Meals on Wheels: The Food Truck Phenomenon Sweeps South Florida
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It all starts with a Twitter message: "Crown Liquors. 17th and Cordova today. 11:30 till 3. Ft Lauderdale!"
And just like that, some random lot in front of a liquor store is transformed into a dining destination by Latin Burger and Taco, one of South Florida's new-school food trucks.
By 11:30 a.m., five or six people are waiting in their cars for the truck to show. Thirty minutes later, the slick black vehicle finally arrives. It looks nothing like the silver "roach coaches" people used to associate with street food. Pink flames rise up its sides. A red logo written in Old English lettering reads "Latin Burger and Taco," with a silhouette of a long-horned bull in the middle. It looks straight out of an episode of Miami Ink.
Fifteen minutes later, the number of people in the lot has ballooned to two dozen. Each has an iPhone clenched tightly in his or her hands. There are businessmen in starched Oxfords, chatty nurses from nearby Broward Medical Center, and some solo diners. On the menu today is the truck's signature dish: an outrageous, two-patty burger made with chorizo sausage and two types of ground beef, dubbed the "Macho." There are also tacos with mole sauce, chicken sandwiches smothered in red-pepper mayo, and fries caked in zesty adobo seasoning.
A guy with a fuzzy mop of hair and a big smile pokes his head out of the service window. "Number 91," he calls to the crowd, holding a white bag aloft.
Number 91, a guy with a thin yellow tie and a green buttoned-down shirt, scurries up to the counter and grabs the bag. Behind him trails a tendril of paprika- and beef-scented perfume. It wafts into the quivering nostrils of the 30 or so people in line. Some of them have been waiting as long as an hour now. This, just to sample burgers made in the back of a converted laundry truck.
In the past few months, food trucks making highly specialized, gourmet street food have become big news in South Florida. These trucks, wrapped in colorful artwork, are manned mostly by young, hip chefs. Using social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, they speak directly to a dedicated and ravenous fan base that's willing to travel in search of a killer meal.
What began as a DIY movement on the streets of Los Angeles, Austin, and New York has become a national phenomenon.
Street food has always been a big deal in foodcentric circles. On messageboards of websites like Chowhound and Urban Spoon, hungry fans have long been tracking down authentic taco trucks and hot dog carts with fervor. But it wasn't until one truck in particular popped up that this new wave of mobile eats came out of the alleyways and into the national spotlight.
Manned by Roy Choi (a graduate of the esteemed Culinary Institute of America), Los Angeles' Kogi BBQ truck earned big-time popularity for upturning the dining scene with food that melded five-star technique with a DIY ethos. What made the formula even more interesting is how committed Choi was to showcasing the oft-overlooked foodways of groups like Los Angeles' Latin and Korean populations. Then a funny thing happened. All of a sudden, publications like Newsweek and Bon Apetit started covering food trucks in a manner previously reserved for established restaurants. And in June, the kicker: Food & Wine named Choi among its "Best New Chefs in America." Suddenly, this whole food truck "trend" had earned an air of legitimacy. These days, Kogi BBQ operates four trucks in and around Los Angeles and has a staggering 50,000 Twitter fans.
To the thousands of budding young chefs it inspired, Kogi's success makes owning your own food truck seem like the perfect opportunity to combine unmitigated creativity with the open road. The food these trucks create often combines the best of current trends. They use local and organic ingredients and combine the flavors of upscale dining and down-home comfort food in creative ways. Add to that the fact that the freewheeling lifestyle has been glamorously portrayed on the Food Network and in reality programs and even established chefs who are used to being hemmed in by an actual restaurant are looking to trucks as a way to practice a sort of guerrilla cookery.
One such chef, Michael Santacroce, is in line at Latin Burger. He wears short-cropped gray hair, a T-shirt and shorts, and a wispy gray soul patch protruding from his lower lip. As executive chef at Fort Lauderdale's Bahia Mar resort, Santacroce commands a sprawling kitchen that does everything from thousand-person parties to weddings. Still, he says, owning his own food truck is his dream job.
"There's a sense of free spirit involved that's really exciting," says Santacroce, a 30-year veteran of the restaurant industry. "You get to go wherever you want and make whatever kind of food you want.
"Plus," he says motioning to the line of customers waiting in front of Latin Burger, "look at all the buzz it's creating."
