In Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes From the Best Kitchens on Wheels, author Heather Shouse visits more than 100 food trucks across the country (including South Florida) and handpicks recipes from some of the tastiest trucks in the roadside business. Shouse talks to Clean Plate Charlie about everything from how the food truck's image has risen from dingy pushcart operation to gleaming Airstream trailer serving up everything from Vietnamese tacos to escargots puffs; how the lure of the four-wheeled food business attracts a certain, rebellious personality type; and the odd pairing of Miami's barbecue pits in strip-club parking lots. Read on...
Clean Plate Charlie: This book comes out at a perfect time as the food cart's popularity is exploding. How do you explain the food cart's transition from NYC dirty water dogs and pretzel carts to something that can be a foodie's road trip destination?
Heather Shouse: I think it was probably born out of economic necessity. You have what used to be looked at as a cheap start-up primarily for members of the immigrant communities who cater to ex-pats from their homeland and maybe even make a little bit of a living cooking the dishes they know how to cook.
But now I think it's a couple of things -- I think Americans are getting more adventurous in the foods that they're eating. They're becoming well-traveled, so they are more willing to try everything from Middle Eastern food from a food truck in Midtown Manhattan or shrimp trucks in Hawaii. So that's one thing, and then it's really economic necessity. You have a lot of really talented young chefs who in the boom of restaurants ten to 15 years ago, they would've opened a restaurant, but they can't really get funding right now.
It's really tough to get economic support right now to open a restaurant. So it takes $300,000 to a million dollars to open a restaurant. To get their food out there and start building a name for themselves and start building some hype and do some pretty creative stuff with a food truck, it's almost like an incubator for their restaurant. They will meet investors or at least get some good press. I think it's a combination of adventurous palates and economic necessity.
How did the book come to be?
I put it together after doing some traveling. I went to China with my parents, ate some street food, and was really excited by it.
So I came back to the States and started looking for local examples of street food. I went to Portland and was literally blown away by the diversity of food. I did more internet research and put together a rough outline proposal and sold the book. It's been about a year in total of traveling to different places and putting it all together.
How did you select the carts?
I didn't want to just retell the stories that were already being told in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times because I felt everyone was covering food trucks while I was writing the book, so I knew it was good timing, but I didn't want to cover just the high-end gourmet trucks and the trend of it but I wanted to get a broader range.
So I purposefully sought out old-school carts and trucks that had been at it for years and tried to find out what the stories were behind them and just how they managed to survive for so long. I also wanted the food to be delicious so they could have a great story to tell or they could be an iconic truck that had been there for 20 years, but if the food wasn't delicious, I didn't want to include it in the book.
I would get to a city and hit as many as I could and then come back and try the ones I wanted to include again and narrow it down from there.
And you urge readers not to be lured to every Airstream trailer out there because, like you say, even trained chefs who have mastered Twitter can still turn out disastrous food. What were some of the cautionary tales along the way?
Yeah, because that was the case. There were some people that I neglected to mention because I didn't want to embarrass them, but there are a lot of high-end or corporate-backed, chef-driven trucks where they went out and spent $100,000 on a gourmet kitchen on wheels and the food I had from a tiny little cart under the train in Jackson Height Queens by this 68-year-old Colombian lady was definitely better, so I wanted to show people that. Ultimately I want people to use the book as a travel guide and use it to look up where the best places are.
As a food writer, so much of it is about the dining "experience." Did you ever miss the sit-down experience?
No, you know, I like it. There is a little bit of overlap in the food-truck world where they've taken food carts and created a dining experience around them. I was in Portland, and they have set up these little pods where they set up picnic tables and heat lamps and string Christmas lights and music. Austin does this too. It's a little more of a family-friendly, community thing.
It's a really good example of how you can be out in the open air and eat at mobile food vendors and still have the comforts of a dining in experience with your friends and you're not trying to balance with a drink in one hand and the food in the other, so that was cool. But it is sometimes out of necessity that you just grab your food and go.
Philly is a great example of that and how they set up around college campuses and the main subway station. There were times when I was researching when I'd grab a pepper-and-egg sandwich from a truck where they make it fresh on the griddle and wrap it up in paper and you move on. I mean, it's not really an experience where at 8 o'clock in the morning you want to stand and chitchat with the person in line with you. Sometimes you're just kind of getting it and taking it as cheap fuel.
