DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, April 26, 2013

Keep on Truckin': The Urban Street Food Story

Chef Jose Andres enjoys an offering from his food truck
Ever since there have been cities, there has been urban street food. Small fried fish were sold on the streets in ancient Greece. Aztec marketplaces offered more than 50 types of tamales. Street foods in Victorian London included tripe, pea soup, pea pods in butter, prawns, and jellied eels. It is believed that French fries originated as a street food in Paris of the 1840's.

America has its own street food traditions. During the colonial period, street vendors in Philadelphia, Boston, and old New York sold oysters, roasted corn ears, and pepper pot soup. Later, pushcarts became a staple in big cities from New York to San Francisco. In the late 19th Century the hot dog cart was born as sausage vendors began selling their wares outside student dorms at major Eastern universities. In the 20th Century, the mobile food scene shifted to construction sites, where workers on their breaks chowed down on coffee, pastries, hot dogs, and chili.

The economic downturn of the late 1990's caused another shift. Food trucks, now brightly decorated and offering more upscale ethnic offerings, found a new urban clientele -  thousands of office workers like those in Washington, DC, who could use their brief lunch time to enjoy the fast, reasonably priced, meals produced in the small trucks, which usually were a one- to three-person operation.

In DC, the food trucks usually assembled Monday through Friday at sites with large open eating areas for outside dining - L'Enfant Plaza, Farragut Square, the Metro Center, Union Station. The truck operators, many now trained cooks and chefs, began to develop followings. They could announce their day's location on Facebook or Twitter. Web sites reviewing the food trucks appeared and those sites could email complete lists of truck sites on a daily basis. Some of the cities best-known chefs like Jose Andres (with Pepe) opened their own food trucks. Indeed, some of the food trucks became so popular that their operators opened sit-down eateries.

So, with sunny skies and temperatures today in the 70's, we decided to head to L'Enfant Plaza to see what this Spring's local food truck scene looks, and, more importantly, tastes like. There were more than 20 trucks parked on 2 streets. Eaters lined up to choose from offerings ranging from Philly-style cheesesteaks at Cheesequake to Ethiopian fare from Lily Pad on the Run. I was convinced that my wife would choose to visit the Crepes Parfait truck, but she surprised me by instead grabbing a chicken burrito bowl from Sol. I chose a Korean bolgogi bowl from Fire and Ice.

But the future of the DC food truck boom is in doubt. Two weeks ago,  DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs released a new round of proposed food truck regulations. The rules would create special zones throughout the city specifying where trucks could park and limiting how many could operate at one location.  A monthly lottery system would determine who gets the spots. Food truck operators have vowed to fight the proposed regulations, claiming they would kill the industry.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As you might expect in our rate-and-review age, food trucks are subject to quite a few rankings. Here are some of them:

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