By Megan Gambino & Aviva Shen | Smithsonian.com
The food truck revolution is in full force as mobile restaurants around the country dish out tacos, BBQ and other great eats
In 2008, Roy Choi, a classically trained chef who once worked at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles, took his Korean-Mexican fusion food to the streets. There, his beef short rib taco with a special, 21-ingredient sauce quickly emerged as his signature dish. From one truck, which Newsweek declared “America’s first viral eatery,” Kogi has expanded into an empire, with five trucks, whose locations on any given day are tweeted to over 96,000 followers, and four brick-and-mortar establishments. Many, including Smithsonian magazine’s very own food columnist Jonathan Gold, feel like food truck culture is indebted to Kogi, which proved that delivering “high-end food at street level prices,” as its website says, is possible. – Megan Gambino
On November 3, 2009, Chef Jeremiah tweeted: “Welcome everyone to Miami’s food revolution.” And with that ambitious announcement, his GastroPod hit the streets of Miami as the first mobile gourmet kitchen in the city. Soon after, the city exploded with burgers, tacos and even dim sum on wheels. But, GastroPod continues to stand out in the crowd. Today, the shiny 1962 Airstream pod is a familiar sight, usually swarmed by fans of the seasonal fusion cuisine. Yelpers love the Mo’ Better Burger: a mess of short rib, brisket and sirloin topped with a poached egg. The fusion concept comes out in dishes like the banh mi pork tacos and the shitake flan. – Aviva Shen
Lardo, a food joint run out of a little clapboard cottage parked at 43rd and Belmont in Portland, has been “bringing fatback since 2010,” referring to a cut of meat from a pig’s back. Lardo’s owner and chef Rick Gencarelli compares it to bacon, just without the meat. One of his favorite ingredients, he uses it generously—especially, when preparing his hand-cut French fries.
Gencarelli, previously the head chef at the award-winning Shelburne Farms in Vermont, has centered his vision for Lardo on two things: Italian flavors and local farmers. His seasonal menu features fresh deli sandwiches, including the much-raved-about grilled mortadella. Serious Eats cooed over the sandwich in December. And, according to the Willamette Week, the sloppy mortadella, with pickled peppers and gooey provolone “absolutely kills.” – MG
Started by MIT grad Ayr Muir in 2008, Clover Food Lab has long been a favorite of the campus crowds in Cambridge. Across the Charles River, thanks to the recent easing of strict mobile vending regulations, Boston proper is finally starting to see more trucks on the scene. Meanwhile, the Clover gang has expanded its empire of locally-sourced vegetarian fare into two brick-and-mortar restaurants and five trucks. Don’t let the vegetarian thing faze you; even Boston mayor and meat-lover Thomas Menino swears their soy B.L.T. is the best in the city. – AS
The self-billed “traveling culinary carnival” brings cuisine from mythical lands—Merlindia, Benethiopia and, most recently, Volathai—to the nation’s capital. Along with your plate of butter chicken, beef berbere or green green curry, the Fojols serve up a colorful fantasy, complete with costumes, mustaches and alter egos. The first truck, Merlindia, perhaps in a diplomatic move, arrived on the day of President Obama’s inauguration. Since then, DC has enjoyed a proliferation of food trucks slinging everything from cupcakes to lobster rolls. But as Washington City Paper says, “No one has been able to top the Fojol Brothers of Merlindia in terms of fun, flavor, and ‘Folosophy.'” – AS
When he opened his crème brûleé truck, Torched Goodness, in 2010, Eric Ireland triggered the Valley of the Sun’s sweet tooth with a vengeance. A chef with 20 years of experience in the area, Ireland hopped on the small but burgeoning food truck fad in the Phoenix-Scottsdale region and skyrocketed to the top. Many of the area’s trucks tout greasy comfort foods like tacos and hot dogs; Torched Goodness aims to bring a more gourmet sensibility to the table (or parking lot). The “perfectly burnt” custards come in flavors ranging from the classic vanilla to the more exotic lavender or maple bacon. – AS
Matt Lewis, a New Orleans native, is bringing Creole food to Seattle. His truck, Where Ya At Matt, serves up muffuletta, jambalaya, gumbo and a slew of po’ boys, among other Louisiana delicacies. The Peacemaker, a po’ boy with deep fried oysters, bacon, cheddar and pickled peppers, is a fan favorite. “Every menu item carries a fond childhood memory for me,” writes Lewis, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, on his website. “I choose each menu item, then run it by my family, even my granny. When granny approves, you know it’s got to be good!”
