Why Food Trucks Aren’t Going Away

People line up in front of Streetza, Milwaukee's mobile pizza joint founded by Scott Baitinger and Steve Mai. It was named one of the top food trucks in the country by GQ Magazine. Olga Thomas

By Josh Ozersky | Time.com

People line up in front of Streetza, Milwaukee's mobile pizza joint founded by Scott Baitinger and Steve Mai. It was named one of the top food trucks in the country by GQ Magazine. Olga Thomas

Is the future bearing down on us on four wheels? I’m beginning to think so. You remember the food-truck craze. It was written about ad nauseam a few years ago. Plucky young cooks were retrofitting Econoline vans to serve up gourmet cupcakes or arepas to equally plucky young diners in Portland, Austin, Brooklyn, etc. It was a trend piece with great visuals, but there was no confusing it with the future of restaurant cooking.

Or so we thought.

(PHOTOS: Gourmet Food Trucks)

More and more, it seems to me, that we all missed the Food Truck Revolution. Here it is, just two or three years later, and the food these trucks are making has gotten better — a lot better. John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and one of the most alert students of what he calls “American vernacular cuisine,” has just released The Truck Food Cookbook, which has far more interesting and creative recipes than 90% of the cookbooks I see — Cantonese roast duck tacos from San Francisco; roasted poblanos with artichoke cream cheese from Wisconsin; felafel, provolone and egg subs from Philadelphia. Even the talented young chefs in Paris, of all places, have taken up the food truck model: they hail it as “trés Brooklyn,” and are astounded by its novelty, according to the New York Times. Of course, truck food has some major drawbacks. There’s nowhere to sit down, there are seldom more than four or five things to choose from, and most importantly, there are a lot of dishes you just can’t make in five minutes in the back of a truck. The dishes in Edge’s book all sound great, but generally can be made (or reheated) in less time than it takes to listen to “Comfortably Numb.” And that’s not always a good thing.

(MORE: How The Roast Chicken Conquered Fine Dining)

It is, however, liberating. I have a good friend named Scotty Smith, a barbecue pitmaster who for the past few years has been chained to the J&R wood pits in the basement of a New York City barbecue called RUB. He has cooked in every Meatopia festival that I have organized for the past nine years, but now Scotty is leaving RUB, heading back upstate to open a truck with his wife Celeste. In the normal course of things, I would have expected Scotty to open his own barbecue restaurant. The rent is a lot cheaper in Trumansburg than it is in Manhattan. But Scotty doesn’t want to do that. There’s hardly any overhead with a truck, and unlike a standalone restaurant, even one that has really cheap rent, a truck is not dependent on foot traffic or the whims of the zoning board. A truck can go to Cornell when the students get out of class, to Watkins Glen when the NASCAR races are being held, or drive down to the Corning Museum of Glass if it has something going on. And best of all, Scotty will be able to cook anything he wants (as long as he can get it ready in five minutes). “I’ve been stuck doing the same thing for six years,” he says. “I want to express myself, do other flavor profiles, get away from the traditional barbecue rubs.”

(MORE: Gourmet on the Go: Good Food Goes Trucking)

You see, it’s not just diners who have become more fickle, more demanding, more impatient with the conventions of traditional restaurant food. It’s the chefs too, who want to be flexible, to try out crazy mash-ups, stunts, and culinary in-jokes like the croque monsieur tacos from the Lucky J’s wagon in Austin that are celebrated in The Truck Food Cookbook. Restaurant recipes are, relatively speaking, hard: they require trained cooks to do difficult tasks involving multiple ingredients in exactly the right way, quickly, in a high-pressure environment. It takes a while for them to get the hang of it, so most restaurants only change their menus a few times a year, and even then, the most popular dishes are considered “untouchables.”

Food trucks don’t have that problem. But then, they also don’t have the problem of how to give people a nice place to sit down, to talk or laugh or fall in love, to drink wine, to relax, and to eat foods better than you can make at home, even with a cookbook. Like so much else in the world in which we find ourselves, like smartphones, Spotify, and all the rest, the food truck is bringing us flexibility and ease and liberation and, as Keanu Reeves memorably said in The Matrix, “a world without … borders and boundaries.” But it is also, in many ways, a starker, harder place, where you are never free from work, your music is all on loan to you, and if you want a meal from a talented young chef, you better plan on eating it on a stool — or, more likely, while leaning on somebody’s car hood.

Welcome to the future. Bring napkins.

VIDEO: The New Gourmet Food Trucks

Ozersky, author of The Hamburger: A History, is a James Beard Award–winning food writer. His most recent book, Colonel Sanders and the American Dream, was published in May 2012. The views expressed are solely his own.