As Spain’s most iconic rice dish, paella (pah-eh-yah) can be a big production to make for large groups of people. And yet, Got Paella has found a way to steer this traditionally complex cooking process onto the Los Angeles food truck scene.
“The dish itself is very complex because it has so many different ingredients and variables, and therefore it usually takes a long time to prepare,” said Ben Schuster, owner of the Got Paella food truck. “The quality of the paella depends on how fresh it’s done and the ingredients. So it’s hard to find.”
What makes up an authentic paella is a matter of ongoing debate across regions of Spain. But with few traditionalists looking over his shoulder in LA, Ben felt free to improvise his paella recipes to suit local tastes and ingredients. At the core of all Got Paella dishes is a Californian Calrose rice. Its short, oval-shaped grain allows it to cook evenly without getting too dry or mushy, while readily absorbing paella’s key spice: saffron.
“It all deviates a bit but comes back to the two main components which is the rice and the saffron.” Ben said. “That’s what really connects the dots.”
Got Paella specializes in a mixed paella, which combines meat and seafood ingredients, while also offering a meat-only variety and vegetable-only version for vegans and vegetarians. The meat paella includes a combination of savory and tender proteins—chorizo, dark meat chicken, pork belly, and pork rib—along with tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, baby lima beans and peas. The mixed paella adds mussels, clams, calamari, and shrimp to the meat combination. And for a vegan preparation, the vegetable paella is cooked separately, tossed with shishito peppers, brussels sprouts, mushrooms, peas, bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and asparagus. Ingredients may vary based on seasonal availability, but all are consistently fresh and handpicked.
“So you cook all of these ingredients, and you create a broth, and you take about 45 minutes,” Ben describes. “And then you add the rice. Just think about the flavor that the rice absorbs from this broth that it cooks in.”
As a final touch, each serving of paella dons a photoworthy centerpiece. Long asparagus spears lay across the vegetable paella; the meat paella sports a chicken drumstick; and cradled in the mixed dish are one or two large whole shrimp from the Santa Barbara Fish Market, along with an impressively sized New Zealand mussel.
“For me, it’s about showcasing the dish in its perfection,” said Ben. “The mussels and the shrimp are ones that people look at and get their first impression.”
When customers aren’t familiar with paella, Ben suggests that it shares some similarities with gumbo or jambalaya. More often, unacquainted customers tend to ask whether it’s hot or spicy. “Spanish food is never spicy,” he explained. “Paella is a mild dish. There’s no hotness to it. There’s saffron, salt and pepper, and garlic.”
For those who crave a burn, Got Paella has three choices of bottled hot sauce on hand to spice up your dish. A bowl of house-marinated olives are also offered as a condiment.
To guide his recipes, Ben leans on many years of memories and practice, having learned to make paella since he was a child in Spain. He reveled in the sizzle and the smells of the dish cooking in a wide, shallow pan over a wood burning fire pit. “When it was paella Sunday, you tend to wake up earlier than if it was just a regular meat and potatoes day,” he reminisced.
When Ben left Spain to earn a finance degree at St. Louis University, his mom bestowed upon him a paella pan as a reminder of the family. Throughout college, he would occasionally make paella for friends, which became a favorite excuse to get together and socialize over sangrias. For Ben, these paella parties were a way of sharing a cultural lifestyle.
Though he came to Los Angeles for an accounting job, the multicultural and culinary diversity inspired him to veer from his finance career to do what he knew and loved. With few eateries specializing in paella, Ben saw potential to bring the dish to the forefront. (It’s easy to imagine that he wielded a paella pan like Captain America with his shield.)
After a few successful paella catering gigs with the help and support of his wife Carol, his backyard cooking antics had become his new profession. In 2014 they started L.A. Paella Catering, which has since grown to a crew of 15, orchestrating fresh paella feasts at large private events and weddings from Santa Barbara to San Diego.
“This dish is absolutely made for communal events, larger groups—hence the bigger skillets and the bigger paella pans,” Ben said. “Everything is done from scratch in front of people because you want to see the progression of it.”
The Got Paella truck became a natural extension of the business as a way to make paella more accessible across Southern California in more casual, fast-paced settings. However, paella is not a simple dish to make on order in the confines of a truck. The cooking process can take over an hour with 14 ingredients to juggle at a time, and making large amounts requires cumbersome, oversized pans.
This is where Ben drew upon his number-crunching skills to streamline the entire cooking and serving process, ultimately shaving the time it takes to fulfill an order down to 35 seconds. To bypass the preparation obstacles, batches of paella are made from scratch each day in a commercial kitchen then transferred to the truck, with individual portions placed in carefully calibrated heating cabinets to maintain the quality of each serving.
“We want to be able to serve a large quantity in a short amount of time, especially for lunches,” Ben said. “Our customers and our clients, they want something different, something that they don’t have all of the time. But they also want it on a to-go budget and a to-go timeframe.”
With the efficiency of the process and the quality of each plate, Ben’s objective is to offer an elevated and unique food experience from start to finish. And if you still need a sweet fix after your savory meal, Got Paella’s got you covered. The housemade churros are fried in the truck and served with a cup of warm chocolate dipping sauce. And the mango creme is a light, custardy dessert topped with whipped cream, cinnamon, and fresh mint leaves.
To find Got Paella, check the truck’s calendar posted on its website, or visit Got Paella’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages. For catering inquiries, visit the L.A. Paella Catering site. You can also catch Got Paella at the Los Angeles Paella Wine & Beer Festival on Oct. 13.