By Fleur Bainger | News.com.au
WHEN did you last order truffle-infused scallop dumplings from a truck on the side of the road? Never? Greasy chips and a reflux-inducing hot dog sound more familiar, right?
Well, get ready to impress your tastebuds, because food trucks – the kind that sell gourmet, locally sourced, ready-to-eat food – have hit Perth.
Long raved about in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles and, more recently, Sydney, Melbourne and even Adelaide, the trend has finally arrived here.
Already on the menu are fancy, flavour-packed burgers, slow-roasted ribs, pulled pork rolls and ’50s-style ice creams, along with gluten-free options, handmade salsas and organic ingredients.
And with laws under review about where and how food trucks can operate, we may be seeing a lot more of them in the next six months.
In NYC, food trucks park all over Manhattan, pulling up roadside for hours at a time as passers-by line up to order. The majority of the vans are decorated, most commonly with a retro theme and often with slick graphic design work.
All of them hit social media hard, tweeting and Facebooking their locations so fans can track them down. They’ll also spruik what they’re cooking each day, whipping up anticipation and hunger in their many foodie followers.
While food trucks have become a regular part of daily life in the US, the Perth scene is in its infancy. Curtin University is the first space to regularly host food trucks, trialling them for six months as part of a campus activation plan.
“It was about creating an atmosphere and an environment,” says Annette Hasluck from Place Match, the company Curtin engaged to reinvigorate the campus.
Hasluck says 13 mobile food outlets – trucks, vans and trailers – were invited to take part in the Park’d trial, operating on different days and clustering in different hot spots.
“We mix up the four designated locations each week, and send it out via Facebook and Twitter. You don’t know where each truck is going to be. It’s got a cult following,” she says.
The dietary make-up of food on offer by the chosen trucks was carefully considered – and deep-fried artery-cloggers were definitely out.
“We wanted healthy options – so there was a gluten-free option, for example – but it also had to be easy-access student meals, and price-pointed so it was affordable,” Hasluck says.
Three months in, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with 91 per cent of the 400 people surveyed a fortnight ago saying they wanted the food trucks to stay. Hasluck believes the concept can work across the metro area.
“I can’t wait for it to happen,” she says. “The food offering is one thing, and it’s a bit kooky and niche, but it really makes a space happen. It just makes things feel alive.”
Roy Chin, who runs the popular Jumplings Tasty Dumplings truck, couldn’t agree more. Over the past three months, he’s been pumping out chicken, pork and, on special occasions, scallop and truffle dumplings to queues of students and lecturers.
He’s a devoted foodie, taking a year to perfect his pasta-like dumpling pastry, which is made from a mix of five different flours.
The bite-size parcels are then doused in ponzu sauce fused with white truffle oil, which he imports from Italy, arguing the flavour it delivers is worth the expense.
The majority of Chin’s produce is WA-grown and his more inventive dishes include kangaroo dumplings and sambal chilli tiger prawn and water spinach dumplings.
The extravagance of his ingredients and creativity of the combinations prove that today’s food trucks are much more than American-style fast food.
“People who walk down the street don’t want to feel oily or really full,” says Chin. “You’ve got to make something fresher, not so heavy, that you can eat every day – that’s the definition of street food, really.”
While students may not necessarily recognise the efforts Chin goes to with his haute-cuisine dumplings, he argues he’s hitting the right demographic.
“If we start creating this sort of mentality in our uni students, imagine what will happen when they graduate,” he says. “We need to get that grassroots thing happening.”
Chin’s inexhaustible enthusiasm for the concept has led him to start an umbrella organisation called Perth Gourmet Food Van.
While promoting Perth food trucks via Facebook, he also shares his advice with fellow truck owners and is in the process of penning a food van guide.
“When I started I didn’t know head from tail,” he says. “We had a lot of issues. If I make that journey easier for someone else, then they can focus on other things, like food.”
Chin hopes the amount of red tape surrounding mobile food operations will lessen as councils recognise the value in this new breed of food trucks.
The City of Perth is already on track to revise its policies. Earlier this year it invited public submissions on a proposal to allow mobile food vendors into the city.
It meets on Tuesday to hear a report on the submissions, and to consider changes to its public trading laws, which will make way for food trucks to pop up in the city.
Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi says the vast majority of submissions were keen for such a move.
“It is clear the people of Perth want flexible food options,” she says. “A common theme in the submissions was people would like to see food vans operate outside of normal trading hours.”
Scaffidi believes this would inject greater buzz and variety to the CBD.
“The operation of mobile food vans is sure to generate and encourage a more vibrant, 24-hour centre that activates some of the city’s ‘forgotten’ spaces,” she says.
Details are still to be worked out, but Scaffidi says the food trucks will likely inhabit laneway spaces and keep unconventional operating hours, such as before 7am and after 6pm.
“The process of amending or drafting a new local law does take some time, but it is possible that mobile food vendors could be operating in the CBD by late this year or early next year,” the Lord Mayor says.
The impact on established, bricks-and-mortar businesses is obviously a concern the city has to manage, but if Curtin’s experience is anything to go by, the increased competition may not be a bad thing.
“More competition makes more people stay on campus,” Annette Hasluck says. “Before, lots of people were going off campus to eat, or bringing lunch.
