Tucson, AZ: Mobile Eateries Put Dreams on Wheels

Carlos Aponte, former executive chef of tony Anthony's in the Catalinas, serves sandwiches and tacos, including Southwest-inspired cheesesteak sandwiches given a spicy kick with jalapeño peppers, from the Rolling Chef. JILL TORRANCE/ARIZONA DAILY STAR

By Cathalena E. Burch | AZStarNet.com

Carlos Aponte, former executive chef of tony Anthony's in the Catalinas, serves sandwiches and tacos, including Southwest-inspired cheesesteak sandwiches given a spicy kick with jalapeño peppers, from the Rolling Chef. JILL TORRANCE/ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Inside the tight kitchen of DuWayne Hall’s mobile restaurant, pans of savory Jamaican stew and spicy jerk chicken stayed warm on the stove.

Whispers of steam escaped from a half-full pot of rice and pigeon peas on a low burner, sitting next to a pot of simmering water.

Outside, Hall sat in a metal chair beneath a canopy that shaded four long tables in his makeshift roadside restaurant D’s Island Grill JA, a large truck painted Jamaican black, green and red against a yellow and blue backdrop. It’s parked in a spacious dirt and gravel lot on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Grant Road, next to a taqueria.

“This was my dream since I moved to Tucson,” the Jamaican native and former cook at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort’s The Flying V restaurant said one scorching afternoon as he waited for the dinner rush to get started. “I wanted to eat Jamaican food but there was no place to eat Jamaican food.”

Hall is one of a handful of restaurateurs throwing their pots and pans into the mobile kitchen arena, changing the landscape of Tucson’s street food from the ubiquitous taqueria and Sonoran hot dogs to more eclectic fare: gourmet burgers, cheesesteak sandwiches, savory- and sweet-stuffed crepes, organic ice cream and deconstructed desserts from fruit pies presented like french fries and strawberry shortcake served as a slider.

“We have a food truck culture in Tucson but it’s mostly Mexican food and Sonoran hot dogs,” says Los Angeles transplant and graphic designer Julie Ray, who occasionally blogs about Tucson’s street food. “I’m excited for it to become more happening.” “(We are) sort of opening people’s eyes about what can be produced out of a truck,” said Jessica Kraus, chef-owner of the mobile eatery Planet of the Crepes. “I think that the overall willingness of people to try it has definitely improved, which is really encouraging.”

Like Hall, many of the new kids on the street-food block have solid kitchen credentials.

• Carlos Aponte, who parks his flame-themed The Rolling Chef truck at Stone Avenue and Pennington Street on weekdays, cooked at Anthony’s in the Catalinas and has a résumé that includes stops at New York City restaurants, El Parador in Tucson and Sam Fox’s early venture City Grill.

• Planet of the Crepes’s Kraus, who until recently was set up in the village of Summerhaven on Mount Lemmon, earned her pastry and baking certification from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and worked for Beyond Bread and the Market Restaurant Group (Zona 78, The Grill at Hacienda del Sol and Harvest Restaurant).

• Ramon Gonzales, who is about to roll out his Street Delights dessert truck, has clocked time at Tucson’s La Baguette and the University of Arizona bakery.

There are 235 active full-service food trucks in Tucson that offer full menus (meals and drinks), according to Priscilla Urbina, the Pima County Health Department’s sanitarian supervisor.

The county also licenses limited menu vendors like Isabella’s Ice Cream, which is owned by Sahuarita couple Dominic and Kristel Johnson, who sell organic ice cream from a refurbished vintage Ford Model T.

Hall of D’s Island Grill JA dreams of one day opening a fixed restaurant. But with the economy still teetering, running his restaurant out of his truck is the safest financial bet for his family of four.

Hall launched his truck early last year as D & D’s Island Grill JA, working with a partner at East Broadway and North Wilmot Road. The pair quickly garnered a strong following of devoted fans who posted glowing reviews on the food website Yelp. “Super friendly guys and ridiculously good food,” one Yelp poster gushed. “The curry goat is great, but get here early because it goes fast,” added another.

Early this year, though, the partnership dissolved and Hall renamed his venture and moved to Grant Road, setting up next to a mobile taqueria. Many of his east-side customers have followed him, and he is slowly gaining new fans from the neighborhood.

