Friday, April 29, 2011

Food Trucks: An American Tradition

On an uncharacteristically balmy Wednesday night in April, I had the pleasure of listening to and participating in a conversation about one of the biggest US food movements right now: Food Trucks. Heather Shouse's new book Food Trucks explores the ever-expanding patchwork of mobile kitchens in America. Complete with recipes, drool-worthy photography, and maps to ignite wanderlust in even native Americans the book takes its reader on a journey through  the wheeled fabric of food carts and trucks. Shouse did extensive research in each featured city and chose the very best vendors by region.

To promote the book, released just last week, Shouse is back on the road travelling to the cities she wrote about. At each stop she has invited a few of the food trucks and vendors to come serve and speak with her on a panel about the book and the process of starting and running a food truck/cart business. Fortunately for me, one of her stops was New York! 

After work I headed down to The Strand Bookstore for the event. Scheduled to begin at 6:30, I got there on time to have my first sweet from The Treats Truck (yes, the one on the Blackberry commercials!). Kim Ima, owner of The Treats Truck was outside serving up samples of some customer's favorite treats- I got to try to the Mexican Hot Chocolate brownie and bought an oatmeal chocolate chip. The Bian Dang Truck (Taiwanese for "lunch box," formerly NYC Cravings) was also outside serving up savory goodies like dumplings and fried chicken. 

Inside, the small space reserved for the event was nearly filled up. Many stood to hear the discussion and learn what happens behind the window of a food truck in New York City. To start the discussion a Strand employee gave an introduction to the book and Shouse picked up with introductions of the three panel guests: Doug Quint of The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, Kim Ima of The Treats Truck (thanks for the samples!), and the Dosaman himself, Thiru Kumar, of N.Y. Dosas cart
Heater Shouse, Doug Quint, Thiru Kumar, Kim Ima
Shouse gave the audience a little insight into her background. She is a food writer who has worked for Food & Wine Magazine, Time Out Chicago, and on Top Chef Season 1 winner Stephanie Izard's book (due out this fall). She loves to eat, loves to write and wrote the proposal for the Food Trucks book and got it picked up by 10 Speed Press. She spent 2010 travelling the country, sampling from all the vendors, and doing all the delicious research to write the book. 

The discussion was about food trucks overall, but primarily about what it takes to have a food truck or cart in New York City. Right off the bat the main difficulty with having one in NYC is getting the permit-- and currently there are 2500 permits out and a freeze so no more can be issued. Compare that to the 7000 and growing number of permits in Los Angeles, CA and you can see how challenging it is to get started in NYC. In addition to LA, Portland, OR was brought up several times as a great place to have a food cart. Apparently Thiru gets requests to go to PDX all the time because of his passionately vegan fare

One of the great things about food trucks, as Shouse discussed at the event and in the introduction to her book, is that the very beauty of them is that you don't have to have the budget of a restaurateur to start making food for customers. A really sketchy looking mobile kitchen can end up turning out some of the best food you will ever have! With our country's ever-growing obsession with anything epicurean, finding a fun, fast and delicious way to feed people couldn't have come at a better time. From 2008 to the present people have really started to look for greater bang for their buck; food trucks have been a resounding answer to that demand. With upkeep costs being limited to whats on the truck or cart, permits and parking, and maybe rent for the vehicle, the cooks, chefs and bakers have the opportunity to keep prices low and use high quality ingredients to create delectable to-go meals and snacks.

After the introductions we got a little background about how each of the panelists got into the food truck scene:

Doug Quint describes his idea for The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck (BGIC) as "an absurdist fantasy." A female Facebook friend posted a request for people who wanted to drive ice cream trucks in the summertime, hoping she'd hear back from a lot of sexy girlfriends to serve up their treats in low cut tops, but instead she heard back from Doug! Doug and his life/business partner Bryan had the idea to run their Mister Softee truck, The Big Gay Ice Cream truck, as a fun summer job and it took off from there. When asked how people respond to his truck he said its pretty much all positive. Occasionally he gets a kid who will go "Yo, you gay?" to which Doug replies "Yeah I am! Are you?" And that usually quiets them down! I think I have been craving a Salty Pimp for about a full year now, which only got worse when I saw him actually MAKE it on United Tastes of America with Jeffrey Saad. Just imagine caramel injected into vanilla softserve, dipped in salt, dipped in chocolate. Yes please. Doug even sources some of his ingredients from Kim's Treats Truck!
Watch a video of Doug on The Rachel Ray Show: Here

Thiru Kumar was born a Sri Lankan Hindu and has been vegetarian or vegan all his life. When he came to New York he realized there were not a lot of great options for eating out vegetarian and vegan. He decided to change that and started the N.Y. Dosas cart. A dosa is a south Indian savory crepe made with rice and lentils and stuffed full of vegetables. Thiru serves his with a coconut chutney and a little soup/stew called sambaar. Wanting to make vegan healthy, ensuring that when people came to him they would be getting the nutrients they need, Thiru has switched from being just vegetarian to totally vegan. Everything is under $6, he hasn't change the prices since he started a few years ago, and Thiru never turns anyone away who can't pay-- as he says "they always come back!" A lot of the N.Y. Dosas customers are NYU students from around the neighborhood. Since Thiru has a Parks Permit he doesn't go to different locations and you can find him in Washington Square Park. 

