By Carol Deptolla | JS Online
The food truck landscape sure looks a lot different from four years ago.
That’s when I first wrote about the trucks and street food, still a novelty for many back then (though not on the south side, where taco trucks were and still are plentiful).
In 2009, perhaps a half-dozen trucks were parked around downtown, along with some hot dog carts.
Scott Baitinger of Streetza Pizza was one of those early food truck operators, and Streetza still plies the streets.
The change has been drastic, Baitinger said, observing that at least 10 new trucks have appeared this year alone.
Some trucks and carts have departed; even so, Baitinger estimated 25 nontraditional trucks are active at gatherings downtown this year, with probably another 25 taco trucks on the south side.
Baitinger consistently used Twitter from the beginning to broadcast the truck’s location and to build community among its customers. (Streetza has gained national notice over the years in part for its social media presence, this year making the Daily Meal’s list of the 101 best food trucks in America.)
Four years ago, he said, social media drew customers that seemed mainly to be “30 and male.” The audience has broadened, he said.
“People are definitely more familiar with the category thanks to ‘The Great Food Truck Race'” — the Food Network reality show — “so there’s a lot less explaining we have to do,” Baitinger said.
Food trucks now gather in greater numbers in Schlitz Park on Tuesdays, at the Milwaukee County Courthouse on Thursdays and at Red Arrow Park on N. Water St. on Fridays. With a limited number of parking spaces and increasing numbers of trucks, food truck operators are hoping for new gathering spots, or more frequent gatherings.
Here’s a look at some of the newer crop of trucks (some just a couple of weeks old) that have joined the long-established trucks like Streetza, Fast Foodie, American Euros and the Gouda Girls. Bear in mind that many trucks make items to order and some have long lines; this isn’t necessarily fast food. You can find some of these trucks at the weekly gatherings, but many also announce their whereabouts via Twitter, Facebook or websites. You also can track them at Tap Milwaukee’s Food Truck Central.
New this year, Roll MKE became something of an instant hit. There’s almost always a line, and with good reason: The sandwiches (all $8, all served with excellent, freshly made fries and a drink) are worth the wait.
The burger with bacon jam and cheddar; the tender, crisped pork belly sliders with banh mi flavors; the braised brisket with gooey cheeses and Peppadew peppers — these were full-flavored sandwiches to remember, even if they were eaten standing up. By comparison, the chicken tinga sandwich didn’t make as much of a mark; still a respectable sandwich, though.
Eats & Treats
This big red truck’s unique offering is the waffle-encased meats, but I’d highly recommend the burgers.
Wait, what? Waffle-encased meats? Sure, like a corn dog; Eats & Treats makes a waffle dog. Also waffle sausage, waffle bacon and the one I opted for, the waffle beer brat ($6 for two). Skewered on a stick, the sausages are dipped in batter before going into a specially shaped waffle maker. Salty things, those brats were; counter that with some syrup for the waffle.
But oh, that burger. The Cheesehead ($8) was a great double burger on a glossy bun with Merkt’s cheese spread. I love a burger made on a flat-top grill, where the juices caramelize — the flavor seems more robust.
Among other treats, the truck sells Purple Door ice cream and shakes.
Silver like a stock pot, the Simmer truck specializes in soups, such as cooling gazpacho or hearty curry lentil (a little salty). Soups come in three sizes ($4.50, $5.50, $6.50), or they’re available in a flight ($5.50). At least one of the four daily soups is vegan.
But Simmer also sells a daily meal in a bowl ($7 and $8.50) — it, too, might be vegan or vegetarian, such as three-bean chili over brown rice — along with salads and panini, like tasty grilled Portobello, red onion and red pepper with tapenade and roasted garlic ($8).
Flirty what, now? Momo, little Himalayan-style dumplings that are like elaborately fluted potstickers filled with beef, chicken, pork with turkey, or cabbage, carrot and cilantro.
You can watch the Flirty Momo crew steam the dumplings ($6.50 or $6.75) in big metal baskets; it’s a presentation kitchen at this truck, what with the wide window allowing a view.
Ginger and garlic flavor the dumplings, as does a mild or hot chile sauce over them. The first ones I tried, on one of the truck’s first outings, weren’t steamed long enough, but they were much better this week.
Side dishes — also offered in combo meals ($7.25 to $7.75, drink included) — include fried rice or spicy peanuts, coated in hot sauce and tossed with fresh cilantro.
