In late 2008, Kogi BBQ of Los Angeles became the first mobile food truck to use the social-media tool Twitter to help customers track down its inventive roving cuisine. By May 2009, the foodie website Serious Eats counted more than four-dozen tweeting mobile food trucks around the country. Today even the most conservative estimates—based on data from sites like TruxMap—put the number of food trucks using social media at well over 600.
In Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels, Chicago food writer Heather Shouse profiles more than 100 food trucks, carts, and stands around the country, highlights their diverse cuisine, and describes their operators' often-distinguished culinary backgrounds. Shouse, co-author of three food guidebooks and an upcoming cookbook with friend and Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, brings to market in Food Trucks the first book to survey America's mobile-eating scene in the wake of the social-media craze.
Shouse's research required her to spend a year crisscrossing the country while sampling food-truck fare of all sorts. Food Trucks, which is divided by region, fittingly begins in Los Angeles. But instead of starting her story with Kogi, Shouse opens Food Trucks with loving descriptions of several of the city's longstanding and outstanding taco trucks.
This reference point matters. Food Trucks is a winning effort not because Shouse is the first to depict the tweeting gastromobiles that best represent today's food-truck craze but because she gives nearly equal time to their low-tech forbearers and peers. These are not the hot dog carts and trucks that dot the National Mall but are, rather, the tens of thousands of truck operators around the country—often immigrants—who eschew Twitter, tricked-out truck paint jobs, and heat-and-serve foods. These no-frills operators will often park a barebones truck in the same location each day and cook and serve inexpensive, freshly-made meals based on recipes from their (or their families') respective homelands.
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Whether Kogi, with its 85,000 Twitter followers, or a mom-and-pop taco truck like Mariscos 4 Vientos #3 (both in Los Angeles)—each of the book's profiles is unique. Yet common themes do emerge. Those long lines of people you see waiting to be served by food trucks? Shouse writes that queues snake not just because trucks serve tasty food but also because they sometimes churn out that food about as fast as a DMV processes drivers' licenses. New York City's Trini Paki Boys Cart works at "molasses-slow" speed, writes Shouse, while the lines at Philadelphia's La Dominique pervade not because owner Ziggy "makes a crepe unlike any other" but because he "makes a crepe slower than any other."
Predictably along the way Shouse encounters many fascinating characters helming food trucks. These are people of the sort commonly found "back of house" at brick-and-mortar restaurants—cantankerous, quirky, or enigmatic chefs. Take Rick Baker of Seattle's Halláva Falafel food truck. His insistence on serving red beets with all of his sandwiches—he has a four-letter word reserved for customers who demand otherwise—has earned him the nickname of "Beet Nazi."
Though Shouse often couches observations like these in humor, she is comfortable letting food and those who sell it occupy the center of Food Trucks. As a result, the book serves as a highly enjoyable and timely illustration of the amazing quality and variety found today in street food across the country. And for those inspired to bring the street into their own kitchens, Food Trucks also contains nearly four-dozen food-truck recipes–from Kogi's kimchi quesadilla to the Odd Duck's coffee-braised pork shoulder with chiles and sweet potato to Potato Champion's poutine.
Shouse's road epiphany will sound familiar to anyone who would shun a three-star restaurant for a favorite hole-in-the-wall spot. "[G]leaming mobile kitchens run by trained chefs who have mastered Twitter can turn out disastrous food," she writes. "Rickety carts with questionable permits might just turn out some of the best."
Ultimately, as Food Trucks demonstrates, America's obsession with gastromobiles is thanks not just to Twitter. It's also a testament to these trucks' entrepreneurs and chefs and to the increasingly excellent and diverse foods they serve.
Baylen J. Linnekin, a lawyer, is executive director of Keep Food Legal, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that advocates in favor of culinary freedom.