“I love doing this,” he said as a man who looked to be in his early 30s darted across four lanes of Grant Road traffic and jogged toward the truck.

The man asked for a menu and then rattled off a list of his favorite Jamaican specialities – curry goat, plantains and jerk chicken among them.

“I’ll be back,” he told Hall, tucking the postcard menu in his pocket and heading back across Grant as traffic whizzed by just ahead of the afternoon rush.

“It’s not an easy road,” Hall admitted. “But this is the dream right here.”

Isabella’s Ice Cream

Dominc Johnson, a three-time Olympic pole-vaulter for his native St. Lucia, never imagined himself in the food industry.

The West Indies native, who grew up in Tucson and graduated from the University of Arizona, primarily supports his family of four by selling artificial grass for sports fields.

But one day when his two young daughters heard the sound of an ice cream truck in their Sahuarita neighborhood, he and his wife mused aloud about owning their own truck. But it couldn’t be the dirty, scary, smoke-spewing van circling their block.

“I was just thinking about it and I thought if you could just come up with a design (for a vehicle) that was open, it would be a good idea,” Johnson recalled.

Johnson thought about it a little more then went out and spent $800 on a chassis to a 1920s Ford Model T Depot Hack and set about completely restoring it. He installed an electric engine and thin solar panels to power the freezers.

In all, it took the couple $20,000 to launch Isabella’s Ice Cream – named after Johnson’s 9-year-old daughter.

The ice cream, served in one-scoop paper cups, comes from a small-batch organic creamery in California and bears Johnson’s Model T logo.

“Ultimately the way we see the business going is two ways: a retail business on the store shelves and the street vendor in the truck,” said Johnson, 35, who sells his ice cream at Renee’s Organic Oven, Maynards Market and Rincon Market. “We still want to vend from the trucks. When we get more grocery accounts, we want to deliver in the truck so that people are not just buying the ice cream, they’re buying the whole green concept.”

The Rolling Chef

Operating a food truck is a dream for The Rolling Chef’s Carlos Aponte, who returned last week to his prized downtown location after a blown engine sidelined him most of June.

Aponte invested $50,000 to get his truck on the road last April, not including the $1 million insurance policy he had to take out that also covers the city of Tucson because he is parked on city property.

But the overhead to run a mobile restaurant is so low that Aponte figures it costs him just $50 a day to stay open.

“I just have to cover that 50 bucks a day,” he said, which he easily does on a busy weekday lunch rush, selling $1 barbecue pork tacos topped with caramelized onions and coleslaw and $6.50 Southwest inspired cheesesteak sandwiches given a spicy kick with jalapeño peppers.

“I’m trying to break the stereotype of what street food is,” he said. “We’re not a bunch of roach coaches. You can get great food at a great value.”


The Rolling Chef

• Behind the wheel: Chef/owner Carlos Aponte, 41, former executive chef of Anthony’s in the Catalinas.

• Where you can find him: Stone Avenue and Pennington Street downtown from 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays; Music Box Lounge, 6951 E. 22nd St., from 8 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

• What he serves: Cheesesteak and roast beef sandwiches, barbecue pulled pork sandwiches, barbecue pork and teriyaki chicken tacos. He grills Angus beef and chicken breast over natural wood or pit roasted.

• What you’ll pay: Tacos are $1, sandwiches run $4 to $7.

• Follow him online: twitter.com/TheRollingChef

D’s Island Grill JA (Jamaican)

• Behind the wheel: Jamaican native DuWayne Hall, 30, a former cook at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort’s The Flying V restaurant.

• Where you can find him: 250 E. Grant Road, in a dirt lot on the corner of Grant and North Sixth Street, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.

• What he serves: Authentic Jamaican fare including jerk chicken, brown stew chicken, oxtail, curry goat, curry chicken, Jamaican sodas and hand-squeezed juices.

• What you’ll pay: $8 for one meat plate, $12 for two.

• Contact him: 861-2271.

Street Delights

• Behind the wheel: Tucson native Ramon Gonzales, 30, a freelance baker whose day job is with his family’s criminal-research firm. Gonzales has worked at the University of Arizona bakery and La Baguette Bakery.