Seattle Magazine counts Where Ya At Matt among the city’s best new restaurants of 2011. The editors like its “ever-boisterous, charismatic and sometimes flirty” chef too. “He’s almost as much of an attraction as his beignets ($4 for three)—hot out of the fryer, sizzling with oil and dusted with sugar,” says the magazine. – MG
Coreanos, which translates to “Koreans” in Spanish, serves a cross between Korean barbeque and traditional Mexican dishes. The truck’s tacos and burritos borrow marinated meats, slaws, kimchi and a sesame oil vinaigrette from the Korean palate and onion, cilantro and pico de gallo from the Mexican. Coreanos also sells bacon-wrapped hot dogs and loaded French fries. The Three Wise Fries is a pile of beef short rib, chicken and spicy pork belly, as well as grilled onions, cheese and creamy “el scorcho” sauce, on a bed of papas fritas. Yelp reports that Coreanos was one of Austin’s top 10 eateries of 2011. – MG
Chef William Pilz’s “modern organic casual Filipino truck” is a concept that could only arise in a foodie paradise like San Francisco. In spite of strict regulations, mobile vendor mania hit the Bay Area relatively early and the scene that Hapa SF entered in spring 2010 was already thriving. Even with fierce competition, Hapa SF was spotlighted by SF Weekly’s Jonathan Kaufmann for “making some of the cleanest, most technically sophisticated food on wheels.” One staple is the lumpia, or pork egg rolls, which SFoodie declared “the best we have ever tasted here.” – AS
New York City
As of last summer, there were an estimated 40 to 50 gourmet food trucks roaming New York City—and Schnitzel & Things is considered one of the best. The truck, a recipient of the coveted “Vendy” Rookie of the Year award in 2009 and other accolades, serves Austrian schnitzel, or hand-pounded, panko-breaded veal and chicken cutlets, cod filets and eggplant. Bratwursts, Austrian potato salad, cucumber salad, as well as unconventional condiments, such as spicy sriracha mayo and chipotle sour cream, are among the “things” sold. Owner Oleg Voss, a Ukraine native who embarked on Schnitzel & Things when he lost his job as an investment banker in Vienna, Austria, during the 2008 financial crisis, opened a restaurant in midtown Manhattan in early 2011.
East Side King started in 2009 as one trailer tucked behind The Liberty, a dive bar in Austin. However, it has since grown into a chain of three colorful trucks, each serving a different menu of what Anthony Bourdain describes as “Japanese drunk food fusion.”
Bourdain featured the flagship trailer on his TV show, “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” in 2010. “Beef tongue sticky bun. Yes! Of course, I want to eat that. Roasted beef tongue, peanut curry, fried buns, basil, mint, cilantro, chili, sweet chili fish sauce. Yes! Yes!” cried Bourdain, on the episode. “We need more of this in New York. Come all ye hipsters with your mutant mash-up food, your strange and wondrous treats to my neighborhood—and soon.”
Serious Eats also reviewed the venue, having nothing but praise for East Side King’s beet fries. “Even lifelong beets naysayers might change their mind after trying these,” writes blogger Erin Zimmer. “The beet cubes are first roasted then fried, developing a thin shell that gives way to a creamy soft center. It’s beet candy….It makes you wonder why we’ve spent so long associating fries with just potatoes.”
East Side King’s co-owner Paul Qui, also executive chef at the Japanese restaurant Uchiko in Austin, is a finalist on this season’s “Top Chef.” – MG
New York City
One of the pioneers of East Coast trucks, DessertTruck is in good company in the army of “sweetmobiles” that seem to characterize New York’s food truck scene. DessertTruck was launched in 2007 by Jerome Chang, a former pastry chef at Le Cirque. The truck dispenses upscale confections usually found in gourmet restaurants, including a warm chocolate bread pudding made famous on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Now that DessertTruck has expanded to a brick-and-mortar shop, they’ve also started offering DIY workshops where you can learn how to satisfy your craving for a chocolate soufflé or French macaroon without taking to the streets. – AS
Operated out of a shiny Airstream named “Gudrun,” Viking Soul Food has carved out a niche for itself as the only food truck in Portland to serve Norwegian food. The menu revolves around lefse (pronounced lef-suh)—a flatbread, similar to a crepe or pita, made of potatoes, flour, butter, cream and salt. Co-owners Megan Walhood and Jeremy Daniels have concocted several scrumptious lefse wraps. On the savory side, they sell one with Norse meatballs, pickled cabbage and Gjetost (Yay-toast) sauce, a creamy cheese made by caramelizing whey from goat cheese. Then, for the sweet tooth, they offer wraps with lingonberries and cream cheese or lemon curd and spiced pecans.
