A Food Movement on Wheels

Monika and Karel Vitek run the Schnitzelwich truck in Portland


Miami's Gastropod (above) serves haute cuisine from a modified 1962 Airstream trailer. photo Leo Gong

In June 2007 an actress and theater director named Kim Ima decided to embark on a new career. A longtime baking enthusiast, she took to the streets of Manhattan in a festively painted van she called the Treats Truck, selling cookies, brownies and other baked confections to sugar-crazed New Yorkers. Four years later, the Treats Truck is a mainstay of the city’s foodie community. It shows up all over town (devoted customers follow the truck’s movements via the Internet and Twitter), and Ms. Ima has become a minor celebrity, even appearing in radio and television ads for Visa.

The Treats Truck is one of more than 100 operations in 20 American cities profiled by Heather Shouse in “Food Trucks,” a guidebook that serves as a de facto overview of the current state of American street food. Long derided as a lowbrow guilty pleasure at best, and unsanitary and flavorless at worst, street food has undergone a renaissance, as mobile barbecue shacks, crêperies and even pizzerias have become popular. In perhaps the surest sign that the phenomenon is reaching its tipping point, food trucks now have their own reality show, “The Great Food Truck Race,” which debuted on the Food Network last year.


Monika and Karel Vitek run the Schnitzelwich truck in Portland

Inexpensive ethnic foods have always been suited to street vending, and urban gourmets have long made a fetish of seeking out the best bites in obscure places. But the current boom has been driven by people like Ms. Ima—educated professionals, sometimes with culinary backgrounds and sometimes not, whose entrepreneurship and pluck have given food trucks something they’ve never even attempted to have until now: respectability.

Ms. Shouse, the senior food and drink correspondent for Time Out Chicago, does a good job of explaining the factors that made the food-truck movement possible. Social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook can help a mobile kitchen build a following and keep fans apprised of its location at any given moment. The recent recession made the lower costs of street food appealing to customers and chefs alike: According to Ms. Shouse, the start-up costs of a food truck are roughly one-tenth those of opening a restaurant.

The food truck boom that’s emerged from these factors has sent ripples throughout the food industry. The National Restaurant Association’s annual convention showroom includes a section for food trucks, one consulting firm in San Francisco offers one-stop shopping to budding food truckers, “complete with design, branding, truck build-out, and permit navigation,” and the federal government’s web site for small business now provides tips for aspiring street food operators. Meanwhile, government authorities have struggled to deal with all the food-truck traffic. Mobile food permit applications in Los Angeles have quadrupled in the past two years, and there’s a brisk black market for fake permits in New York. In other cities, officials are being pressed to lift long-established bans.

Ms. Shouse has aimed to create a traveler’s guide, with coverage ranging from Portsmouth, N.H. (where there’s a highly regarded falafel truck) to Oahu, Hawaii (home to a burgeoning cluster of shrimp trucks). But this noble exercise is of limited practical utility: A fast-evolving subculture like the food-truck scene makes any guidebook obsolete almost as soon as it’s published. The book also raises a question: If you were heading to an unfamiliar city and wanted to know about the latest food hot spots—on wheels or otherwise—would you reach for book? No: you would just go to Yelp, Chowhound or a local foodie blog.

The real value of “Food Trucks” is as a portrait of a contemporary street food world that’s divided into two broad camps. For the sake of expediency, let’s call them the Authentics (mostly working-class immigrants peddling food from their respective homelands, primarily but not exclusively to fellow expatriates) and the Hipsters (middle-class foodies, primarily white and often from creative fields, whose passion for cooking led them to the driver’s seat).

Ms. Shouse never explicitly addresses these two categories of food truckery, but the class divide is unmistakable. On one page she’s profiling a Colombian woman who sells arepas (griddled cornmeal patties) beneath a Queens subway overpass after midnight on weekends and who needed her son to translate Ms. Shouse’s questions. Four pages later she’s writing about Doug Quint, a Julliard-trained bassoonist who drives around Manhattan in something called the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck.

Ms. Shouse doesn’t play favorites, treating all the trucks equally. But the lack of cultural analysis soon begins to feel willful. It’s striking, for example, how so many Hipsters say something along the lines of, “And then I thought, ‘Yeah, a food truck, that would be so cool!’ ” One reason it’s cool, of course, is that a food truck run by a Julliard-trained bassoonist (or an ad agency creative director, an art teacher or a real estate lawyer, to name a few of the book’s other mobile vendors) feels like a clever juxtaposition, a kind of cultural irony on wheels.

What’s left unexplored—much to the book’s detriment—is that coolness and irony are luxuries that you can’t afford if you’re an immigrant trying to scrape out a living. Such sociocultural matters necessarily come secondary to the food in this book—and most of the fare looks and sounds delicious, no matter who’s cooking it—but it’s worth wondering how long the Authentics and Hipsters will maintain their rough parity. A decade from now, we may look back on this era not as a golden age but as the time when street food started becoming gentrified.