One of Yelp's top Bay Area restaurants is in a Peninsula park-and-ride lot

Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

On the southern border of San Francisco is one of the Bay Area’s best kept lunch secrets. To find it, drive down 101 South and exit Bayshore Boulevard. Once there, you’ll find the Brisbane Lunch Truck, a 20-foot brick-red trailer in the Bayshore park-and-ride lot, serving delicious American comfort classics with a Japanese twist.

This is one of Yelp’s top 100 places to eat in the Bay Area. On a recent Saturday afternoon, customers noshed on baskets of crispy, umami-dusted chips paired with their BLTs, chicken sandwiches and juicy burgers. Kids watched and pointed in awe as the occasional rush of Caltrain commuters whizzed by.

As my family and I approached the truck’s ordering window, a woman with short, bright lavender hair peeked out, smiling from behind her mask and ready to take our order: one Yokohama chicken sandwich, one Yokohama chicken bento box and, of course, the signature BLT. After our order was placed, the host warmly said, “Make yourself at home. I’ll bring the drinks to your table.”

Kristi Yawata taking orders at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Kristi Yawata taking orders at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

That added touch of hospitality made the experience feel more like dining at a restaurant versus a food truck on the side of the road. But then again, Brisbane Lunch Truck, or BLT for short, is unlike any other food truck in the Bay Area.

A twist on traditional eats

As we settled into our table and breathed in the scenery, head chef and owner Kristi Yawata, with her stylish pixie cut, approached each table with a tray of ice cold drinks such as lip-puckering citrusade and fruit-flavored sodas.

If you order a strawberry soda, for example, Yawata makes the strawberry syrup from scratch using real strawberries. She then takes the homemade concoction and adds it to sparkling water so it’s fresh for each customer. The result is a lightly sweet, fruity and effervescent accompaniment to any order.

Table by table, Yawata chatted with each customer as she delivered their refreshments before returning to her station.

Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022. Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Yokohama Chicken Sandwich at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Yokohama Chicken Sandwich at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022. Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Staff preparing a BLT at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Staff preparing a BLT at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022. Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
Caltrain passing at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Caltrain passing at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022. Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE
(Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE)

The BLT is a fairly new operation. It first opened in November 2019 and developed a strong menu that includes six signature sandwiches and a rotating burger special, as well as homemade soups and thoughtful bento boxes available every Saturday.

With more than 30 years of restaurant experience behind her, and as a longtime member of the Brisbane community along with her husband, Tony Palmer, Yawata said cooking food for others simply brings her joy.

“The community response was really positive. I think all of the years that Tony and I spent in Brisbane serving as a [parent-teacher organization] president, and as a teacher, and then people knew my food through different events, so they were happy to come and support me,” she said. “I wouldn’t have opened this anywhere else but Brisbane.”

Palmer and Yawata were an integral part of the Silverspot Cooperative Nursery School’s inception, with Palmer acting as parent-teacher organization president and Yawata as a board member and teacher. Both of their children grew up going to school in the tight-knit community and Yawata remembers rekindling her love for cooking while whipping up hundreds of dinners for various fundraising galas.

“Doing these cooking events, I was like, ‘You know, I really like cooking.’ So I started doing catering events,” Yawata said. “I did weddings here, a shower there, just kind of small, little private things. I thought, ‘Yeah, cooking is what brings me joy and I’d like to do that more.’”

Kristi Yawata putting up the day's menu at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Kristi Yawata putting up the day's menu at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.PATRICIA CHANG/Special to SFGATE

Since Brisbane is a small town, Yawata believed she could fill a gap with her recipes and began the search for a brick-and-mortar space. She even thought about purchasing a food truck at one point before both of those avenues presented their own setbacks.

One day, a friend of a friend knew of a permanent food trailer that would soon be available, located on Bayshore Boulevard. Yawata met with the previous owner, who was planning to retire in Lake Tahoe, so they struck up a deal. The BLT soon followed.

It’s a charming location with the Brisbane Lagoon as the backdrop. To the right of the outdoor eatery, a wooden picket fence surrounds half a dozen picnic tables that sit atop a blanket of grassy green artificial turf that lines the cozy dining area.

Outdoor seating at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Outdoor seating at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Palmer, who is an industry analyst in the tech space and remembers cooking homemade pizza from scratch for Yawata on one of their first dates, said delicious food and the experience of cooking and eating together has been a key ingredient of their relationship right from the start.

“What I grew up with, with my grandmother, especially, food was a way to express affection and love. You feed people. That’s what you do,” Palmer said. “From that perspective, it’s fantastic to see people really like the food, but we get as many comments on the service and the experience here as we do with the food, and both of those are all Kristi. It’s really gratifying to see that.”