Fry Bread N Things
Fry bread — the American Indian raised bread that emerges hot, puffed and golden from the oil — is irresistible stuff. Can’t beat it.
The weeks-old truck Fry Bread N Things will serve it plain ($4) with a choice of dipping sauce, with cinnamon sugar or powdered sugar ($3) or topped with syrups or ice cream ($4) for dessert. Me, I’d advocate for a taco.
Pick ground beef, chicken or pulled pork in a light barbecue sauce and then mull the dozen toppings, everything from lettuce, cherry tomatoes and jalapeno to radishes, celery and sour cream.
The small taco ($4) was plenty for lunch, but the truck also serves a large ($7).
You’re not likely to find the same exact menu twice at Chameleon Mobile Cuisine; like a chameleon’s colors, the menu changes, too.
But…should you see the caprese grilled cheese with fresh mozzarella, pesto and tomato ($7), go for it; it’s grilled until crunchy. Or the satisfying Swedish meatballs ($7), in a creamy sauce over garlic mashed potatoes — I’d hop on that one, too. (Chicken meatballs with curry peanut sauce weren’t as flavorful as they sounded.) Or if the truck has vanilla bean creme brulee ($3), definitely get that. It’s as good as any restaurant’s. Key lime bars on graham cracker crust ($2) make a fine summery dessert, too.
Chameleon, operated by the Soup Market folks, also sells its own bottled root beer.
Sliders and desserts are the specialties at Hattie’s truck. A single slider ($4) was topped generously; bring along a friend to take advantage of the special on two ($7). Mango slaw was a nice touch for the jerk chicken; meatballs nestle beneath tangy marina and cheese.
For dessert — if you reach the truck before desserts sell out — try the peanut butter chocolate cupcake, garnished with a bit of peanut butter cup. You might also find red velvet cupcakes or cake pops.
The menu at Potato Baby revolves around huge potatoes ($7), baked until light. There are a couple of signature combinations, like the spicy Moo-T-Style, with Buffalo-style chicken, grated cheese and ranch or blue cheese dressing. But the idea of creating your own is appealing — start with chicken, chopped steak or ground beef, then pick toppings like broccoli, green peppers, cheese, sour cream, salsa or bacon. Customers can be as calorie-conscious as they wish (or not).
The truck sells nachos and wraps (grilled or fried), though I haven’t been able to resist the baked potatoes yet.
Also new this summer, Beef-E’s dispenses Italian beef sandwiches and various twists on it.
Sure, the cart dishes up the classic Chicago sandwich of thin-sliced beef with giardiniera and the beef’s juices (on the side, poured on or the sandwich dipped in).
But try Judy’s Pot Roast ($6), Italian beef over mashed potatoes with cooked baby carrots, or the Brew Crew ($7) with white cheese curds, bacon and snappy giardiniera. Terrific.
No small part of what makes the sandwiches that I bought so good were the house-made giardiniera and the pure, natural juices.
Jeppa Joes underwent a recent change in ownership, returning to the streets just this week, but the banh mi ($7) was still delicious: pork with pickled daikon and carrot, cucumber, jalapeno, fresh cilantro and Sriracha mayonnaise. I’m looking forward to trying the agua frescas, spicy peanuts and new sandwich — the cermita, with pulled pork and pickled onion — that’s been added to the menu.
The Bun Me cart keeps it simple: a few versions of the banh mi sandwich, all accented with the bright flavors of fresh cucumber, cilantro and jalapeno and pickled carrot and daikon. The pork belly ($6) is salty and chewy, and vegans will find a tofu ($5) version, with either lemongrass or peanut sauce. There’s a chicken version ($5), too.
This new truck sells items that fall in line with the Paleo diet — heavy on meats and vegetables, no gluten or processed foods. Urban Caveman had already sold out of a couple items when I stopped by (burger bowl on sweet potato hash and cashew curry chicken), but I did snap up a lettuce wrap filled with curried chicken salad studded with red grapes and pecans ($7).
Bubble Tea Fusion
Bubble Tea Fusion‘s focus is cooling summer drinks: flavored iced teas and the truck’s namesake, bubble teas. The frozen blended drinks come in a rainbow of colors and flavors, like papaya, strawberry and guava; get them with the big, black tapioca pearls or flavored jellies. A plus: The top of the drinks are sealed with plastic film, meaning nothing leaks out if you’re juggling the drink along with your lunch back to the office. The plastic’s easily pierced with the straw.