“Cafes have found it’s made their turnover much bigger. People are much more likely to buy food on campus now and so it results in more sales.”
Roy Chin argues the two offerings are intrinsically different, so shouldn’t clash.
“We do a specialty, and if you like it you come and buy it,” he says. “We’re not giving you a whole menu. We’re giving you three items.
“That’s a distinct difference from what you can get in a restaurant. We specialise in few things, but we do it as well as we can.”
The City of Fremantle is also interested in embracing food trucks. Mayor Brad Pettitt says it’s negotiating with a South American-themed food truck to operate around the port city.
“The city is supportive of this initiative, which it expects will be a big hit with locals and tourists and will add to the culture and diversity of Fremantle,” Pettitt says.
The truck in question, called Comida do Sul, will be run by Joel Rees and his Brazilian wife, Dani Flauzino, who will be serving butterflied chorizo hotdogs smeared with sumac lemon mayonnaise, sprinkled with pineapple and red chilli sauce, and topped with vinaigrette; a special sandwich of beef rump rolled in Amazonian yam with garlic sauce; and shredded chicken wrapped in mashed potato and deep fried.
“I’m all about getting some street vibe in Perth,” Rees says. “It definitely needs it.”
Perhaps sensing a change in the wind, retro ’50s ice-cream van Miss Tartufo is adding another identical shop-on-wheels, as is gourmet burger outfit Hey Pesto.
“I hope the movement will grow,” says Marco De Campi of O’Connor ice creamery Azzura Gelati, the company behind Miss Tartufo.
“As we start to broaden our cultural horizons, it’s something that’ll brighten up our landscape.”
Hey Pesto’s Mathew Williams has just bought a 1948 truck that he’s doing up to serve gourmet toasted sandwiches. He expects to shell out $85,000 to get it ready.
“It’s a massive investment,” he says. “But we know it will eventually take off due to the response on our Facebook pages – everybody loves the idea.”
A classically trained chef who has worked at The Loose Box in Mundaring, Coco’s South Perth and The Queens in Mount Lawley, Williams hopes to push the boundaries of what a toasted sandwich is.
“I’ll be doing something quirky, using local produce, a good bread, and I’ll be doing everything from American-style toasted cheese and ham to funky Elvis-type sangas, such as peanut butter deep-fried sandwiches or something like that,” he says.
Williams has travelled to Sydney to research the scene there, meeting with the Sydney council to find out how the food truck movement can be replicated here.
His dream is to take his retro truck into the city, pop-up style, and as the scene matures, he’s keen to reel out his classical skills.
“I’d love to do a pork van, with anything from a pork wanton soup to a pulled pork roll in a white steamed bun,” he says.
In a clear sign of confidence in Perth’s food truck scene, Mutter Krause, a German sausage truck popular in Melbourne, has sent a red- painted van and staff 3000km west to start up an arm in Perth.
“It’s a reasonably untapped market,” says owner Dirk Gierlach. “It was a long stretch but we’re glad we did it. The people love it.”
He hopes to be part of van expansion in WA.
“Obviously, it’s a bit of a concern for the established restaurants,” he admits. “But from what we’ve seen here [in Melbourne], it’s adding to the excitement to experience different foods.
“At the Docklands, some restaurants objected but, as it turns out, there is room in the market for everybody and it adds colour and flavour to the lifestyle of the city.”
Curtin University’s Norion Ubechel, who is overseeing the Park’d trial and hails from the US, says he’s excited the rest of Perth is getting onboard.
“It didn’t exist when I got here and I didn’t understand why,” he says. “Perth has a culture of everything closing relatively early. Now, there’s some activity happening.
“But with an alive and active city you’d expect to have a little more street energy, which a food truck provides. It spawns a whole subculture.”
PERTH’S TRUCK STOPS
Jumplings Tasty Dumplings
Changing flavours of traditionally made Japanese dumplings, served with or without udon noodles and broth. Fillings are sourced locally where possible and include prawn, chicken, duck, pork, tofu and mushroom.
This retro van serves a range of locally made Azzura gelati, with some of the more creative flavours available exclusively from the van. There’s a revolving line-up of styles, from rich vanilla bean to blossom nougat, buttered peanut, chocolate truffle bubblegum and orange marmalade. Coffee, milkshakes and hot soup are also on the menu at times.
Fresh-grilled American-style burgers – the double cheeseburger gets big props from fans – along with crispy fries and Kansas City-style slow-braised beef ribs. Chef Tam Nguyen has won medals at several Culinary Olympics run by the World Association of Chefs Societies.
On Facebook and www.buttys.com.au
Gourmet burgers made from WA produce such as a scotch fillet steak burger with cheddar and a marinated herb chicken burger. Gluten-free options are available, along with fresh, self-serve salads, homemade green tomato relish and house-roasted aoli.
Choice of five different types of gourmet German sausages: bratwurst, currywurst, cheese kransky, chilli chorizo and the classic hot dog. The sausages are sourced from Adrian’s Continental Smallgoods in Mirrabooka and they’re served in freshly baked crusty rolls from Little Home Bakery in Morley.
It was on a trip to Disneyland in California that Tracey Hekkens first tasted churros and she was inspired to bring these Spanish doughnuts to Perth. She imports the 40.6cm-long cinnamon and sugar-flavoured treats from the US and serves them from a two-tone van.