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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.