Article & Photos By Lori Midson
The first mobile food vendor on wheels was launched nearly 150 years ago, in 1872, when a Rhode Island native called Walter Scott trotted his horse-drawn freight wagon, stocked with sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, coffee and pies around the town of Providence, satiating the bellies of late-night factory workers.
A century and a half later, street wagons have come full circle, weaving their way into the culinary landscape as seamlessly as diners and fast-food chains. The roving meals-on-wheels movement — which began in earnest in Los Angeles in early 2009, when Mark Manguera, Caroline Shin-Manguera and Roy Choi, a former chef of Le Bernardin and RockSugar, unleashed a fleet of Korean barbecue trucks — has since gained serious momentum, with cities like Austin, Portland, New York and Denver slinging upscale grub from the confines of tricked-out air stream trailers, antiquated ice cream trucks, mail trucks and wagons, wrapped with expressive, bold graphics.
But food trucks, at least in Denver, aren’t the only pushers of awesome pavement cuisine. This past year also saw the upward mobility of food carts, especially on the 16th Street Mall, which, until very recently, was little more than a pedestrian promenade of mirror-image hot dog vendors, save for revolutionary rebel Biker Jim, who, as we all know, is game — pun intended — for just about anything.
We spent hours upon hours over the past several months digesting Denver’s street-food scene, and we’ve compiled a roundup of our ten favorite street-food warriors that launched in 2010, all of which should be added to your New Year’s resolution list of where to eat in 2011.
Kevin Morrison, who ruffled a few conservative feathers earlier this year when he rolled out the Pinche Tacos wagon (pinche is Spanish slang for “fucking”) has spent the past year smartly thumbing his nose at the ridiculous controversy in lieu of dispensing his godly street tacos at local farmers’ markets, the Justice League of Street Food parties and Civic Center Eats. The tortillas — made locally — are slapped on the griddle and surfaced with everything from carnitas, braised chicken and skirt steak to caramelized onions and queso, the latter of which is the star of the la plancha taco, a lacy orb of salty cotija, griddled until golden and topped with avocado and a lob of tart tomatillo salsa, with limes on the side. And since Morrison also turns out terrific tacos pummeled with scrambled eggs, chorizo and potatoes, there exists a rare opportunity for breakfast hangover relief that doesn’t subject your throbbing brain to fluorescent lights or the clang and clamor of a dining room.
The waits can be ridiculously, unnervingly long at this Thai wagon on the 16th Street Mall, especially when the loud-mouthed, relentless douchebag who hustles knock-off handbags immediately next to Liang and her cart, wafting with the smoke of the wok, decides to jump the queue and bark orders for himself and his minions through the sliding glass window. But the soft-spoken Liang, who’s as tiny as her cart, does her best to appease the patient lingerers, turning out delicious Thai curries fragrant with kaffir lime leaves, greaseless egg rolls swelled with vegetables, and a chile-specked papaya salad that sings with citrus.
El Caribe Arepas
Seasonally at the Cherry Creek Farmers’ Market and the City Park Esplanade Farmers’ Market, and year-round on Friday and Saturday at Denver Urban Homesteading, 200 Santa Fe Drive
Every Wednesday and Saturday at the Cherry Creek farmers’ market, again on Sunday at the City Park Esplanade farmers’ market and throughout the year on Friday and Saturday at Denver Urban Homesteading, Igor and Beckie Panasewicz feed Venezuelan arepas to the masses from their vendor booth littered with bags of Harina P.A.N. white corn meal, plates of plantains, vats of earthy black beans and heavy pans harboring aromatic stewed meats scenting the open air. The arepas — freshly made, thick, griddled corn cakes, split and packed tight with everything from ham and locally smoked salmon to marinated chicken, avocado and mozzarella — are crisp-edged (almost crackly), smoldering, messy and obscenely good. There’s good news on the horizon, too, for Igor and Beckie: They’re just about ready to launch a food truck.
The pig-centric street food that’s slung from the Porker, swine sultan Chad Clevenger’s humble stainless-steel cart on the corner of 17th and California, is, it must be said, some of the most insanely good grub that’s being rustled from Denver’s asphalt. Clevenger dispatches pig in all guises: pork belly; pork cheeks; pulled pork slathered with barbecue sauce and heaped with slaw; grilled macaroni and cheese punctuated with pig; and, on occasion, posole, a flavor-bombed bowl of New Mexican warmth, studded with hominy, aromatic with onions, Mexican oregano, garlic and a whisper of orange, tinted a ruddy complexion from the red chile, which is full of deep flavor rather than sear, and packed with stewed pork. In the spring of this year, Clevenger, too, will become part of the city’s thriving truck culture, when he rolls out one of his own.
