The New Meals on Wheels
By Kathy A. McDonald
The new Meals On Wheels! These days, an increasing number of in-the-know foodies are eating on the street. Discerning diners in many cities are frequenting an alternative kind of eatery: a mobile food truck or cart that serves up delicious, artisan-crafted food. These ambitious culinary-outlets-on-wheels offer street food you’d expect but also specialize in menu items once found only in fine dining restaurants, such as creme brulee, wood-fired pizza and ethnic specialties like Korean barbecue and Japanese sushi.
Mobile eats can be found on city streets from New York to Milwaukee to Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and points in between. The common denominator is a pedestrian-friendly location that attracts young city dwellers and office workers, as well as tech-savvy tourists who find the trucks through social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare. Check out one of these during your next travel.
The Epicenter of On-the-go Eats: Portland
Brett Burmeister, managing editor of Foodcartsportland.com, tracks Portland’s approximately 450 mobile eateries. He says the scene “exploded” in 2009 and continues to grow.
What sets Portland apart is the establishment of 10 private lots, or “pods,” (and more in development) that are permanent homes for the micro-stands, carts, trailers and trucks. Choices range from Czech-style schnitzel sandwiches at Tabor to bi bim bop (Korean-style vegetables and rice with fried egg) at Number 1 Bento cart to wood-fired pizza at Give Pizza a Chance. Six dollars yields a hearty serving at most carts.
Mobile Cart Credo: Specialize
Portland’s carts have increasingly moved toward artisanal ingredients, sourced from local producers. The trend, says Burmeister, is to pick a single item and do it very well — such as the stuffed waffle sandwiches from Flavour Spot.
Likewise, in Los Angeles, themed trucks include The Frysmith, which features french fries topped with add-ons like beef or vegan chili, and the Grilled Cheese Truck, where the offerings include an elegant caprese melt — mozzarella, tomato and basil — as well as a dessert melt of banana puree, Nutella and marshmallow.
The Sprinklesmobile typically has seven varieties of the cupcake-only bakery’s celebrated candy-dot crowned confections. “I’ve had people at intersections roll down their window and try to buy out of the van while I was stopped,” says Sprinkles’ founder Charles Nelson.
Mapping the Trend
Most food trucks announce their location via the Internet and sites that link to cell phones and PDAs. As Nelson explains, with more than 100,000 Facebook fans and 20,000 Twitter followers, Sprinklesmobile can instantly communicate its whereabouts to a huge audience. New York’s Calexico cart asks fans for feedback on new menu items, like the barbecue sparerib special that received instant and resoundingly positive reviews via Twitter.
A free iPhone application called StreetEats allows users to find trucks in four cities, and many foodies keep Twitter lists, like @foodtruckdaily, of their favorites. Often there will be 100 people waiting in line at a location in expectation of the truck’s arrival, announced via tweet. And these days, it seems no major arts event, like the Sundance Film Festival in Utah or the Soap Box Derby in Los Angeles, is complete without a food truck making the scene.
And unlike old-school exhaust-emitting catering trucks, many of the new breed are eco-friendly, fueled by biodiesel or housed in zero-emission plug-in trucks. Recyclable plates and utensils are common, and The Taco Truck in Hoboken, N.J., even has an onboard composting system.
Time to hit the street for some eats.
Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer who
specializes in the intersection of Hollywood, culture and lifestyle. She
regularly contributes to the
Los Angeles Times and
Variety, among other