While the truck might be a vehicle for great food, it's certainly no guarantee. So how do you pick a winner?
1. Check for safety.
Interviews with officials from health departments covering Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., found that the numbers of complaints and citations were not necessarily greater for food trucks than for traditional restaurants—and in some cases, they were fewer. The comparison is tough to make anyway, since restaurants have more to inspect (from equipment to plumbing), and to potentially, flub.
While cooking in an outdoor food truck in the heat of the summer may seem sketchy, that doesn't necessarily mean food isn't being handled at the right temperatures. "When you're in the (restaurant) kitchen in the middle of the summer, it's hot there too," says Robert Sudler, program manager for the D.C. Department of Health's Food Safety and Hygiene Inspection Services Division. Still, "a number of people" are operating illegal mobile food units—from the back of a pick-up truck or station wagon, says Phil Wyman, health and environmental investigator for public health in Seattle's King County, which publishes its inspection results online.
Spot-check your food-truck window to verify it has been licensed by the local health department. And then use your common sense. You should see that they're not touching ready-to-eat food with their bare hands," Wyman says. "If they're making a sandwich, they should be wearing gloves" or using tongs to serve salad."If you're ordering hot food, it really should be piping hot when it comes off the window to you." Terri Williams, assistant director of environmental health at the Los Angeles County Department of Pubilc Health, echoes the sentiment: "You go to a truck, and somebody's hair is pinned and back, and they have gloves on their hands, and the place is nice and clean—I'd be a lot more trusting of that place."
2. Seek passion.
Yes, we're still talking about food. Since food trucks have become so popular, how do you size up a worthy purveyor?
Many of them are often deeply invested in and "very passionate about the foods they are producing," Higar says. Given the interpersonal interaction with the consumer, "the last thing they want to do is produce an inferior product." As Choi puts it, "you have basically one shot at earning the person's trust and capturing their imagination...that's street food in a nutshell—capturing magic in one bite."
Choi's advice for finding the truly passionate food truckers? Focus on the food. "If the truck is overfocused on the gimmicks and the bells and whistles, the food probably tastes like shit, because they spent too much energy on things that aren't important," he says. "Are the people's heads down, working hard? Are they quiet? Are they focused? Is it clean? Does it look like they really, really care about the food? Do they look like they are actually paying attention, rather than trying to look for attention? Then, if you find that, it doesn't matter whether it's a taco truck or a fancy burger truck," he says. "The food will hopefully taste like the attention of the person making it."
3. Look, listen, smell...and leap!
Pick a good food truck the same way you'd select a great restaurant—by hearing about if from friends or reading reviews, Zagat says. Kady suggests a smell test. "If you don't like the smell, I would be super surprised if you liked the food." A long line is another good indicator, she adds. Then, see if you fancy the menu, she says. Food trucks are "such a fun way to experiment," as they often bring unusual and inexpensive cuisine to your curb. Kady also recommends food-truck hopping on those occasions when food trucks congregate. "They end up being more or less the cream of the crop," and provide "a really good sampling."