By Laura Reiley
Times Food Critic
One restaurant succeeds and another fails. The critical difference? Often it's location. But what if location weren't an issue, if like a potted plant relocated to receive the maximum life-sustaining rays of sunlight, a restaurant could just move around to where the customers were? Thus went the thinking that has led to the great food truck invasion of the past couple of years.
A trend that most people track back to Roy Choi's Kogi Korean BBQ in 2008 in Los Angeles, the food truck craze departs from the 1980s office roach coach or even the Texas rancher's chuck wagon in one key respect: It is buoyed by new social media like Twitter and Facebook. Customers are not just finding these food trucks serendipitously — they are being cyberstalked and hunted down like bison on the Great Plains.
In many American cities, the trend is also a reflection of the economy: Dazzlingly trained chefs are without a gig. Not having the financial wherewithal to scrape together the $1 million or so needed to start their own brick-and-mortar restaurants, they've taken to the streets, rehabbing Airstreams and school buses and rickshaws to get their culinary visions to the masses.
The Tampa Bay area has been slightly late to the game. Taco Bus and Da Kine Hawaiian Café were early entries, but just recently a convoy of new food trucks have started revving their engines in the area and a new Support Tampa Bay Food Trucks page has gone up on Facebook.
There may be good reasons for our tardiness — the past week of food truck chasing left me frizzy-haired and panting, feeling deep sympathy for those jockeying behind the sizzling griddles. Our weather is a hard sell in the summer, thunderstorms and mosquito swarms adding another layer of complexity.
Food trucks have taken off in cities where there are dense pedestrian centers — something the Tampa Bay area lacks. But the biggest impediment may be local ordinances that make it unlawful to stop, stand or park on streets or in city-owned or -operated parking lots and garages or on other city property in order to sell something. Thus, our food trucks must park on private property.
Freshley's Cafe (5420 N Florida Ave., Tampa; (813) 361-8190; freshleyscafe.com, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday) chose its location because co-owner Jackie Bennett's friend owns the lot in Seminole Heights. Her daughter, Ashley Hoskins, is the chef and her mother, Karen Mitchell, works the cash register. They got the idea in December watching The Great Food Truck Race, buying the 1959 Airstream on eBay and gutting it entirely to make way for a kitchen.
Hoskins' food is mostly salads and sandwiches with an eye to healthful preparations and easy portability. They use Facebook and Twitter to advertise the daily menu — grilled tilapia tacos over arugula with avocado, mango and scallion with a squeeze of lime and a little wasabi cream in a couple of warm tortillas ($7.50), or a simple salad of romaine and Napa cabbage topped with grilled chicken, Mandarin orange sections, water chestnuts and julienned carrot with a gingery, citrusy dressing ($6.75). Not a huge portion, but a tasty and satisfying lunch.
Hoskins also makes delicious jalapeno deviled eggs (3 for $2), and a side dish of sugar snap pea, dill, cuke and tomato ($2.75) I could eat a vat of. Mitchell, on the other hand, makes her own dog biscuits she packages in beribboned cellophane, an added enticement to bring your dog and sit out on the little dining patio they've crafted in the parking lot, delineated with planter boxes of flowers and a bevy of electric fans.
Tracking down South Tampa's Wicked 'Wiches (eatfreshdaily.com/wicked/Home.html, or see their Facebook page) was somewhat trickier, a lack of smart phone proving to be a real impediment to following a rapidly changing location via Twitter feed. After a couple of failed attempts, I found them in the parking lot of the Towers at the corner of West Shore Boulevard and Laurel Street, several dozen office workers lolling against the side of the building as their orders were crafted in the flame-painted truck.
What distinguishes Wicked 'Wiches is a series of "kota" sandwiches, a South African hollowed-out bread usually filled with a curry. We tried the coconut chicken curry version ($4.75), a smallish sandwich with good curry flavor that might have proved more interesting with the addition of something different texturally (raisins, nuts, greens?). Better was the Texas panino ($8), thick bread stacked with smoky-sweet brisket, caramelized onions and sharp cheddar. I'd like to hunt them down on another day when they aren't out-of-their-gourds busy to try the turducken "smashball" (like a meatball) or something they called a handheld Thanksgiving.
Wandering the streets of Brandon, Rumberos Bistro (rumberosbistro.com; (813) 298-4436) is another newcomer, a truck launched on the Fourth of July. Owner Ralph Guzman, retired from the military, is a percussionist who is also passionate about introducing the area to the traditional foods of Puerto Rico.
Sometimes in the parking lot of Boomerang Night Club, sometimes in the parking lot of the defunct American Mattress at the corner of State Road 60 and Falkenburg Road, Rumberos traffics in fried plantains ($2.50) and delicious mofongo ($5.50-$7), fried plantain balls with centers of spiced pork, beef or shrimp. The best bet is to head for the unfamiliar, the green banana patties stuffed with beef (called alcapurria; $3) or rellenos de papa ($2.75), delicate beef and potato balls.
Chicago market research firm Technomic just conducted a survey about consumers' attitudes about food trucks. Turns out, 91 percent of those surveyed thought the trend had staying power and wasn't a passing fad. From the look of things in the Tampa Bay area, the food truck trend is nowhere near the finish line.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] sptimes.com or (727) 892-2293.