Yawata knows the Bay Area is filled with countless choices for people to dine in or grab a quick bite to-go. So when she designed the BLT’s menu she kept asking herself: How can she innovate the classics?

Criss-cross bacon patties

One of the first sandwiches Yawata added to the lunch truck’s menu was a BLT, but her version is made with a criss-cross woven bacon patty, served with iceberg lettuce on toasted sourdough.

The “T” component to this American sandwich is where Yawata’s recipe really stands out. Instead of sliced tomatoes that tend to slip out, and to avoid bland heirlooms when the fruit is out of season, she created a delightful tomato jam that adds a bit of sweetness to each crispy bite.

The BLT at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
The BLT at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Yawata said she cooks pounds of tomatoes on the stove for up to three to four hours until they break down into a nice, jammy consistency before adding her secret spices.

Living in the Bay Area with access to an abundance of fresh seafood, Yawata naturally wanted to include a fish sandwich on her menu. She thought about the fish sandwiches she’s seen featured at other restaurants, which she described as usually served with a piece of battered, fried filet on a bun with some tartar sauce. Yawata’s version is anything but.

“Let’s do something different. Let’s put a dry rub on it and grill it and let’s add a gremolata. So a little freshness with some lime zest and parsley and fresh garlic and put that on the top,” she described with enthusiasm. “But we need a little crunch, so let’s add some crushed rice crackers on top so you get that little crunch in your bite and the sharpness from the garlic and the acidity. It makes it pop and it’s just different.”

Her West Coast fish sandwiches alone drive a loyal following of tech bros to the lunch truck every week, she said.

Unlike the popular Southern-fried hot chicken sandwich that has taken over many restaurant and food truck menus over the years, Yawata thought once again about how her fried chicken offering could give her customers something unique. Enter the Yokohama chicken sandwich, with light sesame-dressed cabbage slaw, homemade wasabi mayo and the crispy chicken thighs served between a soft bun are inspired by a family friend’s recipe for karaage.

Kristi Yawata preparing food at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Kristi Yawata preparing food at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

“I went back to my roots … so I morphed that into our chicken sandwich,” she said. “It has all these different flavors of crunch and juiciness and a little bit of kick from the wasabi.”

‘Prepared with love’

To drive up more business on Saturdays, Yawata started selling bento box specials, with a choice between salmon or tofu teriyaki, or the truck’s Yokohama chicken bites.

“The bento boxes have been very popular. I love them. It’s drawing on the culture and I try all these different things,” she said. “One of my employees, who’s been with me from the beginning, is a Japanese woman who loves making those things and her flavors are so spot on, so I trust her to help me make up the recipes.”

Staff preparing a bento box at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Staff preparing a bento box at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Each bento is served with a white and brown rice blend with a little dab of kimchi, fresh veggies such as steamed broccoli, chef’s choice of side dish, such as blistered shishito peppers, and a little sweet treat, which was tamagoyaki (a wedge of sweet, rolled omelet) during my Saturday visit.

“I think that’s Kristi’s superpower is that she’s not only an excellent cook who knows how to get food out on time and make it delicious, but understands how a restaurant should work, understands what hospitality really means and is willing to work at that everyday,” Palmer said.

The lunch truck’s charm and its delicious menu boils down to the small details that Yawata takes great pride in going the extra mile.

But there’s one standout side on Yawata’s menu that comes with every sandwich order and packs such big flavor coming from humble potatoes: her hand-cut umami chips.

“It’s furikake, a Japanese rice seasoning. We make our own. How the origin of that came is that I just didn’t want to make fries. Anyone can make fries,” she said. “... So the idea came up like, ‘Oh I can make some chips.’ That’s it! I’m going to make my own furikake and put it on there.”

Ryoko Iwase (left), Kristi Yawata, Kecia Leonard, and Emil Yawata at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.
Ryoko Iwase (left), Kristi Yawata, Kecia Leonard, and Emil Yawata at Brisbane Lunch Truck in Brisbane, Calif. on Sept. 17, 2022.Patricia Chang/Special to SFGATE

Those seaweed-dusted chips and other personal touches are all important parts of the customer’s experience for Yawata. She said she wants everyone who visits to have one of the best meals of their day, and she wants them to come back craving more of her menu.

“I do sweat the small stuff. It’s those little details that help elevate the food just a little bit, without being pretentious,” Yawata said. “I’m not trying to be a Michelin-starred eatery here. It’s just good, quality ingredients and prepared with love.”

Brisbane Lunch Truck, 3501 Bayshore Blvd., Brisbane. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday.