Edible Monterey Bay

The Happy Anchor Food Truck Drops in Downtown Monterey

June 23, 2020 – Behold the Totchos, a brave mountain of tater tots slathered in nacho sauce with optional bacon (yes please), pickled jalapeños, black olives, lime crema and fresh homemade pico de gallo. The load feels like it might just plunge through the bottom of its compostable container like an anvil through a glass roof.

But as intense as they are, they’re really a side show for the main event, and just one of a number of things that recommend The Happy Anchor as it settles into its new—and hopefully permanent—home.

The main event is the selection of grilled cheeses.

We’re talking melty productions like the Land Lubber, with sharp cheddar, havarti, bacon, fresh tomato and caramelized onions, or La Barca with more cheddar, pepper jack and pickled jalapeños.

On my visit I tried two signature offerings: 1) the Peninsula Pesto with provolone, havarti, basil pesto, artichokes and fresh tomato, and 2) the Moxie with havarti, cheddar, thin slices of Granny Smith apple and bacon.

Full disclosure: I am lightly obsessed with grilled cheese sandwiches. I could make an argument they’re among the best food on the planet. It’s also one of the few dishes I’m good at making at home, and I like to avoid ordering something while eating out that I can construct just as well myself. So the pressure was there with this taste test.

The Moxie includes Granny Smith apple, bacon, cheddar and havarti (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

But each brought the qualities that make a grilled cheese best: gooey cohesion; sum-is-greater-than-the-parts ingredients, layered at the right ratio; and golden-crunchy-but-not-too-crunchy California sourdough crusts. 

Excellent. The value—$10 and $11, respectively, with a snappy pickle spear—is respectable.

The Totchos ($8), in fact, were what felt a little anticlimactic—the nacho cheese could benefit from some garlic, smokiness, citrus or all three. But the double serving of potato pillows was so massive I had plenty of leftovers to play with, so I pan-crisped the medley and added hot sauce, Pezzini Farms artichoke seasoning and a splash of lemon on the finish. Yum.

A bonus tot note: They’re also available in half the size without all the toppings and with a choice of house-crafted dipping sauces like blue cheese or pepper jelly, for $3, or as garlic parmesan tots for $4.

Among the number of things that recommend The Happy Anchor are the curated specials, like the Hidden Treasure havarti-blue cheese-bacon-stuffed dates. Those allow owner-operator Stefanie Ashby and chef Brett Lakey, who cook everything to order, to test what people want and keep their small inventory of fresh produce from going bad. (The Totchos are officially moving to the permanent menu.) 

Owner-operator Stefanie Ashby (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

These days they’re learning locals want more animal proteins than just bacon, so they’re adding grilled chicken and tuning up their simple salads, which include the BLT with organic romaine, blue cheese, bacon and tomatoes ($6).

Another positive: Many of the savory little inputs, like the jalapeños, pesto, pickles, blue-cheese sauce, honey mustard and pepper jam, are made in-truck. The soups—a tomato basil bisque and burly fiesta corn chowder—are made from scratch too and proving popular.

One more quality is front and center: the cute factor. Yellow is the color of sunshine, hope, and happiness, after all. The Nepalese prayer flags that rim the physically distanced tables are humble and perfect. The little Hershey’s kiss that comes with each sandwich is simple but hard not to smile at.

Tomato Basil Bisque (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

After struggling to find good places to park, The Happy Anchor has found a promising partner in the Filipino Hall, which furnishes both the type of kitchen required by local food truck code and a centrally located—albeit easy to overlook—parking lot to set up shop. 

THA first started operating at 629 Pearl St. about two months back. Hours are 11am-3pm weekdays; happy hours with deals on the tasty strawberry basil lemonade ($1 instead of $3 for a 20-ounce) and/or free chips with a sandwich happen 2-3pm.

After serving in the Navy, Lakey put himself through culinary school and has worked as a catering and private property chef for 10 years. He knows what he wants Anchor customers to sail away with.

“I want the experience to hit close to the joy they had as a child, with the understanding a grilled cheese doesn’t have to be Kraft singles,” he says. “It can be done with homemade sauces, in an elevated way.

Then he adds: “I also want them to feel that they got value for their money.”

Chef Brett Lakey (photo: Mark C. Anderson)

The key to a great grilled cheese, he says, is the right bread.

“You need your bread to allow steam to come through, but it also has to hold up to what you put on it,” he says. “With sourdough the bread toasts all the way through—as long as you don’t rush it. Be patient. It’s gonna take as long as it needs.”

Ashby grew up in Monterey and returned from New York four years ago after two decades in advertising and publishing. She originally planned to hatch a business in retail, but realized her passion for food and a dearth of food trucks in the area were steering her in a new direction.

“I knew I knew how to make a mean grilled cheese, and it offers so many possibilities creatively,” she says. “I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, I wanted to make it better.” 

She started out only having eaten at food trucks. After months and months learning everything she has about them—and commercial food, period—she was nervous that after all that customers might not agree with the high grilled cheese grades she awarded herself.

“The best is when people come back and tell me they’ve been eating grilled cheese for 40 years and they like mine,” she says. “It truly thrills me. And makes all the [strain] of the past two years all better.” 

More at (831) 760-5404 or https://happyanchortruck.com