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The Fojol Renaissance

A traveling band of whimsical Indian food vendors hopes to inspire culinary and social change in D.C.
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It’s high noon on a recent Friday, and the Fojol Bros. of Merlindia are in front of the Vault of the Earth serving Indian food.

It’s a sticky 85 degrees -- easily 100-plus in their silver 1965 Chevy Step Van -- and Kipoto and Dingo (Peter Korbel and Justin Vitarello) are trying their best to keep up with the seemingly endless procession of bureaucrats, students and World Bank (“Vault of the Earth”) employees. The line grows as the Brothers’ blue jumpsuits, multi-colored turbans and stick-on moustaches become ever more drenched in sweat.

The people willing to wait 15 minutes for the “traveling culinary carnival” are -- like the brothers themselves -- mostly in their 20s and 30s. But the ethnic diversity is remarkable. One could conceivably cast a Captain Planet movie by picking four people out of the line at random. Several in line are from the subcontinent; somewhat ironic considering that they’re being served chicken curry by two white guys who grew up in Washington.

Kipoto and Dingo, along with the two part-time brothers, Gewpee and Ababa-Du (Adam Vitarello and Will Carroll), bring an idealism to the mobile food business that you won’t find at your average hotdog cart.

“We’re in a business of literally bringing happiness,” says Kipoto. The Brothers claim inspiration for their whimsical mission from the man whose house sits three blocks from where their truck’s loudspeaker is blaring upbeat dance tunes.

January 20 was “a day we think the world changed significantly,” Kipoto said in a subsequent phone interview. Inauguration week was also when the Fojol Bros. rolled out the truck for the first time. It was fitting, since Barack Obama's campaign and subsequent election was the impetus for the Brothers asking themselves, “How can we form a business that brings communities together?”

Their answer: selling food on four wheels. Serving all four quadrants of D.C. Using biodegradable trays and compostable sporks. And donating some of the proceeds to at-risk youth programs.

The Fojol Bros., along with On The Fly, Sweetflow Mobile, and other Twittering food truck players, represent another hopeful sign for those D.C. residents seeking recognition for our cosmopolitan advances. The city’s art, nightlife and dining scenes may be thriving, but our New York envy persists, as does the perception of D.C. as a bit of a backwater.

The Brothers hope to change this, but it’s an uphill climb.

As the line at the truck grows even longer, a trolley full of tourists drives by. One could hardly blame them for their looks of confusion as they gawked at the quirky scene. After all, this is not the Washington, D.C., of popular imagination.

A brief perusal of recent movies set here (State of Play, Burn After Reading, Live Free or Die Hard, The Good Shepherd, etc.) seems to reinforce the image of Washington as a soulless, elitist government town with a crime problem. But in the mythical land of the Brothers’ imagination, Merlindia, the food is cheap and delicious, the “lassipops” (flavors include ginger, rose water, mango and pineapple coconut) are exotic, and the free picnic blanket rentals are on the honor system.

The Fojol Bros. were recently featured in a GQ feature on the country’s best mobile dining experiences. The magazine’s conclusion about Fojol: “It’s more fun than anyone’s had on the streets of Washington, D.C., perhaps ever.”

But where GQ sees a ray of light in a shady city, the Brothers see a glimmer in an ocean of D.C. awesomeness. A civic rejuvenation is under way, and Fojol is trying to lead the charge.

“The goal is for people to see D.C. not as just a city of government workers, lawyers and doctors. I would love to influence people in a small way,” said Kipoto. "Over time [we] will hopefully give people ideas that will contribute to the fabric of the city.”

Their first mission is getting Washingtonians to open up to one another.

“D.C. can be a very isolated city,” lamented Kipoto, a self-described people person.

Indeed, conversations between two strangers on the street can be as rare as a consensus in Congress. New York once owned the same unfriendly reputation, but that has decidedly changed. As the young people who began flocking to the city earlier in the decade start setting down roots, getting married and raising families here, there’s hope that Washington is next in line.

“There’s more underneath the surface," Kipoto said. "I would like to think that D.C. is on the cusp of becoming a real destination and less of a transient city.”