Philadelphia: A Guide To University City’s Awesome Food Truck Scene

Food trucks have long been an essential element of the University City food scene — the neighborhood's dynamic mix of students, residents and visitors provides the perfect environment for a vibrant food truck culture. Bottom right photo by R. Kennedy for GPTMC; other three photos by M. Kennedy for GPTMC

By Allison Stadd |

Food trucks have long been an essential element of the University City food scene — the neighborhood's dynamic mix of students, residents and visitors provides the perfect environment for a vibrant food truck culture. Bottom right photo by R. Kennedy for GPTMC; other three photos by M. Kennedy for GPTMC

Food trucks may be a popular food trend these days, but University City is one Philadelphia neighborhood that has been a veritable hotbed of amazing food trucks for decades now.

With two major universities and the accompanying student population, University City has all the makings of a vibrant food truck scene.

And while a few new, somewhat-trendy food trucks have opened up in recent years, some of the neighborhood’s best and most popular food trucks have been campus stalwarts for years.

Relative newcomers like Sugar Philly and Honest Tom’s share the sidewalk with veterans like Bui’s, MexiCali and Magic Carpet.

Luckily for you (and us), there’s room for everyone. It wouldn’t hurt, however, to have a little guidance on which trucks you should visit first.

To that end, we’ve enlisted the help of the knowledgeable staffers at Penn’s food magazine and blog, Penn Appétit, to curate a list of some of the top food trucks in the 19104.

Check out their top picks, below:

Gigi’s and Big R: 38th & Spruce and 30th & Market Streets. For rib-sticking, soul-satisfying fare, you need to go no farther than Gigi’s & Big R. The Vendy Cup winner delivers fried chicken and fish that are golden and crispy on the outside, moist and flaky on the inside. Better yet, try the stewed chicken. With a unique blend of spices, the meat is amazingly flavorful and juicy, and leaves behind a nice bit of heat on the tongue. -Hoi Ning Ngai, Writer

Sugar Philly: 38th & Walnut Streets. The high-class desserts served at this truck don’t require formal tux attire and are wallet-friendly for the University City student crowd. The stars of the menu are the French macarons. These cookie-like treats — in flavors ranging from decadent chocolate ganache to refreshing green tea — are heavenly. Other excellent offerings include sumptuous vanilla bean crème brulée (where chef Dan Tang torches the caramelized sugar topping before your eyes) and divinely smooth crème fraîche cheesecake topped with fresh seasonal fruits. -Nicole Woon, Blog Editor

Don Memo: 38th & Sansom Streets. Outside of Spring Break, Don Memo is as close to Mexico as a Penn student can get. Mammoth burritos are the main attraction, with the usual fillings supplemented by fresh avocado and tomato and choice of deeply flavorful red or green hot sauce (your best bet: ask for a little of both). But delicate tacos are equally laudable; with just onions, cilantro and your chosen protein, they serve as a better showcase of Don Memo’s fiercely marinated meat. It’s truly hard to go wrong between steak, chicken and pork, but the off-menu chorizo option, if it’s being offered that day, is the undisputable best bet — fatty, moist and bursting with rich, spicy flavors from south of the border. -Alex Marcus, Editor-in-Chief

Fresh Fruit Truck: 37th & Spruce Streets. If you want an afternoon pick-me-up or a refreshing, guilt-free treat to satisfy your sweet tooth, stop by the cart at 37th and Spruce — just look for the rainbow umbrella. The colorful variety of fresh cut fruit is sure to please, and don’t forget to ask for a mouth-watering fruit smoothie (they’re not on the written menu). Whipped up on the spot with your choice of fruit, the smoothies burst with freshness and are definitely this cart’s best-kept secret! -Monica Purmalek, Writer

Bui’s Lunch Truck: 38th & Spruce Streets. Bui’s offers simple yet filling breakfast and lunch fare, with many of their options cradled in slightly toasted, footlong baguettes that are crusty on the outside and soft within. The truck is renowned for its Hangover Special, a monstrous sandwich overflowing with egg, cheese, bacon, ham and sausage. Add tongue-tingling “Bui’s sauce” for a kick and you’re in for one satisfying meal; the recipe is a secret but it tastes like a sriracha mayo. The friendly Vietnamese couple running this no-frills sandwich stop has developed quite a following, so expect a line of ravenous college students that look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. -Nicole Woon, Blog Editor

Check out more food truck intel below.