Latin Burger was one of the first trucks on the scene when the craze began sweeping South Florida in late 2009. Backed by Food Network star Ingrid Hoffman, the truck combining street food favorites with Latin fusion was instantly popular. Now, Latin Burger and Taco has nearly 3,000 followers on Twitter. Each time it Tweets a new location, its fans come running in droves.
Though restaurants and clubs often use Twitter to market themselves too, that cult-like following seems to be unique to food trucks. Santacroce, for example, says he shows up to Latin Burger every time it comes to Fort Lauderdale. He explains his fandom simply: "You get a feeling of attachment following a food truck that you don't have with restaurants. You really want to see them succeed."
He isn't the only one. An entire online community has sprung up to support the blossoming South Florida food truck scene. At the center of it is Sef Gonzalez, better-known as the Burger Beast. On his eponymous website, the Beast tracks the location of trucks via Twitter and reviews them. His site has even gone meta: He's hosted street food fairs, like the one he assembled at September's Fall for the Arts Festival in Miami, and has helped bring food trucks together at venues like the Miami Street Food Court, a weekly gathering of vendors held at 65th Avenue and Bird Road in Miami.
For Gonzalez, the feeling of being a part of a vibrant scene is a big factor in the popularity of these trucks. But it's also about the food itself. "If you go to a restaurant, the menu will probably have 30 to 40 dishes, but how many are really exceptional?" he asks. "These trucks have narrowed their focus down to one or just a few dishes, so what they make tends to be really, really good."
Good food is exactly what drew Aaron Byers into the food truck business.
Byers, a 33-year-old guy with a black baseball cap and a distinctive surfer drawl, operates Nacho Bizness, a ten-by-ten-foot aluminum trailer based in Fort Lauderdale that serves international takes on tacos and burritos. He says of all the best food he's tried, much of it has come from underground eateries like food trucks and taco shops. "It's like walking down some Tijuana alleyway and seeing a roll-up window with a little old lady inside, and all she's doing is shaving pork and making carnitas all day," says Byers. "You take one look and know it's going to be good."
Before opening Nacho Bizness in June, Byers worked as a mate aboard luxury yachts. The luxurious career afforded him plenty of opportunity to travel around the world and do his favorite thing: eat. But even as he traveled, his mind always returned to a running joke he had with his brother, Jay. "We always talked about one day grabbing our surfboards and setting up a taco stand on the beach somewhere," he says. "We wanted to get out of the rat race."
It wasn't until 2009, when Byers was scheduled to make a yacht delivery from San Francisco to Cabo San Lucas, that he decided to make their plan a reality. During his journey, he docked the boat and stopped at nearly every notable taco joint along the West Coast. He dubbed it research for his own taco operation. Nacho Bizness was born.
A fully-equipped food truck with ovens, fryers, fridges, sinks, and prep stations can cost as much as $75,000. Byers had some cash saved up, but instead of plunking that much down, he found an old-school aluminum trailer on eBay and dressed it up with a bright-blue sign he made himself.
On most days, he parks it in a little nook behind the Maritime Professional Training School in Fort Lauderdale. Its aluminum frame rocks back and forth as Byers cooks breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the mostly student crowd that gathers there. His menu, inspired by his years of traveling, takes creative license with Mexican street food. He fills pliant tortillas (bought daily from local eatery Tortilleria Mexicana) with Korean-style pulled-pork tacos with cucumber or fresh grilled mahi-mahi with pineapple slaw. Take a $10 bill to Nacho Bizness and you can buy enough food to be burstingly full.
The only problem? Byers' idea for a freewheeling lifestyle turned out to be hard work. He runs Nacho Bizness from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. six days per week. "I didn't want to work for the man, but now I am the man," Byers jokes. "When I started this, I never thought I'd be waking up at 6 a.m."
Echoing that sentiment is Troy Thomas, a Delray Beach resident who operates food truck the Rolling Stove. Thomas, a short, athletic guy with a seemingly permanent 5 o'clock shadow, ran two restaurants in his native Chicago before opening his first food truck. But it's the truck, he says, that's been the most work.
"When I first started doing this, I thought, 'Not a chance — this isn't going to work,'" Thomas says. "There were times I felt under so much pressure, I wanted to cry. But I talked to other people who run trucks, and they all thought the same. It's a 24/7 job."
Thomas' Rolling Stove was one of the first of this new wave of food trucks to hit Palm Beach County and so benefited from a huge amount of buzz via Twitter and Facebook. "The food I cook is stuff I've been making for a long time, the way I think it tastes best," he says.
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.
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