Wainston-Salem, NC: Gourmet to Go

Winston-Salem Journal photo Ben Devar, the owner of Camel City Grill, takes customers orders at a recent food truck event.

By Chris Gigley  |  Journal Now

Winston-Salem Journal photo Ben Devar, the owner of Camel City Grill, takes customers orders at a recent food truck event.
Winston-Salem Journal photo
Ben Devar, the owner of Camel City Grill, takes customers orders at a recent food truck event.

Peanut butter on a burger? That’s the first question many hungry Winston-Salemites ask themselves and each other as they wait in line at the Camel City Grill food truck. They stare a little harder at the menu, but the PBB & J burger is still there.

“That’s one I always recommend to newcomers,” says Ben Devar, who launched the truck earlier this year with business partner Gavin O’Neill. “We always guarantee money back if a customer doesn’t enjoy it.”

So far, no one has asked for a refund. Once they taste the smooth creaminess of the peanut butter, the sweet spiciness of the jelly, and the saltiness of the bacon all in one bite, they forget about the money. Then, says Devar, most of them become regulars, hunting down the truck’s latest location via its Facebook and Twitter pages.

The PBB & J burger represents the potential food trucks offer Winston-Salem foodies. The gourmet food truck movement has already taken hold in big cities across the country. Even Raleigh and Durham have a food-truck scene that has matured to the point where a few trucks are known for one thing. (The Raleigh-based Ice Queen truck, for instance, makes highly sought-after ice cream sandwiches.)

The owners of these and other trucks share a sense of freedom, not only from being their own bosses and literally taking their businesses wherever they need to go, but also from creating new flavor combinations no one has tasted here before.

According to local food-truck supporter Susan Morris, the city is served regularly by four local trucks: Luciano’s Taco Truck, Camel City Grill, Bodacious Burgers, and Mike & Mike’s Italian Ices. In April, Morris helped spearhead Winston’s first big food-truck event, the Burke Street Food Truck Festival, which also drew trucks from Raleigh, Burlington, and Greensboro.

“We expected about 1,000 people for the four-hour event and were overwhelmed with the turnout of about 3,500,” says Morris. “It was a learning experience for sure. We got great feedback from comments on our Facebook page, and we took them to heart.”

Morris says a much larger event is being planned for April 12, 2014, with more trucks and a children’s area. In the meantime, Winston’s small band of food trucks will survive by taking gigs at festivals, fairs, and other events, where they often get offers to cater private parties and events. When they aren’t catering or working events, they stake out turf wherever they can find it and post their locations on social media.

Morris says Luciano’s Taco Truck, for instance, has been setting up in the Polo Road/Wake Forest area for a few years. Three to four trucks always work Food Truck Saturdays at Coffee Park, which is basically the lot surrounding the Krankies Airstream at Reynolda Road. That started in July.

“We’ve battled rain, wind storms, heat, and all the other stuff associated with outdoor events,” says Tommy Priest, owner of Krankies Airstream and Coffee Park (and an avid supporter of food trucks). “But it’s definitely been well-received.”

Priest says a recent weekend drew at least 150 people who hung out to enjoy their food at Coffee Park. But the total number of diners was much higher than that. “It’s hard to tell the total number,” says Priest. “A lot of people file in and out quickly.”

They all come for the unique food. Mike & Mike’s Italian Ices serve the same kind of Italian ices found in New York City, with unique flavors and a velvety texture that’s surprising to anyone who’s used to the rock-hard stuff sold in grocery stores.

Food-truck fans also know they can get an excellent slider with the standard lettuce, tomato, cheese, and onion from the Bodacious Burgers truck. But owner Mike Allred says most of his customers go for the unconventional Black and Blue burger, a slider topped with blue cheese, an onion ring, and bourbon barbecue sauce. Or, if they’re in the mood for chicken, they go for the Buffalo Chicken slider.

Unfortunately, Coffee Park is one of the few steady spots in Winston-Salem for food trucks. Devar says he got the inspiration to start Camel City Grill after visiting Portland, Oregon, where food trucks gathered every day along a block near the city center to serve the lunch crowd. He can’t do that here, where laws prohibit food trucks from parking in public lots and spaces.

“I’d say the closest we can get to downtown now is the Krankies parking lot on Third Street,” he says.

If lawmakers try a bite of that PBB & J burger, however, those stringent laws could all change. Until then, we’ll all have to follow Devar, Allred, and the rest of Winston’s food truckers on Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare to find out where they’ll be serving up some of the most creative food in the city.