Houston, TX: Rolling Restaurants Rev Up People’s Passion for Food

By Kim Hogstrom | YourHoustonNews.com

How many times have you driven by a food truck, hungry, pressed for time and thought to yourself that a taco or burger would really hit the spot?

Still, you drive right on by anyway, remembering that mystery meat served from a potential get-away vehicle, may not be the best choice. Instead, you opt for the equally dubious ham sandwich from Stop N’ Go.

Well, those days are gone.

There’s a trend towards gourmet food trucks in our city and, as trends go, this one is on fire. Not to be mistaken for their older cousins, this new fleet of rolling food vendors specialize in creative fare using local, fresh, ingredients and made-from-scratch, one-of-a-kind recipes.

These “foodie” trucks move around town parking in lots at museums, office buildings and ice houses — anywhere they are welcome. And the public has taken notice; the trucks have a following that borders on a cult. Fans are so devoted to the these little rolling restaurants, that customers follow their whereabouts through cyberspace.

“We put our location out on Twitter and Facebook every day so people will know where we’re going. They want to know,” said Jason Kerr, Chef of Zilla Street Eats. (www.zillastreeteats.com) “It’s true, people really like food trucks. They’re something new and different. And they’re fun,” the chef stated.

Zilla Street Eats has been rolling around Houston for eight months and has developed a staunch following of folks who enjoy the truck’s original take on seasoned comfort food, at “extremely reasonable prices,” added Kerr.

“I think a lot of the popularity stems from economics,” said Amy Ponterella, director of communications for H-town StrEATS, a very popular truck seen regularly in the museum district. (htownstreats@yahoo.com)

“People are interested in slightly upscale, local, fresh fare, combined with fast food that’s affordable. We serve restaurant-quality food at about at half the cost of a brick and mortar business.”

The H-town StrEATS truck features two chefs preparing food to order. The menu changes daily and offers fare similar to that a consumer might find at a trendy restaurant: gulf shrimp and grits, fired oyster tacos, Thai short ribs, exotic sliders. In fact, many of the truck’s followers say the food is better here, served in paper boats, than in a high-bow restaurant with all the trappings.

“It’s soul-satisfying, globally inspired street food with an American twist,” said Ponterella.

We think there about 35 of these cowboy foodies rolling around our city, but they’re difficult to pin down. While some have developed a high profile, more than a handful have faded into history, overnight. Many in this business believe the high mortality of food trucks is related to the city and its antiquated regulations.

“Houston has regulations in place that make it very hard for mobile food operators to thrive, and sometimes even to survive,” said Joanna Torok. Torok and her partner, Joe Phillips operate Oh My! Pocket Pies, and were among the first of the new breed food trucks to operate in Houston. They remain a crowd favorite. (www.ohmypocketpies.com)

“We opened in 2009 and have seen many trucks close for various reasons, most of which stem from complications with the regulations currently in place. Without doing the proper homework prior to opening, some vendors enter the market unprepared for the day-to-day reality, and that has been fatal,” said Torok.

“Fortunately for us vendors, the mayor’s office has recognized that some of the regulations are in need of review and updating, and has created a stakeholder committee to do just that.”

If there are sages in this business, Torok and Phillips qualify. In only two years of operation, the demand for their flaky, folded, fresh pies filled with ingredients such as BBQ pulled pork or chicken chile relleno, continues to skyrocket. The two entrepreneurs work overtime to meet the demands of a public that wants them at events, parties, catering sites and every tenth street corner in Houston.

Concerned that you might drive right by one of these trucks without noticing? Fear not; they are all colorful, over-the-top trucks, many with unusual names.

Zilla’s Street Eats sports a giant, fire-breathing chicken on it. H-town StrEATS has brightly colored cartoons of a chef, a puppy and chicken, among others things. And the names are also a give-away: “Rolling Hunger” (www.Rollinghunger.com) “Doggie Style Hot Dogs,” (www.facebook.com/HoustonFoodCrawl#!/pages/Doggy-Style-Hot-Dogs/156775247723678) and the “Hit n’ Run,” truck which features “killer street food” and a logo that includes a laughing squirrel with tire tracks across it (www.facebook.com/HoustonFoodCrawl#!/killerstreetfood )

So keep your eyes open and stop when you can. You’ll soon find out why everyone is so revved up about food trucks, the latest development in American gas-tronomy.