MexiCali: 38th & Walnut Streets. Don’t be fooled by those imitators on Spruce Street: the MexiCali truck at 38th and Walnut is the real deal, “cooking fresh at Penn since 1986!!” This mobile outpost of the restaurant on 40th and Sansom provides lunch-sized, inexpensive burritos with options aplenty. Vegetarians and the health-conscious will rejoice at choices like Sweet Potato & Plantain, Spinach and Marinated Tofu. Plus there’s homemade guacamole that’s chunky and fresh, and sauces that are equally flavorful from mild to hot. -Molly O’Neill, Writer

Magic Carpet Foods: 34th & Spruce and 36th & Spruce Streets. Magic Carpet is less of a food truck than it is a lifestyle, a ubiquitous obsession, or an alternative to basically every other food option on campus. Boasting “world vegetarian cuisine,” this humble little cart — with two locations on campus — consistently has a lengthy line of hungry folks craving a healthy yet satisfying meal. Vegetarian staples are done very well; the falafel, tempeh and tabouli are hard to beat at Magic’s price. But the less common dishes are where things truly get exciting. Veggie chili is top-notch, rich and multi-dimensional. “Magic meatballs,” are miraculously meatless, and a richly textured treat. Delicious daily specials are also always a good choice. And it wouldn’t be Magic Carpet without a sprinkle (liberal of course) of their famous hot sauce on every bite. -Hayley Brooks, Writer

King Kabob: 37th & Spruce Streets. On paper, there’s little that’s special about Kabob King: meat and veggies grilled on a stick, then wrapped in store-bought pita. Yet, there’s something addicting about their Classic Chicken Kabob. Maybe it’s the fact that the meat is juicy and always tastes fresh; maybe it’s how the veggies are perfectly wilted and charred around the edges; maybe it’s the barbecue-like special sauce and the fact that the sandwich never has too much on it. Whatever the reason, Kabob King’s straightforward, well-executed menu is a continually satisfying mainstay in University City. -Alex Marcus, Editor-in-Chief

Cucina Zapata: 31st & Ludlow Streets. Vendy People’s Choice Award winner Cucina Zapata offers a whimsical, zesty approach to street food: pert, spicy Thai flavors fused with standard Mexican dishes. The result is a host of fantastic combinations. A chicken satay taco is an explosion of gooey peanut sauce, cooked-to-order chicken, and carefully carved half-moons of avocado. This heaping lunch, which costs a mere $3, goes perfectly with a dulcet gulp of Thai iced tea. Add that to an efficient staff who’s always smiling, and you’ve got value, taste and service that can’t be beat. -Kiley Bense, Editor

Rami’s: 40th & Locust Streets. Rami’s falafel wraps are amazing. For $4, you’ll get a deftly seasoned falafel with choice of hummus, tabouli feta or babaganoush. The lattermost is the best choice, adding richness and a tangy bite to the sandwich. But even better than the falafel is Rami himself. He greets customers with a smile and, if you’re lucky, with a big “Hello Pretty!” Wrap in hand. -Elliott Brooks, Blog Editor

La Dominique Creperie: 34th & Market Streets. Zbigniew Chojnacki used to be an artist before entering the food truck business, so it’s no question that each crepe he makes is a delicious masterpiece. He creates both sweet and savory crepes with a deliberate hand, ensuring that each is composed with care and high-quality ingredients. A must-try is the “Viennese,” filled with fragrant coffee cream, fresh slices of banana and strawberry, rich chocolate sauce and crunchy bits of pralines. Other popular options include the “Italian Chicken Crepe” (chunks of chicken, tangy tomato sauce, string beans and carrots over rice, all topped with cheddar cheese) and the “Vegetable Crepe” (creamed spinach, broccoli, zucchini, roasted peppers and grated parmesan cheese, topped with a sweet and spicy pineapple habañero sauce). Go during non-peak times, as it will take some time for your perfect crepe to come to fruition. Not the the least because USA Today recently named the truck to its list of top 10 in the country. -Nicole Woon, Blog Editor

KoJa: 38th between Walnut & Sansom Streets. If you’re all for fusion food, but averse to the trendy, highfalutin atmosphere that usually surrounds it, head to KoJa, a fusion of Korean and Japanese cuisines (hence the name) serving up steaming-hot platters of stir-frys and noodles for $6 a pop. A plate of their Pork Bulgoki is perfectly sweet and hot. Stir-fried noodles are a carb-lover’s dream; they stick together to form thick, doughy chunks, subtly accented by a milder sauce and a shower of toasted sesame seeds. -Alex Marcus, Editor-in-Chief

Read the latest issue of Penn Appétit here and you can also follow them on Twitter.