By Carlos C. Olaechea | Joonbug
Although the mobile food trend is a great concept, South Florida’s scene needs to work out a few kinks.
Food trucks appear to be a hot item these days. I am a fan of the concept of the food trucks, if not the execution. I’ve been to several of them, starting with one of the pioneers, Latin Burger, which was a major disappointment in taste (or, more correctly, lack thereof) and price (which seemed exorbitant for somewhere with significantly lower overhead costs). I thought that the over-hyped, mediocre food and hefty price were just characteristic fo Latin Burger until I went to a couple of food truck roundups – one of them being BTTR held every Tuesday – and discovered that rather than being the exception, this was pretty much the rule amongst many if not most of the food trucks in South Florida. On first visiting BTTR with a friend, I was shocked at how at the end of the evening we had spent almost $80 between both of us, which was more than we would spend going to a restaurant to eat. Correct me if I have the wrong idea, but isn’t the whole point of a food truck to conveniently provide good food for cheap? Food trucks basically fall into the category of street food, and street food throughout the world is known and loved for being cheap, tasty, and offering certain specialties not found in restaurants. With a few exceptions, my food truck experiences in South Florida have found that most food trucks are lacking in at least two of these factors, which explains why many individuals from cultures with rich street food traditions scoff at this food truck fad of ours.
Many people will emphasize that the majority of these food trucks are “gourmet” food trucks, so the prices run in correlation to the quality. Tell that to the person paying $8 for just one slider. Sure, it contains duck, but considering that for the same price I’ve had a platter of duck at a Chinese restaurant just down the street that was much more flavorful, I hardly think that some duck meat inside a commercially made bun is worth that price tag. Enthusiasts also state that you’re given an opportunity to sample a chef’s cuisine at a fraction of the cost of going to a restaurant. However, these enthusiasts seem to be blind to the idea that, considering what you get, these “gourmet” food trucks seem to be earning a much larger profit margin than many restaurants. The overhead is significantly lower, but the markup seems to stay roughly the same. What makes this realization particularly unsettling is that the food seldom justifies the price. Only a couple of the food trucks that I’ve sampled warrant a second visit, and hardly any would have me checking tweets for their next location.
The other issue I take with many of the food trucks is the lack of individuality or novelty. Go to any food truck gathering, and you’ll get dizzy from the redundancy: gringos selling bland tacos, burger trucks, grilled cheese sandwiches, sliders, and artificially-flavored shaved ice. When I know authentic Mexican restaurants that sell real tacos for a fraction of what the gringos charge and am aware of the fact that I can go to a gourmet burger joint and sit down to a burger and fries for the same price I’d pay to stand outside in the heat, I hardly see the point in frequenting some of these food trucks. Isn’t street food supposed to be something other than what you could find at any restaurant? Unfortunately, too many of the food trucks that do try something innovative seem to fail in the execution of such innovations, leading me to believe that food trucks can be seen as the blogs of the gastronomic world – democratic in that they grant both talented individuals and the utterly clueless low-cost exposure and recognition. Even when the innovations are well-executed, rendering a satisfyingly tasty dish, the prices are still much too high for what is offered. Likewise, food trucks that have decided to serve up tried-and-true street foods charge more than what would be considered reasonable for what is served, especially considering that the same thing could be had at a nearby ethnic neighborhood for a fraction of the cost in an establishment that has a higher overhead, thus bringing us back to the issue of feeling cheated and getting less than what you paid for.
That being said, are these “gourmet” food trucks missing the point of what a food truck should be? From my experiences, I would say yes…at least many of them. There are still a handful of food trucks that, although not necessarily offering what you’d pay in Mexico City or Bangkok, are still worth the money for both the quality and quantity you get. Maybe many of the other food trucks need to take some lessons from the real pioneers of mobile food in South Florida: the Colombian perro carts, the traveling barbecue smokers and jerk trucks along 79th street, the roadside sugarcane juice vendor in Little Haiti, the downtown hot dog carts, the legendary Filipino food truck at the Port of Miami, the old man selling Cuban tamales in Southwest Miami, the produce trucks in many Latin neighborhoods, and others that seem to be left out South Florida’s contemporary food truck consciousness.