The best breakfast in Tahoe is inside a tiny airport

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Lunch with a view at the Truckee Tahoe Airport in July 2023.

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

The breakfast menu ends at 11 a.m., triggering a final rush at the popular cafe inside a small airport to order a prized breakfast burrito priced at $10 and packed with hash brown potatoes, whatever vegetables are in season, and quinoa. 

If you know the secret menu, tater tots are on the table for substitution, and anyone who visits has their preference of which of the three signature sauces to dribble onto their breakfast. 

Celebrated for its fair prices and innovative menu, the Red Truck has become a Tahoe locals’ favorite since opening over a decade ago at the Truckee Tahoe Airport. 

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On its website, a 22-word glossary breaks down some of the Red Truck’s unique ingredients and items, including various tandoor spices and the signature NaanSandwich served open-faced on naan bread. Other cafe standards like breakfast bowls and hot dogs are accented with North African, Mediterranean and Indian influences. Taco fillings, for example, include chicken tikka masala and adana pork, which features a Turkish-style marinade.

The Red Truck opened its cafe at the Truckee Tahoe Airport in 2012.

The Red Truck opened its cafe at the Truckee Tahoe Airport in 2012.

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

Another surprise baked into the Red Truck experience is that it’s possible for celebrities like John Stamos, or Uncle Jesse on “Full House,” to stroll by the cafe. The Truckee Airport hosts anywhere between 250 to 300 takeoffs and landings on a busy summer day, and there’s no telling who might step off a private jet.

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A private jet lands at the Truckee Tahoe Airport in July 2023.

A private jet lands at the Truckee Tahoe Airport in July 2023.

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

The cafe is giving more people a reason to visit the Truckee Airport. More locals can pay for a cafe meal than a ride on a private jet, and maintaining this affordability is paramount for the cafe’s founder and chef, Larry Abney.

“I’m sick of high prices in downtown Truckee,” he told SFGATE by phone. “I keep my prices low so that people can come eat here every day. I feel like people are ripped off with high prices in Truckee just because they can. The airport did a report on what people think of it and we’re constantly the No. 1 reason people come to the airport.”

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The cafe was abuzz during a Thursday morning in late July as regulars loaded up on tiny takeout containers with the Red Truck’s three signature sauces: habanero, harissa and avocado-cilantro salsa. People greeted the host by first name as a bluegrass cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” played from a speaker.

The Truckee Tahoe Airport opened in 1959 and serves up to 300 flights on a busy summer day. (Silas Valentino/SFGATE)

The Truckee Tahoe Airport opened in 1959 and serves up to 300 flights on a busy summer day. (Silas Valentino/SFGATE)

The airport has 230 individual hangers for private aircraft, and I saw about a dozen parked on the tarmac. Southwest winds were becoming hazardous, leading the air traffic control center, which sits atop three stacked shipping containers, to warn inexperienced pilots to hold back until conditions cleared. 

The Red Truck’s menu is as satisfying as it’s creative. Every day there’s a special item informed by the local harvest. That week featured butternut squash samosas and a quiche with mushroom, kale and Boursin cheese. The fish tacos with nectarine salsa started selling at 11 a.m. and were likely sold out by noon. 

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“I go to the farmer market every week and force myself to come up with a new recipe,” Abney said. “Last night, I was figuring out what to do with eggplant for something that I haven’t done yet. I’m working on an eggplant samosa — it could turn out terrible!”

Abney grew up in Wyoming, where he cooked in the kitchen with his mom. He attended the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont and worked at restaurants in D.C. and New York before coming west. While on his way to San Francisco in the late 1990s, he stopped in Tahoe and was struck. He’s a mountain biker and tries to ski as much as he can, so when the chance came for Abney to return to the mountains and help open a restaurant in Truckee called Dragonfly, he jumped on it. 

Breakfast at the Red Truck features a burrito or a bowl (plus a secret menu) alongside its three signature sauces.

Breakfast at the Red Truck features a burrito or a bowl (plus a secret menu) alongside its three signature sauces.

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

Later on, he joined what he called the “food truck revolution,” and the Red Truck was born on the back of a truck bed. It appeared at staple events like Truckee Thursdays for a couple of years, but Abney said that fuel, maintenance and sanitization were increasingly difficult. “You’re a glutton for hard work if you don’t get into a brick-and-mortar,” he said.

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The airport opened in 1962 and is just outside the Truckee city limits on a valley floor off North Shore Road. It’s not exactly main street (but it is close to the best local bar in Tahoe, found inside a bougie grocery store).

When Abney was first approached by the airport about opening up a permanent spot, the chef was skeptical. “This little airport was pretty quiet when we first came here,” he said. “Even in the beginning I thought, ‘I don’t know it was going to work. It was a commissary place.’”

But the airport has made an effort to boost its appeal to the folks who fly coach. In summer 2013, it opened a Sierra-themed playground equipped with a toy-like ranger station that neighbors the runway. It’s called Katie’s Playground, in honor of a former Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board Member Katie Morrison, who died in a 2011 plane crash along with her two children.

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A Sierra-themed playground neighbors the runway at the the Truckee Tahoe Airport.

A Sierra-themed playground neighbors the runway at the the Truckee Tahoe Airport.

Silas Valentino/SFGATE

Back at the Red Truck, a weekday morning drifted into the lunch hour. And well-fed customers were replaced by the next turnover. 

Adults ate while kids played. Occasionally, after a landing, people looked up from their plates to catch who stepped off the airstairs. My table shared a chocolate chip cookie, splitting it into pieces. It was perfectly gooey on the inside, and crunching on the perimeter. We relaxed under a fluttering orange canopy that covers the cafe’s outside tables, close enough to the tarmac to hear the engines warming up.

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