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Keep on truckin'

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New Yorkers are going crazy for gourmet grub on-the-go from the city's 3,000 food trucks. What's all the fuss about? By Sue Bryant


They started as humble hot dog and burger vans but today, New York is in the grip of a gourmet food truck frenzy. More than 3,000 specialised mobile food vendors ply their wares in the city, offering anything from Korean barbecued meats to exotic ice creams and gluten-free tacos. Whole websites are dedicated to tracking the trucks so you can plan lunch according to what's parked in your area. Enterprising New Yorkers offer guided tasting tours of the food trucks and one hotel group has even introduced a seasonal Food Truck Concierge to guide bemused visitors around this eating extravaganza. Hmm… Belgian waffles and whipped vanilla cream? Or fresh Maine lobster sushi rolls to go?


Americans have always been known for their fast food, and not necessarily in a good way. But the food trucks are something different. The earliest food trucks, or at least, mobile food vendors, can be dated back to 1691 when New York was still called New Amsterdam and street vendors were regulated by the city to sell food from mobile carts. The entrepreneur Charles Goodnight invented the chuckwagon in the 1860s, creating what's believed to be America's first kitchen on wheels. In 1894, sausage vendors began to sell their produce from carts outside the student dorms at prestigious universities like Yale and Harvard. The vans were known as 'dog wagons'.

 

instant gratification


By the 1950s, ice cream trucks were beginning to sell frozen treats. Hot dog trucks expanded into new tastes like tacos in the 1970s, in cities on both coasts of the continent. Leap forwards to 2004 and the Vendy Awards were created to celebrate New York's finest street vendors.


In November 2010, Los Angeles started taking food trucks seriously, giving the vendors restaurant-style ratings. In Washington DC, President Obama got in on the act, tweeting in 2011 that his top food truck was D.C. Empanadas. In the same year, the famed Zagat restaurant guides included New York's food trucks for the first time. Now, there's a trans-continental televised rally, the Great Food Truck Race, and food trucks even have their own calendar, and their own trade association.


So what's the big deal about eating on the hoof? "New Yorkers are used to instant gratification," explains one local. "We don't even like to wait in line for coffee. And restaurant reservations for lunch can be hard to come by, not to mention the expense of regular restaurant meals." And as the New York City Food Truck Association points out, "Food trucks have had a positive impact on New York's social and economic vitality by bringing inexpensive and healthy food options to under-served communities."


New Yorkers treat food truck tracking as a science. All the trucks use Twitter to broadcast where they'll be located, as they move around. Most have a regular beat but they're always up against competition from delivery vans, roadworks and the general madness of New York's street scene. Some trucks have tens of thousands of followers on Twitter.


The truly dedicated food truck fan will enjoy breakfast muffins, pastries or burritos with coffee from one of the early morning trucks, a main course at lunchtime from their favourite savoury truck and then hunt down a dessert van for exotic ice cream, or waffles, or cupcakes in all colours of the rainbow. A lot of the trucks serve genuinely good food that goes against the grain of restaurant fast food; additive-free meat, free-range chicken, organic fruit and vegetables, for example. The trucks are a delight for vegetarians and vegans, too. And because overheads are so low, eating truck food can be a really inexpensive way to enjoy a fantastic lunch. Then there's the social side; while New Yorkers moan about standing in line, there are more than a few stories around of friendships, relationships and even marriages resulting from conversations started up in the queue for the food truck.


For rookies (tourists, in other words), help is at hand in understanding this brave new dining culture. Sidewalks of NY Tours (www.sidewalksofny.com) offers three food truck tours, taking in Downtown, Midtown and the High Line, a gorgeous urban park that's been created out of a disused railway line. As well as a guided walk, the tours include a chat with a food truck owner about their life and the challenges they face, and five tastings. On the Midtown tour, this might typically include Vendy award-winning biryanis from The Biryani Cart; falafels and smoothies from the Taïm Mobile truck; Korean and Mexican fusion tacos from Big D; and the famous waffles from Wafles & Dinges, another Vendy award winner for 'best dessert'. Turnstile Tours (www.turnstiletours.com) offers a similar experience, working in the Downtown and Midtown areas. Thompson Hotels (www.thompsonhotels.com), which has several boutique properties in New York, is cashing in on the food truck craze with its own seasonal food truck concierges who will show guests the best food truck tracking apps for their phones, recommend some of the best trucks and help visitors plan their day around, well, eating.

 

MORE CULT THAN CRAZE


It's not all plain sailing for the street vendors. New York's Street Vendor Association points out that many truck owners are small business people struggling to make ends meet, often working long hours in tough conditions. "Most street vendors are immigrants and people of colour and often face discrimination through unjust legislation supported by established business interests," the Association's website explains. Indeed, several truck operators have received threats and faced intimidation from established restaurants and even had their parking places blocked and their trucks damaged.


But the real threat to restaurateurs is surely that the food trucks are taking them on at their own game. Several have expanded into bricks-and-mortar, the Big Gay Ice Cream truck being a prime example, starting as a glorified ice cream van in 2009 and now operating two shops, in the East and West Village, as well as selling merchandise online. The Moroccan-owned Bistro Truck runs a catering business in addition to truck vending, while Coolhaus, another gourmet ice cream truck, started with two girls making ice cream and cookies from home and now operates 11 trucks, has a store in California and a retail range of ice cream sandwiches. Food truck owners appear at street markets and festivals, or create pop-up stalls at the weekend artisanal food markets all over the city.
Other truck operators are turning their enterprises into tiny, mobile restaurants, investing in retro Airstream trailers and VW vans with reserved seating, or joining forces to create food truck pop-up enclaves like the Food Truck Lot in Queens (43-29 Crescent Street), or the daily cluster of vans around Union Square, or on Water Street in the Downtown area.

 

Food trucks are not just a craze; they're a cult and without doubt, a phenomenon that's here to stay. And New York is all the better for them.

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