These days, a date who suggests cuisine that's at least mildly exotic—Thai for a safe standby, Burmese to show some edge—might signal a bit of hipness unattainable by recommending, say, a run-of-the-mill diner. In fact, some 70 percent of singles "appreciate a date who is knowledgeable about food and wine pairings," according to a survey published last month by Match.com and Today.com.
It seems that this country, especially its urban dwellers, has become a nation of foodies, connoisseurs of cuisine among a range of regions and distant lands. Part of the phenomenon reflects new immigrant populations, who have introduced a range of ethnic food far more expansive than Chinese take-out. Plus, the Food Network has brought every kind of cookery into the living rooms of every kind of American. So perhaps we should not be surprised by the trend that embodies this hunger for hip cuisine by and for the masses: the food truck. If you live in any number of American cities, you know all about this. You've seen the packs of people lined up at food trucks as if for concert tickets, their cool factor rising in relation to the length of time they'll wait for that perfect pouch of dim sum or extravagantly layered taco.
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And yet, for fare that's by definition, pedestrian, street food has been getting the attention of the most elite arbiters of culinary excellence. In 2010, Food & Wine named among its "Best New Chefs" Roy Choi, whose Los Angeles-based Korean barbecue truck, Kogi, arguably spawned the food truck movement and put Choi at its helm. It was the first time the magazine had ever bestowed the title, awarded to 10 up-and-comers each year, on someone known for truck food. He's "transcendent," says Kate Krader, Food & Wine restaurant editor.
"A lot of the food trucks are really quite good," says Tim Zagat, who with his wife, Nina, cofounded Zagat Survey and serves as its CEO. Many are restaurant spin-offs or starter enterprises that become restaurants, he says. The trend enables a "large number of new, young chefs who can come to market less expensively," says Zagat, presenting this calculus: A food truck in New York may run $30,000 to purchase and outfit, while a "bottom-of-the-line" brick-and-mortar restaurant would cost at least $250,000 "and probably a lot more than that." Food trucks are "a way of I think bringing food to a new price point," providing "entry into the industry and also into serving the public," he says.
And the trend shows no sign of slowing down.
Broadly speaking, the biggest growth in restaurants is what Zagat calls the "BATH" concept—which stands for "better alternatives to home." Dining out, he says, is often more affordable and efficient than one's time spent shopping, cooking, and cleaning, to which he adds "who needs that?" And food trucks can fit the bill for filling up quickly and cheaply.
Helping to drive this trend are, of course, food truck entrepreneurs—those enticed by the autonomy of a small business opportunity as well as culinary types, looking to brand themselves in the food business, says Kevin Higar, director of research and consulting at Technomic, a market research firm focused on the food industry. "Being a culinary individual is a very hot, popular, rock-star sort of thing," Higar says. For their part, consumers like the ability to connect personally with the chef at the truck window, to feel like they're "in the know," he explains. And then there's the social draw. "It's kind of a social scene," where people chat each other up in line and have a common reference point.
"People love food right now," says Krader. With dining as entertainment, people want "bragging rights" for finding the best bites, says Krader, who this fall will be judging New York's Vendy awards to select the best street food vendor in the city.
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."
Find your new favorite food truck by checking out reviews on Yelp!, foodtrucktalk.com, or any other source that rates restaurants. And don't forget to search for the myriad of blogs dedicated to food trucks. Once you find the truck you love, follow or friend the establishment so you can stay ahead of the, er, curb.