After years of managing restaurants, Scott Skiba wanted one of his own, but building a brick-and-mortar isn’t cheap, so Skiba, a former manager of Waterloo, a bar/restaurant in Louisville, went the way that several other chefs and restaurateurs have gone: curbside, with the added bonus of late-night hours. His gleaming silver airstream trailer, named Paseo, subsidizes fans with a short board of tacos, the meats of which are tucked into fresh flour or corn tortillas, plus chilaquiles, hand-smashed guacamole, empanadas and Mexican biscuits and gravy — a house-baked flour tortilla biscuit, deep-fried, stuffed with Mexican cheeses and crowned with chorizo gravy, a fried egg and salsa. You can nosh like the devil for less than ten bucks — which, after a night of pick-up prowling, is a cheap date of seduction.
The Steuben’s food truck, affectionately known as Pearl, made its debut appearance in June last year, pulling up directly outside the front door of Vesta Dipping Grill, where the crew behind the wheel turned out pork sliders, skinny fries liberally peppered with salt, cheeseburgers stacked with green chile, and sugar-smacked fried pork bites that someone should turn into intravenous drugs. Pearl has been instrumental in pioneering Denver’s street-food revolution, rallying other vendors to participate in pods and parties while proving that a $20 lobster roll isn’t too highbrow for the sidewalk.
Monday through Friday at Sixteenth and Arapahoe Streets
The marvelous pizzas at Brava! Pizzeria, of which there are five, plus a daily pie, are shoveled into an 850-degree oval oven for about ninety seconds, and when pizza virtuoso David Bravdica and his crew pull them from the embers of the smoldering Missouri oak wood, they’re charred, bubbly and taste of pizza utopia. Bravdica, who spent nearly a year in Tuscany throwing pies, built his wagon on wheels in Boulder, but it’s those of us in Denver — specifically, the stream of strollers on the 16th Street Mall — who reap the rewards of his prowess. His top-notch ingredients — pepperoni and sausage procured from II Mondo Vecchio; Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy goat cheese; fresh herbs from Grower’s Organic; locally-sourced flour; hand-pulled mozzarella; San Marzano tomatoes; and Hazel Dell mushrooms — are judiciously spread across the dough that rises high above its competition.
“Everyone has a connection with crockpots, whether it’s sitting on top of your refrigerator collecting dust, or it’s something that your mom or grandmother used while you were growing up,” says Stephen Daniels, who runs the Crock Spot with business partner Mandy Birks. He and Birks, who serve the stewed meats (chicken, pork, lamb and beef) with healthy grains, including pearl barley, quinoa and brown rice, have amassed a devoted fan base of hippies and hipsters who have fallen head over pot for the innovative, healthy bowls crowned with one of four different sauces — chimichurri, chipotle sour cream, tzatziki or a spicy garden gravy — and topped with scallions and Beefsteak tomatoes. It’s been a successful venture for Daniel and Birks — so successful, in fact, that the duo is soon unleashing a food truck, followed by a brick-and-mortar.
Deluxe Street Food/Little Orange Rocket
Seasonally at Civic Center Eats, Cherry Creek Farmer’s market, the City Park Esplanade Farmers’ Market; catering
The Little Orange Rocket, chef Dylan Moore’s tangerine-tinted mobile meals on wheels, is all about pimping globalized foodstuffs with flair. The truffle mac-n-cheese balls whiffed with truffle oil and thyme, have their own legion of followers — as do the fries buried in white cheddar, roasted red pepper ranch dressing, bacon and scallions — but the shining star in the worldly lineup is the bánh mi slider, grilled chicken pressed with cucumbers, pickled daikon and cilantro sprigs, and dressed with fish sauce and squiggles of rooster sauce. We’re not suggesting you should forsake your Federal Boulevard fix; just that this is a bánh mi that deftly combines quality and quantity.
Various locations around Denver; available for private parties, school demos and fundraisers; and Kleinman’s soups are also served at the Waffle Brothers, 393 Corona Street
Molecular magician Ian Kleinman, the former exec chef of O’s Steak & Seafood at the Westin Westminster, and the mad genius behind the Inventing Room, his Willy Wonka-like catering company and laboratory of liquid nitrogen, space foams and Pop Rocks, launched a food cart last summer, attracting clusters of curiosity seekers who couldn’t wait to see the celebrity of liquid nitrogen in action. Kleinman is always experimenting — he’s currently playing around with liquid nitrogen fried ice cream — and his cart, from which he hustles unassailable ice creams and sorbets with wacky toppings, like peanut butter Pop Rocks, alongside crème brûlée, slushies, chocolate malt popcorn, housemade caramels, marshmallows and fruit dipped in chocolate, and soups and breads, has no limitations. Just go with it and revel in the fun of it all.