Food & Wine

The Cookout food truck fries up fusion as Mtn. View's rare black-owned eatery

Above Photo by Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier; Below Photo Courtesy of Rod McGee
Rod McGee and Atira Lewis launched Mountain View’s The Cookout food truck after 20 years of cooking together at home.

The Cookout food truck fries up a harmonious assortment of “Old English” fish and chips and Southern-style fried seafood, but the fusion at its heart comes from two longtime partners, Atira Lewis and her fiance Rod McGee. They crafted its signature cornmeal-and-spices savory flavor and feel-good, decadent menu in their kitchen over 20 years of cooking together.

Today their household has expanded to include the wide assortment of people from down the street and across the bay who find their way to a quiet corner of the parking lot at 1350 Pear Ave. in Mountain View, led by a trail of enthusiastic breadcrumbs posted earlier in the day on social media.

They wear masks now as they wait, but patrons can still smooth their wait time courtesy of the ad hoc sound system, a speaker perched under a tree that was pumping out Stephen Marley and Dennis Brown the evening of June 3. Brown wrote “Revolution” in 1985, but as 10 people lingered around the truck waiting for takeaway last week, his lyrics were pointed. “Gotta fight the right fight here in this time. … Living and loving and sharing and caring for ya peers.”

‘This story isn’t new’

The crowd of diners over the past week may stem in part from The Cookout’s presence as the only Mountain View entry on lists of black-owned restaurants circulating throughout the Bay Area. The crowd-sourced spreadsheets don’t guarantee to catch every business, but they do reflect The Cookout’s rare position in Mountain View.
In an interview with the Town Crier last week that ranged from deep-fry oil temperatures to antiracism and social change, McGee talked about life as one of Mountain View’s few black entrepreneurs. Although it isn’t his responsibility to speak to social justice in the middle of an interview about delicious food, he was willing to give his take on the protests, and the underlying injustices that have targeted the black community. Up front, he noted that nobody should kid themselves that this is a novel issue, even if some people are paying attention for what feels like the first time.

McGee said it feels as though Mountain View has never really had black-owned-businesses, stretching back through his childhood in the ’80s, and that it does sometimes make The Cookout feel “a little bit special. … But at the same time, it’s what it’s supposed to be.”

Some local eaters, McGee said, may be seeking out his food truck as part of the heightened urgency nonblack residents feel about noticing and supporting black neighbors right now. He was quick to point out that while many people have a focus on antiracist action and calling out institutional injustice, the current feeling of crisis has been an everyday experience for black people for a very long time.

“This is normal. It’s not new to me, this story isn’t new,” McGee said.
It’s not new to his family, either.

“We definitely talk about the protests and everything that’s going on,” he said. “It’s something we speak about to our kids because they’re growing up in this world and they’ve got to learn to deal, especially if things don’t change. To me, those protests, it’s all needed, it’s all necessary, but if the change doesn’t happen at the roots, there’s not going to be any change, so it’s all for nothing. I’m looking for that kind of movement where people are saying, ‘You know what? Let’s rewrite the rules so it’s there for everyone.’”

The movement is energizing for McGee.
“I’m definitely excited about what’s going on right now,” he said. “I’m glad that my kids are able to see this – it’s sad that they’ve got to see this, but I’m glad that they can see it. Otherwise my words really don’t mean too much if you can’t see it. They’re able to see what’s going on. It sheds a lot of light for a lot of people.”
McGee and Lewis grew up in Mountain View and Palo Alto, respectively – he’s a Los Altos High School alumnus, and coaches at Pinewood School in Los Altos when he isn’t working The Cookout’s kitchen. Their four children help out at the truck for big events when they’re not heading to middle school, graduating from college or pursuing their own careers.

“They’re always willing to come help out – we don’t really have to reach outside the family to get help – but they have their own things going on, too,” McGee said of the close-knit team that, during less complicated times, would work shows at Shoreline Amphitheatre and other large events. “The food truck business, it can be real tough, but it’s mainly about getting yourself out there. There are food groups out there that you can join, but we’ve been real independent.”

Word of mouth

McGee said the nights when a horde of fried food fans extend – now at a social distance – down the sidewalk and around the edges of the parking lot come and go “like full moons, you never know.”
The shelter-in-place process hasn’t hurt business, McGee reports.

“Sometimes people get tired of eating the same foods,” he said. “You’ve got to seek out something. That’s what’s been happening to us – word of mouth, grassroots.”

He sees customers drive over the bridge from Fremont, down from San Mateo or up from San Jose – but also walk over from down the street. McGee credits the relaxed atmosphere, of outdoor music and people of every kind hanging out waiting for food, with providing a draw.

“You might see a 12-year-old at our truck or a 70-year-old,” he said. “Not to eat fried foods every day – but when you’re looking for something a little bit different, you’re going to cheat sometimes. Why not have something cool?”

Red Snapper and fries

The menu on a given day might include fried smoked ribs, deep-fried Oreos and there’s always hushpuppies, fried ravioli, wings and soda flavors sourced from around the world, from Fanta Shokata to watermelon Crush. Some come for the battered halibut and cod that could have beamed across the Atlantic from a British chippy. Others are drawn to the Southern-style seasoned cornmeal batter, with its intergenerational roots in McGee and Lewis’ families.

In-house fusion

When you dunk a hunk of gleaming white-fleshed snapper or catfish in the tartar sauce and bite through the crisp, savory outer coating, the subtle heat of their signature seasoning is complex and elusive. Garlic, but not too much. Onion, not too much. Salt and spicy heat, but again – hard to pin down everything that’s in play.

“It’s hard to say what’s all in it, we just taste it – it’s really home cooking,” McGee said with humor of their secret mix. “If you came to our house before we had a truck and had fish and chips, this is what you’d be eating.”

McGee said that their back-and-forth in the kitchen forged The Cookout’s style. Both of their sets of parents cook, and the ultimate combination of four role models and two opinionated chefs has created what McGee calls “in-house fusion food.”

“When I’m talking to people and I’m just describing it, I say that I’m just hoping that it’s dancing on your tongue,” McGee said.

They aim to “turn down the salt” enough that the dishes are inclusive even of older diners conscious of sodium levels.

Those who want to try The Cookout can take to Facebook or Instagram for updates on when the truck is headed to Mountain View – they take preorders for takeaway lunches in advance, and do walk-up dinners on nights when they pull up to 1350 Pear.

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