A Nationwide Snapshot of Food Trucks

Image by New York Magazine
By Christopher Borrelli | Tribune Newspapers

Image by New York Magazine

It’s rarely someone’s ambition in life to hand crepes through a truck window to a line of hungry strangers. “A lot of people who own food trucks,” said Heather Shouse, “be they a 60-year-old Mexican immigrant, or 23-year-old aspiring chef, they really wanted to open a restaurant. But they came across this trailer for $5,000.”

Or less. Or whatever. Economy’s bad, couldn’t find investors or $200,000 to put into outfitting a restaurant.

Let’s open a food truck.

It’s a culinary tale that has become so archetypal nowadays (Ambition! Gumption!) that to merely poke around in “Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels” (Ten Speed Press, $20), the addicting new survey from Shouse, a Chicago-based food writer for TimeOut and Food & Wine, is to be reminded of how much variation, quirk, invention and history the ongoing food-truck saga actually contains.

The truck names alone are so fun, I found myself touching pages in delight — The Best Wurst (Austin, Texas), Fresher Than Fresh Snow Cones (Kansas City), the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck (New York City).

Then there are the stories behind the wheels: “The food truck story is no longer the hungry immigrant startup story. Now you find irreverent artists in Marfa, Texas, who do it because they want a funky trailer to call their own. The old ‘roach coach’ element exists, but now it’s alongside chefs doing sous vide pork belly.”

So let it be said: Shouse got to food trucks first. She didn’t discover food trucks, of course, and she takes pains to say her reason for writing the book was “to show that this has been going on a while.” That said, her book is the first wide-ranging look at, depending how you see it, a goofy trend or a culinary revolution.

This is an edited version of a longer conversation.

Q: I know the answer to this — but why not be comprehensive? Why so selective in the trucks you profiled?

A: Because it would be impossible otherwise. It would mean covering many thousands of trucks. There are like 7,000 trucks in Los Angeles alone. The way I saw it, if I couldn’t be comprehensive, then how could the book be useful? Well, by organizing trucks geographically, using the most iconic — trailers not to miss. But also the trucks you don’t hear about that are worth stopping for.

Then it also had to be an armchair read, for the people who will never go to a food truck. And then there are the recipes, for the people who might never go to, say, Portland and try those food trucks, but they could try the Thai at Nong’s — the woman there makes only one dish, and rather than give up the details of it, we included her winter squash soup recipe.

Q: One dish?

A: Narrowing the concept is the key for many trucks. They work one dish into their name and branding — so everybody knows, if you want Belgian-style frites, go to X. Make one dish, day in and day out, and perfect it.

Q: What’s the best city for food trucks?

A: Well, in terms of vastness, Los Angeles. In terms of range and diversity, Portland, Ore. It’s done a lot to promote food trucks as a viable business model. They are very encouraging to startups and they even do these how-to-start-a-food truck classes. They run programs for vendors. They’re very smart and they know not to duplicate. The trucks park in these clusters, called pods. It’s lightly curated by the (property) owners. Self-policed by the trucks too. They make sure they have just one Korean barbecue guy, one Thai guy. You get a diverse food court.

Q: What do East Coast trucks do well?

A: In midtown (Manhattan), there tends to be a glut of carts — it’s littered with halal carts, partly because you have so many cab drivers. It’s a function of the area, and it’s the most visible street food in New York.

Q: What the most fun city for food trucks?

A: Austin has its finger on the funkier trucks, the fun concepts, the unique ideas. Gourmet doughnuts, buttermilk fried chicken. The really kitschy and weird trucks, set in a vintage whatever – that’s their shtick.

Q: Is there a city I would be surprised to learn has a vibrant food truck scene?

A: Madison, Wis. They do a nice job at being diverse. It’s the only city that employs a full-time cart curator, and they have this great annual review when the local food writers and others come together and rank them.

Q: Do you see food trucks as a trend, or a new chapter in dining?

A: A new chapter, I think. The media will always have a thing they latch on to. Everybody was writing about pop-up restaurants, then how goat was the new pig, and food trucks were the darling for a good year. But it’s not a flash in the pan because if you look at the model, they’ve survived a while, before any fascination.

Q: So restaurants will have to learn to live with trucks outside their doors, so to speak.

A: They will. And if they are fearful of that it means they know they’re dealing with a lucrative business model. Matt Maroni (of Chicago’s Gaztro-Wagon) said Burger King doesn’t ask McDonald’s if it can open across the street. It’s a capitalist society. But I don’t think (restaurants) will ever tire of complaining about it.

Q: You should start a food truck.

A: Hell, no.