You share personal stories about each food-truck owner, and for many of them, the idea of a food cart really translated to a certain freedom and independence. Whether it was Fresh Local in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where for the owner, it was about growing her own food and raising chickens to divorcing her husband, or if it was others like the Miami truck owner that wished he had been fired from his day job years before he was so he could've pursued his dream earlier.
What is it about food served on the open road that resonates with a certain personality type?
I think there is an independent spirit to it. I think the idea of being your own boss is pretty awesome. I mean, that's what I do, and that's why I intended to write books, because I wanted the freedom. As you mentioned, in those people's stories -- it's kind of up to you if you want to open that day or you don't.
Your revenue depends on how much food you buy and what food you make out of those ingredients and how well you market yourself and what kind of a following you can build. The Chef Shack in Minneapolis is a really great example of using a food truck to build a career around your life rather than shaping your life around a career.
They work really, really hard for seven months, but then they live in Minneapolis with horrible winters and no one is going to stand outside in 10 degrees and snow to get food from a truck, and so they close in November, and into March, they live in Southeast Asia and live on roughly $20 a day with friends there.
They've done it every year since they opened their truck. And in another business model, that wouldn't necessarily work. You couldn't go to your executive chef and say, "OK, guys, we're going to close down for five months," but with this truck, they have a friend who lets them park it in their backyard.
It definitely draws a certain type and renegade spirit to it because you are out in the elements and it is really tough, but people get excited when they see food trucks now because they are starting to see more than the old-school roach coaches that our parents and grandparents knew.
You also touch on the financial aspect. Do you think the food cart trend has kind of leveled the playing field for everyone?
Well, I don't think it is equal in any way. There is still a stigma. There are very few truck chefs who are respected and thought of in the same caliber as whatever hot new chef is out there. This year is the first year a truck chef won Food and Wine's Best New Chef.
You have a chef like Mike Sheerin of Blackbird in Chicago who is in a bazillion-dollar restaurant and doing really elevated food at $100 a head for dinner, and he makes really amazing food and blows people away, but then you have Roy Choi who makes tacos out of a truck, and he has an intense amount of street cred. So their fans are different.
I think there is always going to be stigma, but I do think that just being able to show that there is a similar level of commitment, passion, and creativity to what they both do I think is helping to level the playing field, especially among the chefs.
What type of foods best translate to "to go" eats?
Portable is key because nobody really wants to get out a plastic fork and knife. This is why the tacos took off so quick as a vehicle for other types of cuisine. It's like everyone eats tacos, so here's this vehicle, the tortilla -- what else can we put in it? And now they're making Indian tacos and Thai tacos and Vietnamese tacos. So portability is definitely the key.
And every community has its portable food, so we have burgers, burritos, and spring rolls, so that's really key. If people try to serve really dressy food, it doesn't work. For the food that translated really well I'd say was French food. Spencer's On the Go in San Francisco is pretty gourmet, and they have access to fresh produce all year 'round, so the idea that a guy can put a snail on a stick and wrap it in puff pastry, put a bunch of garlic powder on it, and sell it out of a truck... I was a little skeptical about that one. I mean, escargots puffs? They're huge! He's on the Food Network's the Great Food Truck Race. So it just goes to show you being clever and unique and different will get you pretty far.
As far as food carts go, South Florida may be a little behind. In your travels here, you mentioned it being more of a walk-up window experience. Why do you think that is?
Yeah, a lot of them opened as I was turning the book in. Most of the research I did for that area pointed me to all of these barbecue trucks that hit all of the strip clubs down there.
It's a weird combination, but it's very Florida...
Yeah, it seemed really strange, a weird connection of this late-night thing. I didn't see a lot of the newfangled kind of Gastro-pod types that you see now. There are a few more that have opened since, so I think it's a matter of time.
I think it's a sign that this is a viable business model, and [as] more cities get up to speed, they're going to see it is a great way to grow local economy and encourage entrepreneurship. I think Miami being so closely related to Cuban culture, it's perfect food for food trucks.
Marcelo's Ceviche Truck -- that's a really good example of something you wouldn't think to eat off of a truck. It's in a cup with a spoon, but it is unbelievably delicious and perfectly portable. I think there are a lot of foods that would play really well in Miami if the city keeps encouraging the growth there.
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What set Miami food apart from other cities on your trip?
The weather is perfect for it. The weather is huge in encouraging a food-truck scene; that's why L.A. is so big on food trucks. I think the weather in Miami is something that would be really helpful to have a year-round business model. It's a really sustainable business model here, whereas in other cities where it gets too cold, it's harder.