Brian Jacobson

Examining the haute return of Food Trucks in America

Before five-time James Beard award-winner for food writing John T. Edge's's Boswell Books event, TCD looks at his new cookbook on roadside cuisine.

By - May 15th, 2012 08:47 am

There was a time when the mobile food vendor was parked outside of construction sites, serving cold sandwiches and hot coffee to workers on a lunch break. Soon they would appear at street fairs, college universities or late-night outside nightclubs offering a slice of pizza out of a delivery truck or a hot dog from a bicycle cart. More commonly in recent years, we think of the taco truck with a full slate of Mexican dishes from the burrito to churros.

But what of the resurgence of food trucks in America, with it’s simple hand-held fare now holding some serious culinary cred?

This is part of the focus of New York Times columnist John T. Edge’s latest offering, The Truck Food Cookbook: 150 Recipes and Ramblings from America’s Best Restaurants on Wheels. It’s one part travelogue, one part profiles and recipes, one part visual food porn, and a dash of insightful contemporary history discussing how we got from here to there. Edge is a five-time James Beard award-winner for food writing, and conducted a major part of the research while on a fellowship at Escape to Create in Florida.

Food writer John T. Edge scouring Detroit. (photo: Angie Mosier)

Guided by knowledgeable locals and assistants, the street food gourmand manages to find unique foods in ten different states—with a lion’s share of the attention going to the West Coast (especially Portland). Other well-covered locations include Austin, Tex., and Philadelphia, Penn., two cities that traditionally garner cult foodies based on experimentation. Madison, Wisconsin makes appearances with four locations: Jamerica, Buraka, The Dandelion, and LMN O’Pies—the last one featuring their Chicken Cheddar Bacon Pasties.

The book doesn’t go far into the process of making the recipes but often examines a required condiment or a certain step in the process, such as how Lindsay Gehl cultured the pasties dough at LMN O’Pies. Very often, this cookbook is more like an Atlas of Americana both for the ethnic foods like falafels and curry rice and beloved national foods like the hot dog and how it’s evolving (fennel slaw? Basil leaves? Take it easy, California).

Edge notes in the introduction on how we got here: “A number of factors made street food the hip culinary phenomenon of the moment: the economy, for one. All of a sudden, cheap deliverables for the consumer were in vogue…but there were other reasons, too. America has long been a mobile society, attuned to eating on the go. That once meant a bite-and-bolt burger, eaten between gear shifts on the highway. Of late, however, we’ve begun to fuse our demand for quick-access food with a demand for honest and delicious food.”

New Yorker Doug Quint with his pride and joy, the “Cheater Soft-Serve Ice Cream Cone”, as seen in Truck Food Cookbook.

He also thinks about where we are going with food trucks: “…across the country taco trucks were no longer considered exceptional. For a New Wave of chef-entrepreneurs, they were now inspirational.”

Edge comes to this realization watching an office building in San Francisco. A food truck specializing in kimchi-topped burgers and Korean burritos (korritos) parks outside, and a flood of middle-managers in khakis and on cell phones come flooding out. Think about the buzz over hip food trucks in Milwaukee—Streetza Pizza, Satellite Crepes, Tigerbite, Big Frank’s Wiener Waggin, and Haute Taco Truck to name a few—who surround Cathedral Square Park on Fridays, or camp outside Fish Fry and a Flick at Discovery World, or circle workers from the Innovation Research Park in Wauwatosa look for customers. The growing access to finer recipes via Food Network or the Epicurious website has opened up palettes on a mainstream level.

My favorite recipe in the whole book was not the grilled macaroni-and-cheese sandwich, nor the spicy chicken buradi roll. It was the bag of tater tots dusted with sumac. An excerpt: “‘Sumac cuts the grease,’ was Michele Grant’s rationale when I asked her why she sprinkles a comparitively exotic spice, associated with Persia, on mundane American Tater Tots. ‘Plus the lemony notes give the tots balance.'”

At the time of Edge’s visit, they were working on a lemon and garlic aioli as a condiment. Venice, California here I come.

Boswell Books on Downer Avenue hosts John T. Edge with a talk about his cookbook tonight (May 15) at 7 p.m.—gourmet food truck “The Fast Foodie” will be there with its signature Global Taco (the ‘Globaco’).  For more information, visit the Boswell blog here. For more on the author’s other books, visit his website here.

0 thoughts on “Examining the haute return of Food Trucks in America”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Memories . . . like the corners of my mind . . . Misty water-colored memories . . . of the way we were . . .

  2. Anonymous says:

    Unfortunately, when you wrote this Brian the city hadn’t gone all crazy and banned the trucks from Cathedral Square. However, now they are gone from there and will move to Red Arrow Park on Fridays. Closer to walk to for those of us in the Grand Avenue Mall!

  3. Anonymous says:

    True, Patti — I commented about that last night with the writer. (Reminded me a bit of recent Bob’s Burgers episode) However, they will be welcomed elsewhere (their encampments on different days cluster) and yesterday I had a great hot dog from the Usinger’s guy on Water and Wisconsin. Right next to him is American Euros, and today I walked a bit further down Water and got a torta from Ofelia’s!!!

    *I need to note there has been another big player recent, Jeppa Joe’s, who camps out near Marquette, the courthouse, and Schlitz Park. Haven’t tried that yet, though.

  4. Anonymous says:

    We love the idea of moving to Red Arrow Park. Food Truck Friday has become a part of Milwaukee’s vibrant downtown landscape, and the fact that it is moving a couple of blocks may give even more people the chance to come and experience all of Milwaukee’s mobile food options.

    We celebrated our 3rd anniversary yesterday – in those three years, we’ve served many customers and developed friendships with them. Thank you to everyone for that.

    We’ve gotten more publicity for the city and Milwaukee’s food culture than any brick and mortar restaurant – Last we counted, there have been over 700 articles written about us and the city. When Bloomberg Business Week named us the best food truck in the U.S. last year, there were hundreds of media outlets that shared not only our information, but told the world what a great place to live / work / and eat Milwaukee is.

    It is short sighted to say that food trucks are a threat to public safety, or even a real threat to traditional brick and mortar restaurants. One of the things that we do very well, is bring people to areas they traditionally don’t spend time in. Thousands of people came to Cathedral Square last year when we gathered there for the first time in years. And guess what… many of them returned on Thursdays for Jazz in the Park, Wednesdays for dinner and Friday nights for martinis.

    We’re looking forward to seeing some new faces and catching up with all of our friends from the Cathedral Square area again this year.

    The good news is that if you have to walk 3 extra blocks to get to us, you’ll burn off the extra calories if you choose to grab dessert from us too.

    🙂 Love

    Streetza Pizza

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