s located, type of food and more.
At Ate3One, Kasia Maslanka offers fresh takes on modern street food. Expect to find dishes like poke nachos, pulled pork sandwiches, Philly cheesesteaks and garlic shrimp tacos. Don’t miss the Naughty Fries — french fries loaded with bacon, garlic confit, cheese, aioli, sour cream and scallions.
If you have an itch for a classic fried chicken sandwich, head to Chubb’s. All of the chicken and many of its sides are gluten-free without sacrificing any flavor or texture. You can order online and pick up at the window behind the Santa Cruz Art Center in downtown Santa Cruz.
The fun takes on grilled cheese sandwiches at Epoch Eats are anything but classic. Combinations range from savory, like turkey, havarti and artichoke hearts, to sweet, with peaches, goat cheese, honey and Tajin, to surprising — who can resist mac ‘n’ cheese griddled between two slices of sourdough?
💥 Funk’s Franks
Chicago-style hot dogs, upscale diner dishes
Chicago native turned Santa Cruz transplant Charlie Funk brings upscale diner food inspired by the Windy City. Don’t miss the loaded Chicago-style hot dogs — a regional speciality — as well the Italian beef dip and homemade cheesecake. Funk teased a new incarnation last week on Instagram, so stay tuned.
Happy Dog Hot Dogs
Hot dog joint
Find: Mon through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 324 River St., Santa Cruz
Daniel Aguirre takes the hot dog game seriously. He uses locally crafted sausages from Corralitos Market and Sausage Company, and offers a range of homemade mustards and condiments. Occasionally, he’ll even cure his own capicola. In 2018, Time magazine named Happy Dog one of the top 10 hot dog carts in the nation based on Yelp ratings.
Spicy fried chicken
Find: Wed through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at locations in Watsonville
Hot Birds launched in Watsonville last spring, and locals fell hard for its take on hot chicken. In May, the pop-up became a food truck, and now offers sandwiches and fries featuring dangerously spiced chicken five days a week. Thankfully, you can choose your heat level, ranging from Classic (no spice) to HOT-HOT (double ghost peppers).
Sandwiches & Burgers
Sandwiches and burgers
Find: UCSC campus, breweries and events throughout the county
This food truck’s menu is as advertised. Find burgers with all kinds of toppings, like jalapeño and grilled onions or barbecue sauce and onion rings, as well as hearty sandwiches like Philly cheesesteaks and spicy Cajun chicken. It also offers a veggie burger and salmon burger, and is branching out to burritos, nachos and tacos.
Saucey’z has rolled through the streets in Santa Cruz offering loaded fries, specialty sandwiches, wraps and burgers since 2012. Don’t miss the sweet and savory glazed Brussels sprouts finished with house sauces and crunchy toppings.
Changing prix-fixe menus
Find: Special events
Kaloana Guthmann and Sarah Bargetto are the two chicks behind this pop-up. Both are professional cooks who teamed up to offer creative themed menus, including a Southern takeout dinner with fried chicken and ham-hock greens and fusion-inspired Spanish tapas like “kimchichurri” patatas bravas.
Asian & Pacific Islander cuisine
Filipino adobo and dumplings
Find: Breweries throughout the county, special events
This pop-up offers authentic Filipino home cooking, including smokey-sweet chicken and pork adobo, noodle dishes, crispy fried lumpia and hand-wrapped dumplings. Everything is home-cooked, and you can taste the love.
There is a distinct lack of Vietnamese food in Santa Cruz County, but not so now that Auntie Manna’s has entered the chat. This pop-up is just getting started, but has already gained fans for its bánh xèo sizzling crepes filled with tofu, mushrooms and herbs and Vietnamese curry, and bánh mì with lemongrass chicken and mushroom pate.
💥 Full Steam Dumpling
Dumplings, noodles and ramen
Find: Wednesday through Friday, 5-9 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Art Center (1001 Center St., Santa Cruz), occasional farmers markets and events
Andy Huynh’s constantly changing menu of fresh, farmers market-driven takes on Asian dishes is as stunning as it is flavorful. Don’t miss the gyoza, pork and shrimp shu mai and char siu bao dumplings. On Fridays, dive into passionately crafted bowls of tonkotsu, shoyu and miso ramen.
Holopono Food Truck
Hawaiian pupus, poke & plate lunches
Find: Friday, 5- 8 p.m. at Skypark (361 Kings Valley Rd., Scotts Valley), and events
In Hawaiian, “holopono” means “to move with righteousness,” and Holopono Food Truck aims to serve its Hawaiian cuisine with plenty of aloha spirit. Find dishes like Spam musubi, vibrant poke bowls, Hawaiian pulled pork sliders and chicken teriyaki.
Modern Filipino American
Find: Special events
Paul Suniga takes his fine-dining background and applies it to traditional regional Filipino dishes with exquisite results. A May menu featured adobo chicken confit with squid ink and nasturtium; sinigang broth with wild steelhead and rainbow chard; and glistening flan with mango mousse and ube ice cream. Keep an eye out for his return to Ulterior at Motiv in Santa Cruz.