Kim Ima had this reoccurring idea that she would share with people that always excited her, a sort of 'wouldn't it be great to have a truck with treats on it and drive it around the city selling cookies, I could call it The Treats Truck!' One day she decided to make that a reality and bought a food truck on eBay which she named "Sugar" and started the business. She does all of the baking in a Red Hook bakery and parks in various spots across the city. The Treats Truck is one of the exceptions in Shouse's book. On page 155 she explains: "Okay, so I know I said I wasn't going to include anyone in this book that doesn't actually cook on his or her truck, but rules were made to be broken." Two NYC trucks made that exception, The Treats Truck and Rickshaw Dumpling.
Unlike BGIC and the Dosas cart, Kim has a handful of favorite spots she visits on a regular schedule throughout the city. She calls it her Soduku, a puzzle of what streets she's allowed on by the Health Department, where shes permitted to park, and where she gets customers coming out to eat. Her schedule can be found: Here

There was a lot of discussion on the ins and outs of getting permits, the joy in customers faces, and the satisfaction the vendors have after a day of work. Here are the highlights of the rest of the discussion: 

>> Some trucks/carts in Portland, OR allow you to eat inside. Thiru called these places "VIP."

>> In Chicago food trucks/carts are currently very sanitary-- no food can be cooked on the truck and everything must be packaged and labeled as if it were bought pre-made in a grocery store. Chicagoans have started organizing to get cooking trucks and carts legalized! 

>> In Los Angeles all trucks must have a written bathroom permit/agreement with an adjacent business for their employees to use during their work shift. No rule about this in NYC-- Thiru recommends yoga practice to strengthen your... abilities. 

>> The smallest city Shouse visited was Marfa, Texas. A small community 8-hours outside of Austin with one food truck, the Food Shark.

Food Truck and Cart on the way home
Doug had announced this event on the BGIC Facebook Page and I am so glad he did! When I was walking back up Broadway heading home I passed 3 food carts and a truck and saw them with a new pair of eyes. There is a lot behind that street food you love, appreciate the person who is serving it up! 

I can not wait to dig deeper into Shouse's book and start cooking some of the recipes-- very excited for the Arepas de Queso (page 154), Blackberry Lavender Ice Pops (page 96), and Potato Champion Poutine (page 73). Even from browsing through the pages, it is clearly evident that food trucks are an American treasure. Each town or city has its own unique tastes and flavors and brings their own spin on the idea  to the table. In a country as vast and diverse as the USA there is so much that we have in common but never without that regional influence and local flair. Next time you're in a book store be sure to check out Food Trucks, I guarantee one of the irresistible photos will have you looking for your nearest vehicular culinary fix! 


Usually parked on north-west edge of Union Square. Season starts this Tuesday, May 3!
Check their Twitter for updates: @biggayicecream

N.Y. Dosas 
Thiru is stationed at the South side of Washington Square at W. 4th and Sullivan
He doesn't have a website but you can call to check for hours: 917-710-2092
Email: nydosas[at]

See their schedule: Here
Or on Twitter: @TheTreatsTruck


Additional resources:

NY Street Food: A blog about NYC's street food scene, also does some travelling spots, was recently in California. Twitter: @nystfood

The Glutster: LA-centric blog about food who knows his trucks and carts. Shouse called him "an aspiring Jonathan Gold." Twitter: @theglutster

Shanghai Stainless: Looking to design your own food truck or cart? Kim recommends talking to Ernie Wong at Shanghai Stainless. He works with a lot of the trucks and carts in NYC and sees them evolve with the regulation.


Have you visited any of these NYC trucks? Do you have other favorites? 

Are there Food Trucks and Carts where you live? 
What are your favorite ones? 
What do they serve? Do they use Twitter?

Did anyone join Twitter to start following Food Trucks? 

Join the conversation! 
Leave your comments below! 


Hali Bey said...

Great post. Makes me wish there was a more vibrant food truck culture in Boston. We'll have to see, I'm doing research on Sunday.

The Culinary Librarian said...

Thanks Hali! Please report back on any Bostonian findings!