Not so long ago, street food meant grilled sausages of unknown origin and salty, oversized pretzels — basic carnival chow.
Nowadays, vendors lure foodies to lineups of brightly painted trucks with names like The Flying Saucer and Purple People Eatery. Their menus offer candy pineapple chicken wings and bison burgers at rallies staged from Boca Raton to Kendall.
This new fashion in food trucks is popular, yes, but are the chefs offering safe fare?
A review of inspection reports for 30 regular vendors at South Florida events found none had roaches or rodents. But a handful of vendors have been cited for violations that can threaten public health, such as selling food of questionable age or temperature.
In the end, it’s still buyer be wary.
These aren’t roach coaches, operators and fans say. They present street food with style and market it on social networks. Food fanatics are lapping up the low-cost fare with gourmet aspirations at events staged in auto-dealer parking lots and public parks, sometimes with live music.
In 2010, health and safety inspectors closed, on an emergency basis, six vendors in the district that includes Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, and seven in the district that covers Broward, Palm Beach and Martin counties. So far in 2011, only one was temporarily shut down in Miami or Monroe counties, and two were briefly closed in the other district.
Flagrant violators can be fined $100 or more.
State health and safety inspectors make unannounced visits to trucks twice a year, said Department of Business and Professional Regulation spokeswoman Beth Frady. Vendors are held to the same standards as brick and mortar restaurants.
Though rally locations are broadcast on social media, the state won’t divulge whether inspectors find the food trucks online, Frady said.
Wildy Calixte and Joel Francois let their stomachs be their guides at the Biscayne Triangle Truck Round-up, where, every Tuesday, crowds swell to 1,000 near the campus of Johnson & Wales University in North Miami.
The men are fans of Latin Burger and Taco, which is licensed but has not yet had its first inspection, Frady said on Wednesday.
“I’m really concerned about food safety,” said Francois, an accountant waiting on his “Latin Macho Burgers” of chorizo, sirloin, Oaxaca cheese, onions and jalapenos. “I’ve eaten here before, six or eight times, and I haven’t gotten sick. It looks clean for the most part.”
Still, he squirted a big dose of hand sanitizer from the truck’s dispenser before digging into the burgers: “moist” with “good taste,” he announced.
Down the block, Susan Bindas of Coconut Creek — a self-described “obsessive compulsive” about cleanliness — said she is comforted by seeing inspectors at Seminole Hard Rock Casino food truck rallies in Hollywood.
“I’m pretty picky, but I’ve even eaten sushi,” she said, pointing to her dinner vendor and at another truck selling Filipino food. “That’s not readily available, and it’s really fun. And I can see into the kitchens. The trucks are open in the back.”
Sidle up to a truck line and you’ll probably see more social media decals than you have in your mobile phone. Vendors seek Facebook fans, post menus there, and promote rallies on Twitter.
Damian Forneris owns an Argentine-cuisine truck, Che Grill, where he bakes empanadas and bread for his meat-based menu. He’s looking to expand to a second truck.
“In three months, I got more than 1,000 followers on Facebook!” he said.
His business had zero health and safety violations after a state inspection in April.
“They asked for many things — how you store the food, they checked the temperatures, and they took a picture,” Forneris said. He said he welcomes the inspectors’ oversight.
He has seen a few unlicensed operators, and he’s not pleased.
“If something happens with the food [and it sickens customers] it will kill every future event,” Forneris said.
Jack Garabedian opened Jefe’s Original Fish Tacos & Burgers truck a year ago and said the diminutive kitchens force operators to be extra careful about food safety.
“Your refrigerators have to be very organized,” said Garabedian, who spent 35 years in the restaurant business. “You have to use the right type of storage pans and containers so they all fit properly, or you’re driving around and you take a corner and there goes all of your day’s prep on the floor.”
Garabedian usually fills his truck with 15 to 20 pounds of fish, 120 to 150 hamburger patties, and 50 pounds of fresh-cut French fries.
“We pack a lot of things with frozen cold packs just to ensure that they’re going to stay cold,” he said. “My truck is fully self-contained, with fresh water and a place for gray water” from hand washing and food prep.
The state requires vendors to be licensed and partner with a commissary to clean rigs and dump waste at least once a week.
Last winter, Garabedian organized the Biscayne Triangle Truck Round-up. He says when he occasionally sees less than ideal food-handling practices — “it’s a very small percentage, less than five percent” — he makes sure those trucks never return.
Garabedian said Seminole officials inspect each truck at the Hard Rock’s Thursday night rallies, and that’s a good thing. “It actually bumps up the game on some of those people who may not have the best practices,” he said.
Brian Connors, an instructor at Johnson & Wales, figured about 75 percent of food truck operators are culinary school grads, which ought to be reassuring to consumers, because their training stresses safe food handling.
Blogger Sef Gonzalez writes about food truck events on BurgerBeast.com and MiamiFoodTrucks.com and is about to launch an iPhone food truck tracker app.
He said the rally trend really took off here in late 2009. “They’re taking food trucks to another level,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not just a fad.”
State records confirm the growth: from July 2009 to Aug. 1, 2011, the number of food truck licenses grew from 250 to 378 in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties. In Broward, Palm Beach and Martin counties, the license numbers rose from 160 in April 2010, to 182 on Aug. 1.
You don’t have to be a foodie and chase rallies around South Florida to sample what truck chefs are offering. Sometimes they’ll come to you.
Amy Prinzo wants the senior year of her son Jared, a middle linebacker, to be “spectacular.” She invited vendors whose menus she sampled at the Hard Rock to Cypress Bay High School in Weston for the Lightning’s first pre-season varsity football night game on Thursday against Carole City High and its first season match Sept. 2 against Deerfield Beach High.
“Everyone’s been talking about the food trucks,” Prinzo said. “They’re on the Food Network.”
She says she has no concerns about the cleanliness of the vehicles.
“You go outside, you’ll see a roach,” she said. “I feel the food is delicious. It’s fresh, cooked to order.“