💥 Yakitori Toriman
Find: Wed, 4-8 p.m. at Humble Sea Brewing (830 Swift St., Santa Cruz); Saturday, 2-6 p.m. at Apéro Club (402 Ingalls St. #29, Santa Cruz)
An appetizing plume of grill smoke will beckon you towards the Yakitori Toriman booth decorated with red and white Japanese lanterns, where skewers of meat and vegetables are charred over high heat to order. Yakitori goes great with a cold beverage, so order a few grilled gizzards, wings, sausage, okra, green onions and more while you relax with a cold beer or glass of natural wine.
Eddie Alaniz serves conspiracy-themed coffee drinks, like “5 G is Killing the Bees,” an espresso with milk and honey lavender syrup, from his mobile coffee cart. He calls himself “the red pill to the corporate coffee matrix,” but he takes his roasting and sourcing seriously, using only ethical, single-origin coffee from small producers.
💥 Mariposa Cuban Coffee
Cuban coffee, vegetarian pastries and sandwiches
Find: Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Shanty Shack Brewing (138 Fern St., Santa Cruz); Wednesday through Friday, 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. at Humble Sea Brewing (830 Swift St, Santa Cruz); Thursday through Sunday, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. and Saturday, 11:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. at 1010 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz
Don’t be fooled by the tiny cafecito — these sugar-spiked Cuban coffee drinks will put some sway in your hips and pair perfectly with a flaky guava and cream cheese pastry. Owners Tram Vu and Chelsea Cabrera also offer delicious vegetarian Cubano sandwiches that are crispy on the outside and melty on the inside.
Eco-conscious Three Waves Coffee launched last year and already offers four single-origin coffees and four blends, all roasted on a high-efficiency roaster and packaged in compostable bags. Find it serving Santa Cruz-inspired third wave coffee at local events.
Chef Jessica Yarr channels her Ukrainian heritage into beautiful, vegetable-forward takes on traditional Eastern European dishes, like fried knish stuffed with potato and kraut, pierogi served with sour cream and sugar snap peas, and beet- and carrot-stuffed pelmeni with walnut pesto. Don’t miss the brioche donuts.
💥 Scrumptious Fish & Chips
British fish & chips
Find: Thursday, 4-8 p.m. at Humble Sea Brewing (830 Swift St., Santa Cruz), and breweries, farmers markets throughout the county
The name of the game at Scrumptious Fish & Chips food truck is battered rockfish, shrimp or cod, fried to a golden, crispy brown, served with thick-cut British chips. Be sure to get it with the spiced curry ketchup. Not feeling fish? The Loaded Tikka Masala Chips topped with homemade chicken tikka is fusion cuisine at its best.
Latin American cuisine
Caracas-born Vrinda Quintero’s arepas are vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free without sacrificing any of the flavors that this traditional Venezuelan dish is known for by using meaty jackfruit, black beans and fried plantains. Her business is woman-owned and -operated, and focuses on addressing social justice issues while building agency and community through food.
Dos Hermanos Pupuseria
Find: At events, farmers markets and on the UC Santa Cruz campus
Dos Hermanos’ pupusas — griddled masa cakes stuffed with beans, cheese and shredded meat from El Salvador — are one of those comfort foods that always leave you satisfied. Cut through all that hearty, melty goodness with a side of crunchy and spicy fermented curtido or salsa roja.
El Rey Leon Mexican Food
Tacos, burritos and tortas
Find: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 12890 Highway 9, Ben Lomond
El Rey Leon’s menu of classic Mexican food includes regional classics like Baja fish tacos, quesabirria and pambazo tortas, as well as churro cheesecake.
La Perrona Mexican Food
Find: Monday through Friday, noon-2 p.m. and 4:30-9 p.m., Saturday, 4:30-9 p.m. at 251 E. Lake Ave., Watsonville
All of La Perrona’s tacos are served on homemade tortillas, which is reason enough to search out this taco truck in Watsonville, where burritos, tortas and quesadillas are served with love.
Miches & Ceviches
Ceviche and seafood tacos
Find: Thursday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. at 1459 Freedom Blvd, in Watsonville, and special events
Miches & Ceviches prepares vibrant, flavorful Mexican seafood like white fish ceviche with mango and red, black or green aquachiles. Use its housemade Miche mix to liven up your dish or blend into a bloody mary or Clamato.
Cesario Ruiz loved cooking since he was a kid growing up outside of Guanajuato, Mexico. In Santa Cruz County, he perfected a dehydrated mole made with chilis, spices and chocolate that tastes just like the one his mom used to make. At his pop-ups, find his trademarked mole incorporated into modern versions of nachos, enmoladas and bowls.
In colloquial Spanish, a “pana” is a close friend, but Pana’s arepas are so tasty, you won’t want to share them even with your closest homies. Here, cornmeal arepas are made Venezuelan-style — griddled on a flat top, cut open and stuffed with fillings like shredded beef and cheddar cheese or black beans, tomatoes and plantains for a satisfying meal. Don’t forget the garlic sauce!
