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That food is also wildly indulgent: He sources beef for his thick, juicy burgers from K&G meats (the same folks who supply Charm City Burgers). But then grinds his own bacon (a pound for every five pounds of beef) and adds it to the mix. His sloppy jerk sandwiches, made with his own homemade spice blend, are multilayer marvels built with made-from-scratch jalapeño jelly and plenty of homemade Wisconsin cheese sauce scooped from a bubbling crock pot by his prep station.
"Everything is better with cheese," he says with a warm smile that's evocative of his Midwestern past.
Being one of the first on the scene was a blessing for Thomas' colorful truck, decorated from fender to roof in a vinyl wrap made to look like a fiery stove. But it also made him a sort of test subject to the growing pains of the food truck scene. The biggest problem, he says, stems from finding places to park and serve. Most cities in South Florida have specific rules about where and when trucks can park on their streets. Delray Beach, for example, requires trucks to stay in designated areas around the city. In Miami, trucks can be parked on the street only as long as there are customers lined up to order.
These days, Thomas spends most of his time at Bedner's Farm Fresh Market in far western Boynton Beach. On weekends, that costs him $50 per day. Plus, the spot comes with some hefty competition: a huge barbecue trailer called Porky & Beth's BBQ that churns out slow-cooked, smoky meat for the market's weekend shoppers.
Thomas says business has been up and down at Bedner's. On a recent Saturday, the soft-spoken owner played host to Food Network, which was there shooting the Rolling Stove for an upcoming series on food trucks tentatively titled Street Eats. "The turnout was insane," says Thomas. "I did over $1,300 in business just that day."
Other times, however, business at the market is slow. And even on those days, Porky & Beth's is pulling in easily twice the business that the Rolling Stove is. Still, Thomas isn't quick to change locations. "The grass isn't always greener elsewhere," he says. "If you change spots and it doesn't work out, you have to run back to your original spot with your tail between your legs."
Dim Ssäm á GoGo is one such truck that fully embraces the gas station motif of street food's past. Its side is decorated with graffiti-like imagery of a pig, and the words "Munch and move on." It's a motto that owner Richard Hales fully embraces. "There's no frills here, just food," he says.
The truck's Asian-inspired menu is creative and broad, leveraging flavors from Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand along with French technique that Hales learned while training in the kitchen of New York chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Everything is made from scratch, and nearly as much is local or organic. Hales makes his own sauces, pickles his own vegetables, and even ferments his own kimchi. Still, he keeps prices reasonable and ticket times low thanks to his partial-service setup.
Hales launched his truck as a way to expand on his Miami Beach restaurant, Sakaya Kitchen. He's currently manning the truck himself, along with a team of three chefs. The premise is simple: He takes the sort of inspired, genre-bending Asian food he makes in his restaurant and gives it a mobile theme. That means tacos made with Korean-marinated short ribs and Chinese sweet buns filled with slow-roasted pork and cucumber.
On one cold night in Coral Gables, Dim Ssäm á GoGo is parked at the Westar station on Red Road. Even in this tony section of the Gables, the truck is busy. Indie tunes blare from a set of speakers affixed to the side of the vehicle. Customers order from the raised window, then grab their food and bring it over to the stone benches on the other side of the gas station lot to eat. Most popular are the "cheesed-up, spicy tater tots" — a white paper tray filled with gently spiced puffs of fried potato, topped with bits of cheddar cheese and lots of spicy ssamjang sauce that Hales makes with Korean chili paste. They cost $3 an order.
One woman sporting a black sweater and a clubby-looking haircut marvels over a pair of egg rolls stuffed with kimchi. There's even a pulled-pork sandwich, this one flavored with Korean chili paste and napped with kimchi slaw, nestled into a soft potato roll.
"The fact that people are eating at food trucks shows the food scene is moving in the right direction," he says from the high window of his truck.
Hales may be right. Eating off disposable plates on a bench outside of a gas station may not be everyone's idea of fine dining — especially when you consider the fluffy, ostentatious restaurants that South Florida has long been known for. Time will tell if the food truck trend can outlast more raging hot summers, another hurricane season, and the relatively short attention spans of its coveted Twitter-happy customer base. But it's hard to deny the power of this democratic picture: As millions of Americans sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, people all over South Florida are eating gourmet street food in gas station parking lots.