Nashville, TN: Mobile Vendors Experiment with Weekend Culinary Convoys at Elmington Park

photo courtesy of Eric England

by Carrington Fox | Nashville Scene

photo courtesy of Eric England

What a difference five years can make. Does anyone remember back in the day — if we can dub November 2006 “The Day” — when I proposed the audacious culinary experiment of a pizza truck? Modeled on the ice cream man, my pizza truck would drive around town at meal times and hawk slices out of a mobile kitchen. I was sure it would be a hit. But a mean-spirited blogger said it never would work and implied that I was an idiot.

Not to be too thin-skinned, but … how do you like me now, blogger?

It turns out that food trucks do work, especially when they bring great food to convenient locations.

Needless to say, when I recently encountered a convoy of food trucks serving everything from kimchi slaw to fried cornbread at Elmington Park, the feeling of vindication that washed over me was as sweet as the Thai iced tea being served at the green-and-orange Deg Thai food truck.

Yes, there is that broad an array of mobile cuisine in Nashville, which now boasts more than 30 styles of meals on wheels, from meat-and-three to barbecue, Thai to tacos. (Even my pizza dream came true with the 2010 debut of Pizza Buds.)

photo courtesy of Eric England

With mobile vendors jockeying for space in the culinary landscape, brick-and-mortar restaurateurs, food truck operators and city officials took up complex issues of parking, competition and traffic last year. After a series of deferrals by Metro’s Traffic and Parking Commission, still no one knows what the future holds in terms of food truck regulation.

But when it comes to bringing diners and mobile vendors together, the future could look a lot like the recent weekends at Elmington Park, when a dozen food trucks took turns showcasing their modern mobile wares in the driveway of the historic West End Middle School. Event planner Holley Seals is the brain behind Wanderland Urban Food Park, which staged, promoted and organized permits for the so-called Fab Feb Food Fest. Based on the success of February’s pilot program, Seals is extending Fab Feb into March. Beyond that, she envisions future food truck assemblies in other parks around the city.

“As many events as she can put together, we’ll be there,” Jonbalaya Catering owner Jon Heidelberg says, emphatically praising Seals’ efforts to promote his upstart industry.

At Elmington, Wanderland’s formula is five trucks each weekend day, with a reef of picnic tables and trashcans on the rolling lawn. Rain or shine, a variable assortment of trucks parked in the wide driveway between West End Avenue and the grassy battlefield where the Society for Creative Anachronism fights to the death for medieval hegemony on Sundays.

Weather plays a predictably significant role in a food truck gathering, but when the sun was shining, Fab Feb Food Fest had the convivial air of a picnic, with families arriving on foot from surrounding neighborhoods, dining al fresco and playing Frisbee after a meal.

Some patrons were content mingling interminably in the queue at the Grilled Cheeserie truck, until the popular purveyor of molten cheese sandwiches and tomato soup — a perennial favorite at food truck rallies — tweeted that it had run out of bread and was closing early.

Wait times at other vehicles were less intimidating, so we landed at a picnic table and I set out like a mother bird, foraging from truck to truck to satisfy a family that simultaneously craved Cajun food and cobbler.

From Jonbalaya, I collected pulled chicken on corn tortillas with sriracha and wasabi aioli, a pair of pork sliders and Heidelberg’s signature jambalaya made with mild andouille sausage.

Memo to food truck fans: Do not attempt to use Jonbalaya’s so-called Un-daiquiri to cool the burn of Twisted Chicken from The Hot Spot truck. The refreshing non-alcoholic fruit drink is powerless against the fire of the fiendish bird, whose dry rub is so tongue-searing that ultimately we started to slur our words.

To put out Hot Spot’s hot chicken flames, you’re going to need something more soothing, possibly a poultice. We tried to quell the pain with spoonfuls of velvety chicken-and-dumplings and mac-and-cheese from the Southern roster at Just Like “Nannie” Fixed It. When those didn’t work, we applied Kent Nannie’s Ooey Gooey Butter Cake and cold cobbler directly to the tongue.

(Seriously, the Hot Spot’s signature poultry is just too damn spicy to enjoy in an improvised dining situation where you don’t have access to a tub of yogurt or a gallon of milk, or, at the extreme, a can of Solarcaine. That said, we’d like to revisit Twisted Chicken, with its magnificent sandy-sizzled spice-encrusted skin again some day soon, when we’ve got ready access to running water and all our emergency phone numbers close at hand.)

On a particularly dreary weekend during Fab Feb Food Fest, we drove to Elmington Park and picked up an excellent lunch of soup and sandwiches from Blackbird Heritage, which bases its limited menu on the seasonal harvest and humanely raised lamb and pork from Blackbird Heritage Farm in College Grove, Tenn. On our visit, chef Elyssa Young was on board the pale blue truck, building sandwiches of lamb sausage with cucumber sauce and Italian sausage with Kenny’s Farmhouse cheddar, caramelized onions and apple Dijon. Her soup of sweet potato, spinach and sausage was the perfect antidote to winter weather.

Meanwhile, a merry band of warriors in medieval regalia brought an air of pre-Renaissance festivity when they arrived at the Deg Thai truck. Speaking in the garbled, marble-mouthed accent of a Monty Python character, one knight ordered from the roster of red curry, fried rice, spring rolls and beef salad. Then he turned to his companions and asked with great ceremony, “Shall we take our bounty to Valhalla, as offering to Odin?” When the warriors concurred, their leader turned to the truck window and temporarily ditched the accent. “We’ll take it to go,” he said.

You just can’t get that kind of cross-cultural, inter-century give-and-take at a Chili’s.

So, take that, mean old blogger from 2006 who thought I was an idiot for proposing a pizza truck. With dozens of food trucks staking their claim in an increasingly sophisticated culinary market, who’s the idiot now, huh?

Then again, if I were so smart, I guess I’d have started up a food truck myself.