The Real Taco
Tacos, burritos and nachos
Find: Tuesday and Friday, noon-8:30 p.m. at Humble Sea Brewing (820 Swift St., Santa Cruz); Mon, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, 11 a.m. - 9 p.m. at 1204 Mission St., Santa Cruz
Real Taco serves up classic Mexican street food with flair, including crispy quesabirria tacos stuffed with avocado and shredded meat and creamy Baja-style fried fish tacos. Keep an eye out for specials like pozole rojo, chicken tinga and stuffed green chilis.
💥 Tacos El Chuy
Tacos, burritos and nachos
Find: Saturday, 3-8 p.m. at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing (402 Ingalls St., Santa Cruz)
Chuy serves up nachos, quesadillas and burritos, but his street tacos, in particular, are exceptional. A fan favorite is the spit-roasted al pastor, served with warm slivers of juicy pineapple. Ramp up the flavor with fiery housemade condiments and salsas.
Tacos El Jerry
Tacos, tortas and burritos
Find: Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to midnight at 35 E. Lake Ave. in Watsonville; Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. - 5 p.m. at 2418 Freedom Blvd., Corralitos
Tacos El Jerry serves classic Mexican fare, including tortas, tacos and burritos. Fans love its griddled, cheesy quessabirra tacos and mulitas. Find the brightly colored trucks in the Watsonville area at least five days a week.
Find: Tuesday through Sunday, noon-8 p.m. at 1995 41st Ave. in Santa Cruz, and events
At Taquizas Gabriel, it’s all about the quesabirria. Corn tortillas slide through enchilada sauce before being griddled with cheese and shredded meat. They’re melty, crispy and juicy, and made even better topped with cilantro, onions and homemade salsa.
Syrian Mediterranean tapas
Find: Monday and Tuesday, noon-6 p.m. and Wednesday, 3-6 p.m. at 1520 Pacific Ave. Kiosk #1 in Santa Cruz
Fadi Dabs harnesses his fine dining experience and recipes from his mother’s native Syria into vibrant, mostly-vegan Mediterranean tapas that change with the seasons. The plate lunch changes weekly based on what’s available at the downtown farmers market.
Detroit-style pan pizza took hold in Santa Cruz, and Jayne Dough’s version checks all the boxes: thick, slow-fermented sourdough, a crispy cheese crown hanging over the sides of the crust and toppings that showcase local cheeses and Central Coast produce. Take time to relax — these pizzas can take half an hour or more.
Find: Events, breweries and wineries throughout the county
Samuele Polverosi hails from Italy, where he earned recognition from the Association of Professional Pizzaioli as an official pizzaiolo and completed courses on working with gluten-free pizza dough and alternative flour mixes. Now in Santa Cruz, he puts his skills to work and offers a seasonal menu of traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas.
Sleight of Hand Pizza
Wood-fired Neapolitan pizza
Find: Monday, 3-8 p.m. at Humble Sea Brewing (830 Swift St., Santa Cruz), and events
Justin Wadstein knows how to toss a pizza – he’s a 13-time world pizza champion, and even traveled with “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” performing elaborate pizza-tossing routines. Back home in Santa Cruz, he tops his expertly tossed pizzas with toppings both classic and unconventional, like dates, walnuts and blue cheese or arugula and truffle oil.
At Aunt LaLi’s you’ll find all of your favorite frozen treats, plus scooped ice cream and made-to-order ice cream sandwiches and sundaes. LaLi also has a full coffee and espresso bar — affogato, anyone?
LaurelBakes Cookies & Cakes
Cookies and cupcakes
Find: Events at Greater Purpose Brewing (21517 E. Cliff Dr., Santa Cruz)
Before you bite into Laurel Tisserand’s cookies and cakes, feast your eyes on the incredibly intricate details. Each batch typically follows a playful, sometimes queer, theme, which can include houseplants, video game or anime references and woodland creatures.
💥 S.C. Bread Boy
Cannolis and focaccia
Find: Friday, 5-9 p.m. at Midtown Block Party (1111 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz); Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. at 38th Avenue & East Cliff Drive, Santa Cruz, and events
Bread Boy Lance Ebert has a loyal following for his homemade cannoli dipped in unconventional toppings like breakfast cereal or made with whole slices of apple pie, and his fluffy loaves of traditional Italian focaccia, either plain or topped with truffle oil, parmesan and black pepper. When you find him, come early — he often sells out within an hour.
Stay Cool Ice Cream Truck
Ice cream and frozen desserts
Find: Special events
Stay Cool hit the road last year and serves Marianne’s Ice Cream and classic frozen treats out of a refurbished 1971 Ford ice cream truck. Looking for something cold but a little healthier? It also serves frozen Sambazon acai bowls. If you want the best of both, order an acai bowl in a waffle cone.
Baker Julia Daniel makes flaky croissants, tender muffins and chewy bagels that happen to also be entirely free of animal products. You can find Sweet Bean vegan breakfast treats at pop-up events and at local coffee shops, including The Ugly Mug in Soquel, Verve Coffee on Fair Avenue in Santa Cruz and Honeylux Coffee in Watsonville.