The Philly food truck movement has lagged behind other cities, but it recently picked up speed, thanks in part to Philly’s many college campuses. Those campuses are where you’ll find Sugar Philly’s cult following. The truck was conceived in 2010 by recent grads to satisfy the untapped markets at Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania. Among the many Mexican and cheesesteak offerings of the University City neighborhood, Sugar Philly stands out for its seasonal haute desserts—in particular, its macaroons, which come in unconventional flavors like blueberry lemon and salted caramel. They gained recognition outside the usual college crowd as a finalist in Philly’s first Vendy Awards last year. – AS
The Big Easy’s vibrant uptown bar scene inevitably attracted a flock of food trucks catering to late-night customers. According to the blog GoNOLA.com, Taceaux Loceaux, which opened in 2010, is “possibly the brightest shining star in this relatively new genre.” Taceaux Loceaux, as their name suggests, serves “Nola-Mex” tacos. Yes, that includes the ubiquitous Korean taco (Seoul Man); other favorites include the Aieee, which contains spicy-hot andouille sausage, and Messin’ with Texas, a BBQ brisket taco. The husband-wife team, Maribeth and Alex del Castillo, recently opened a permanent location inside the nightclub Chickie-Wah-Wah, which will offer an even more varied menu of tacos and new goodies like ceviche and homemade salsas. – AS
Chef Erwin Tjahyadi, a former apprentice of Wolfgang Puck, is the mastermind behind Komodo, a two-truck outfit that makes stops in Santa Monica, L.A.’s Echo Park neighborhood and on UCLA’s campus, among other locales. (There is now a restaurant in West L.A. as well.) The trucks serve up tacos and burritos with a flair inspired by Tjahyadi’s Indonesian heritage. Some classics include the Komodo 2.0, with top sirloin, jalapeno aioli and corn salad; Fish N’ Grapes, with deep-fried cod, grapes and roasted almonds; and Blazin’ Shrimp, with Singaporean-style shrimp, sour cream and cilantro.
Why is it called Komodo? Well, komodo dragons are the largest lizard species in the world. And, Komodo happens to be one of the largest food trucks in the city. Also, as Komodo’s website notes, komodo dragons have weak hearing and sight and so rely on their sense of taste to experience the world. – MG
According to Mobile Cuisine magazine, you won’t find America’s favorite vegetarian food truck in hippie-Meccas Portland or San Francisco, but in…Lansing, Michigan. The Purple Carrot is Michigan’s first “farm to truck” food stand and takes this mission seriously. Working with 11 local farms, owners Nina Santucci and Anthony Maiale (whose résumé includes a stint at Alinea) put out a sophisticated seasonal menu that showcases high-quality ingredients. The big purple truck only joined the small but growing community of food trucks in Lansing in April 2011, but locals are already addicted to its cake pops, which come in flavors like maple and butternut squash. – AS
Its hot pink truck, Tina, ensured that Comida would turn heads when it hit the streets of Boulder County in May 2010. But the food itself is surprisingly free of gimmicks. Owner Rayme Rossello focuses on authentic Mexican street food—tacos, quesadillas and “truck-made” guacamole. The result transcends the other truck fare in Colorado; Chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson, of Boulder’s Frasca Food and Wine, told Travel + Leisure that Comida was his favorite restaurant in the state, and DenverStreetFood.com says it has the “best Mexican food north of Arizona.” – AS
Columbia, South Carolina
Chef Scott Hall’s founding of Bone-in Artisan Barbecue on Wheels in early 2011 kicked off what is now a budding upscale food truck scene in Columbia, South Carolina. His standbys are pulled pork in spicy vinegar and smoked brisket in hickory-hoisin sauce on homemade focaccia bread, each served with hand-cut potato chips. But, his menu also includes rotating items, such as chorizo and pimento cheese on sourdough and gourmet mac and cheese. “Folks, we are beyond the petty regionalisms of vinegar vs. mustard vs. tomato,” writes Chowhound. “This is no longer your grandfather’s barbecue. And thank goodness for that. Slow-cooked and smoky meats deserve more attention and more creativity, and this truck delivers the goods.” – MG
Bloomberg Businessweek organized a gourmet food truck smackdown in 2011. Sixteen food trucks from four geographic regions were judged on their use of social networking and creative marketing, and, of course, the quality of their food. Ultimately, Streetza, a popular pizza vendor in the mobile food courts springing up in Milwaukee, came out on top. Owners Scott Baitinger and Steve Mai rely on the input of the truck’s Twitter followers and Facebook friends, who helped select the company’s logo and the truck’s design. Streetza even takes fans’ suggestions for the types of pizza it cooks in its 650-degree Fahrenheit oven (to outdo Wisconsin’s chilly temperatures). One of its latest “crowd-sauced” pizzas was “The Luke Stecker Slice,” with shrimp, bacon, avocado and pineapple. It’s “delicious populism,” according to GQ magazine. – MG