By Tim Carman | Washington Post
The streak ended at 15. That’s how many days in a row it rained this spring,smothering our spirit, if not our sense of the absurd. But if you think you had it bad, consider the hardscrabble existence of the typical food truck operator: The District’s two-week stretch of wet-blanket skies practically snuffed the life out of these lunch wagons, whose revenue rises and falls with the weather.
Zack Robertson, owner of the Maki Shop truck, has been on the streets only since December, not long after he bought the old Kushi-Moto truck, rebranded it and signed a licensing deal with the fast-casual spot on 14th Street NW, which peddles high-tech futomaki, or fat sushi rolls. But even with his limited experience, Robertson has seen what the rains can do: The man with a math degree from the Naval Academy says sales dropped as much as 65 percent during the inclement weather.
Granted, the dip in sales can be worse for trucks that offer little hot food on those days when the rain clings cold and clammy to your skin. Such street vendors can feel like ugly dogs at the pound: often reviewed but never taken. But people who make selections based on a single standard — whether a presidential candidate who supports a pet cause or a truck that sells warming soups on damp days — soon find themselves disappointed.
Rain or shine, I’d make a beeline for the Maki Shop truck wherever it parks. Robertson offers a pared-down version of the Logan Circle storefront’s menu, but even with only a half-dozen rolls, he’s still serving some of the finest, freshest fare available inside any rolling tin-can in Washington. And he doesn’t have to wake up at 3 a.m. to prepare it: Robertson buys his product straight from the Maki Shop, which makes him more delivery man than food truck chef.
It’s been more than three years since I last surveyed the District’s street fare, and much has changed since then. The city’s first modern food truck, the Fojol Bros., called it quits in 2014, mothballing its small fleet of ’50s-era step vans that peddled Thai, Indian and Ethiopian dishes. More than 240 trucks now roam our streets, but few generate the flair, flavor or controversy of the Fojols. Among the better options are a handful of $20 Diner favorites, which have supplemented their stationary businesses with roving ones, including El Sol and Donburi.
But for every chef-driven truck like El Sol’s, there must be a half-dozen hacks still trying to pass off pre-formed Kronos meat cones as hand-made gyro towers. And if you ever spot me in line at Bowtie Pastaria, giving the truck one more shot, please remind me of my previous two orders, both chicken dishes with nuclear-hot pieces of rubbery white meat that traveled from my fork to my mouth (briefly) and straight to my trash basket in a wadded-up napkin.
Here’s a truism about food trucks: The best of them will make you wait, not because they’re heartless sadists but because they have limited manpower and space. If you want a fast, pre-made sandwich that’s been ossifying under a heat lamp, go to McDonald’s. If you want a made-to-order sandwich with fresh ingredients, go to the Dirty South Deli truck, where you will patiently stand among the faithful. One mouthful of DSD’s Tess Finnegan — an inspired bite in which cold, chili-marinated tofu plays the foil to wedges of roasted radish, lengths of asparagus and a finger-lime aioli — and you understand that good things do come to those who wait.
At first review, I was befuddled by Pan Canteen’s arranged marriage of Thai and Cuban flavors. Even now, I don’t get it, but fortunately, it takes no brainpower to appreciate the vibrant, impossibly green cilantro leaves that blanketed my order of beef stir-fry, adding these citrusy, garden-fresh notes to the mojo-marinated meat and vegetables. The dish comes with a meaty slice of mango, its juicy tropical flesh satisfying that complicated desire for something sweet at the end of a meal. Even Pan Canteen’s horchata is made fresh from rice. If you’re accustomed only with the drink prepared from a mix, you’ll marvel at the difference. This horchata is not chalky nor super-sweet: It has an almost toasted coconut essence.
But of all the trucks I’ve tried lately, the most original has to be Bel-Feast. Owners Alex and Kate Varabei are natives of Belarus, the former Soviet republic where a repressive government has generated countless political refugees, the Varabeis among them. Back home with their college degrees, Alex and Kate held white-collar jobs; they now run what may be the only Russian food truck in the Mid-Atlantic. Neither one had restaurant experience in Belarus.
Bel-Feast specializes in blini, the thin Russian pancakes that are available with three types of filling, including creamy chicken, which Alex acknowledges is a sop to the American palate. By necessity, the Bel-Feast crew prepares the pancakes and filling in advance, rolling up blini in batches on the truck and keeping them warm on baking sheets set atop steaming pots of water. The process ensures the blini skins remain downy and delicate. With their austere fillings (like the ground beef and rice combo), the blini practically trumpet their peasant roots, but with a little sour cream and spicy tomato sauce, they easily cross class lines.
The Russian sour cream, known as smetana, will enrich almost everything it touches, even the fried chebs (an American-friendly truncation of its full name, chebureki), these big, blistered three-meat pastries typically eaten without the creamy condiment. And far from optional, sour cream is mandatory to help deepen and thicken the thin, Pepto-Bismol-colored borscht; the condiment may even help soften the bitter thud of raw celery sprinkled in the soup. Just remember: The borscht is a summertime preparation, served cold, which apparently means no Washingtonian will order it until the clouds disappear and the mercury climbs above 70.