New London, CT: Locals Happy to Ride Along with Munchies Food Truck [video]

Mohamed Saad, left, and Manal Saad, right, hand out hot dogs, chips and soda from Munchies Food Truck to kids attending the Police Community Relations Committee’s Fun at The Park event held June 18 at Fulton Park in New London. Dana Jensen/The Day

By Jenna Cho | TheDay.com

Mohamed Saad, left, and Manal Saad, right, hand out hot dogs, chips and soda from Munchies Food Truck to kids attending the Police Community Relations Committee’s Fun at The Park event held June 18 at Fulton Park in New London. Dana Jensen/The Day

The main dishes on the menu date back some 30 years, but there’s nothing outdated about Munchies Food Truck in New London.

The truck — run by a husband-and-wife team with close ties to the defunct Diana Restaurant in Groton — had 200 “likes” on Facebook before it even rolled down the street for the first time in April, co-owner Aiman Saad said.

Customers can check the truck’s Twitter feed to see where it’s going to be that day. Call in your order, or better yet, text it in, and it’ll be ready for pick-up truckside.

They’ll even process your credit-card payment using an iPhone app that converts the smart phone into a credit-card machine, a cost-saving convenience for owners Manal and Aiman Saad, who are revolutionizing the way people get their lunch downtown.

 

Manal Saad, left, and brother, Mohamed, right, work out of Munchies Food Truck at the Police Community Relations Committee's recent Fun at The Park event. Dana Jensen/The Day

The Saads are piggybacking on a national food trend widely visible in cities such as New York and food-truck central Portland, Ore. Food trucks nowadays are offering quality food out of modest trucks or trailers, and food trucks in Portland have been known to transition to full-fledged restaurants after proving themselves on the street.

Closer by, the Caseus Cheese Truck and Cupcake Truck, both out of New Haven, have generated loyal followings.

It’s a brave new world for food trucks. Don’t expect to find any pre-cooked mystery meat kept warm and served soggy on this rolling establishment, which Manal, 32, runs with her brother. Inside the bright orange truck, everything is cooked to order, even the fries — which, incidentally, are the only previously frozen item cooked on the truck.

The Saads, of Waterford, promote healthful, minimally processed foods with a Middle Eastern twist, a nod to the family’s Lebanese heritage. If you remember Diana Restaurant, you’ll be pleased to see some of Diana’s most popular dishes on the Munchies menu, such as the pepper-and-garlic chicken skewer and the Munchie Burger Deluxe, a simplified version of the former Diana Burger Club that includes a fried egg and bacon.

“It’s just a pile of goodness,” frequent customer Devon O’Nalty said of the deluxe as he waited for his order last week.

Aiman, 36, who has two young children with Manal, said the couple were awakened to a new understanding of the food they eat when they watched the documentary “Food, Inc.”

“You know what’s happened to food over the last 40 years,” said Aiman, an executive sous chef at Mohegan Sun casino currently out on disability leave. He co-owns the truck but said he leaves the operation to his wife. “All they’re doing is pumping out junk. … We’re the opposite of that. We want to use all-natural beef, all-natural chicken, because it affects the flavor and the sustainability.”

Forget frozen beef patties comprised of every fathomable part of who-knows-how-many-cows from across the globe. The ground beef at Munchies is a blend of sirloin and chuck that is ground together at Carlo & Son Quality Meats in East Lyme.

The all-natural chicken and cage-free eggs come from My-Car Provision Co., a food distributor in New London, and the fresh produce Manal picks up from Pezzello Bros. on Jefferson Avenue.

For dessert: The Farmer’s Cow ice cream, made from fresh milk. Even the ketchup is organic.

“We just try to get the best quality, highest-quality ingredients for our food truck,” said Manal, who shops for her ingredients in small batches to keep everything fresh. Plus, there’s no room on the truck for stockpiling.

The Saads can afford to sell food made with wholesome ingredients at reasonable prices — the Munchie burger and chicken-stuffed pita wrap are both $4.95 — because they don’t have to worry about paying overhead costs such as rent or salaries for a wait staff.

It’s just Manal and her brother, cooking up food they would be making at home for their families. Lebanese food is generally healthy anyway, Manal said, with heavy use of olive oil, salads, garlic, mint and lemon.

The Saads — both Waterford High School graduates — wanted to open a restaurant but found an insurmountable hurdle in the lackluster economy. Self-proclaimed foodies who watch the Food Network religiously, they learned of the popularity of food trucks on “The Great Food Truck Race” and decided to try the mobile route instead.

“Nothing’s safe,” Aiman said of job security these days. “So then I said, we might as well gamble on myself.”

The food they serve, Manal said, is “for those who want fast food but fresh food.”

Food preparation all happens on the truck, which is roomier than it appears from the outside and includes a griddle, two burners and a deep fryer, no wider than a foot but large enough to fit two baskets of fries.

Manal, whose culinary background includes years at Diana and Unk’s on the Bay in Waterford, relies heavily on her food processor to slice and chop vegetables and make hummus and an array of sauces such as creamy garlic sauce and spicy habanero pepper sauce.

The pepper sauce is a nod to both Manal and Aiman’s early years in Monrovia, Liberia.

The food truck alternates between State Street by the Parade Plaza and Shaw’s Cove by Building 3. Afternoons this summer, you’ll find them on Pequot Avenue, near Guthrie and Osprey beaches. In the colder months, expect to see them by Mitchell and Connecticut colleges.

Manal said that in its first two months, the truck has been getting anywhere from 35 to 100 people a day. Last Thursday at Shaw’s Cove, business was slow to get started, but the customers who approached the truck were already loyal fans.

“I just want some of the delicious French fries,” security guard Lonas Taylor said as he placed his order.

Taylor ate out of a lot of food trucks — roach coaches, he called them — during his years with the U.S. Navy, he said.

“Not that I would know, but (the food was) maybe one step above prison food,” he said.

Munchies is different, Taylor said. The burger is “like a backyard burger: the real deal,” and the fries he pronounced as being the perfect combination of crispy on the outside and moist inside.

Employees in the Shaw’s Cove office complex have Karrie Bulger to thank if they’re glad to have a dining option right in the parking lot two times a week.

“I love the idea of food trucks,” said Bulger, a youth case manager at New London Adult & Continuing Education. “And they’re so friendly… and they use just the freshest products.”

Bulger talked to Aiman about bringing the truck down to Shaw’s Cove and then cleared the truck’s visit with the owner of the office complex. All this for a decent lunch.

She thought they’d come just once, but the Saads quickly decided to make Shaw’s Cove its regular Tuesday and Thursday stop.

“Some days, I totally get bummed out when I realize it’s Wednesday,” Bulger said.

http://www.theday.com/article/20110622/ENT04/110629842/1044