• Where you can find him: Downtown in the Fourth Avenue area on Saturday evenings. Eventually he plans to be out Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Also does private parties.

• What he serves: Desserts with a street attitude, like deconstructed fruit pies served like french fries and hand-held cakes presented as sliders. Also classic desserts like whoopie pies and coffee cakes, and comfort sweets like blueberry-cornmeal muffins.

• What you’ll pay: $3 to $5.

• Follow him online: twitter.com/streetdelights or www.facebook.com/pages/Street-Delights/159497510777031

Isabella’s Ice Cream

• Behind the wheel: Former Olympic pole-vaulter Dominic Johnson, 35, and his wife, Kristel, 33, of Sahuarita. The truck is named after the oldest of their two daughters.

• Where you can find them: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Hot Desert Gypsy Folk Festival at 9010 E. 12th St.; July 2-3, Rancho Sahuarita; July 4, Oro Valley Parks & Rec Fourth of July Festival; July 9, Tucson’s Second Saturdays Downtown; Oct. 8, Tucson Beer Festival at Hi Corbett Field. (You can also buy Isabella’s Ice Cream at Renee’s Organic Oven, Maynards Market and Rincon Market.)

• What they serve: Organic ice cream in vanilla, chocolate, “Solar Strawberry,” mint chocolate chip, Brazilian coffee and several other flavors. They also sell sorbets.

• What you’ll pay: $3 for one scoop served in a paper cup with a wooden spoon.

• Follow them online: www.twitter.com/coldcreamygreen, www.facebook.com/IsabellasIceCream, www.isabellasicecream.com

Planet of the Crepes

• Behind the wheel: Culinary Institute of America-trained pastry chef Jessica Kraus, 39, who spent five years with Beyond Bread and was the corporate pastry chef for Market Restaurant Group in Tucson.

• Where you can find her: From 8 a.m. to noon Fridays at the Jesse Owens Farmers Market, 400 S. Sarnoff Drive; 8 a.m. to noon Sundays at the St. Philip’s in the Hills farmers market, 4440 N. Campbell Ave.; and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave.

• What she serves: Sweet and savory crepes including smoked chicken or duck, Manchego cheese and fig jam, Nutella and bananas, strawberry custard, chocolate marshmallow and a breakfast crepe made with eggs.

• What you’ll pay: $5 to $8.

• Follow her online: twitter.com/crepestucson, facebook.com/pages/Planet-of-the-Crepes-Tucson/109266949110510

Jane’s Rolling Wok

• Behind the wheel: China natives Jane Lee, 50, and her husband, John, 56. John, who cooked at a Tucson Chinese restaurant for 16 years before going out on his own with the food cart in 2002, staffs the kitchen. Jane, who also works full time for the U.S. Census Bureau, manages the operation. The couple moved to the United States in the early 1980s and moved to Tucson a couple years later.

• Where you can find them: From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, they park near Raytheon on Palo Verde and West Valencia roads. From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays, they park at the University Physicians Healthcare corporate offices, 2701 E. Elvira Road near Country Club Road; and from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays at Butterfield Business Park on Palo Verde and Irvington roads.

• What they serve: Classic Chinese fare, from Mongolian beef and chicken to sweet-and-sour chicken, several varieties of fried rice and lo mein, and rice bowl entrees.

• What you’ll pay: $6.25 for a single entree, $7.25 for two; $4.75 for a rice bowl with one entree.

• Find them online: janesrollingwok.com

By the numbers


licensed mobile food businesses in Pima County


active full-service food trucks


push cart vendors


mobile vendors specializing in a limited menu

SOURCE: Pima County Health Department

Health inspections

Mobile food sellers are licensed by the Pima County Health Department under the same standards as a fixed restaurant, said Priscilla Urbina, the Pima County Health Department’s sanitarian supervisor, who works with mobile food vendors.

There are some considerations, though: the mobile restaurants don’t have to have a dedicated fresh water supply. Instead, they have to be aligned with a commercial kitchen – it’s called a commissary in street-food vernacular – where they can clean up their trucks and carts and refill their water tanks, Urbina said.

The mobile units also are subject to the same surprise health inspections and Health Department standards as stationary restaurants, she added.