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Meals on wheels: Tampa Bay's best food carts

It was 9 a.m. at Hot Donut Co. in downtown Tampa. Dave Matthews Band blasted through the speakers as customers swarmed the tiny cart. Wearing his usual apron, owner Bruce Frechette fluttered between the doughnut maker and the coffee station.

"Danielle, did you get your house, baby?" Frechette, 55, asked one of his regular customers. "I'm rooting for you. What's your horoscope say?"

Danielle Kelly, who works at the Fifth Third Bank that towers over Frechette's cart, has been buying her coffee from him since August 2008. She has a coffee pot in her office, but she can't bring herself to brew her own.

"I've tried to break up with Bruce a couple times, and it just didn't work," said Kelly, 29. " 'Cause it's not just the coffee. It's the company."

Some of the friendliest people in town — not to mention the best eats — are found at roadside food carts like Frechette's. But if you're like us, you drive by mobile eateries and wonder, Is the food any good? Will I get sick if I eat there?

We scoured Tampa Bay for the best food carts. We encountered a few duds , but you won't find them on this list. So the next time you're hungry, skip the drive-through and check out one of these mobile businesses.

Hot Donut Co.

"I had a donut one time in Ocean City, Md. I remember it being a very lovely culinary experience because it was a fresh, hot doughnut," Bruce Frechette said. "It always stuck in my mind." So in 1986 when the entrepreneur was between businesses, he started Hot Donut Co.

"I have a lot of people tell me my donuts are the best donuts they've ever had in their entire life," said Frechette, 55, of Temple Terrace. "But the one thing nice about coffee is if you give someone a really good cup of coffee, they come and see you on a regular basis." In fact, coffee sales make up the bulk of Hot Donut Co.'s business.

The goods: Vanilla cake doughnuts (75-cents each) that are crispy on the outside, soft on the inside. Frechette makes them fresh daily in a machine he calls the "donut robot." For 20 cents extra, get unlimited toppings: glaze, chocolate, nuts, coconut, sprinkles, powdered sugar and cinnamon sugar. There are also eight varieties of Joffrey's coffee ($1.35 to $2.05), plus other beverages and bagels.

The cart: A houselike structure built by Frechette. "It's very strong. I flipped it over once," Frechette said, referring to when he encountered a pot hole on Nebraska Avenue. "Didn't do anything to it. Pretty cool."

Find him: Weekdays from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. at a corner of Franklin Street and Kennedy Boulevard in downtown Tampa. To order a baker's dozen, call ahead to (813) 221-1313.

La Yucateca

Growing up in Yucatan, Mexico, Carlos Sosa worked in his parents' restaurants. When he moved to the States, Sosa dreamed of opening his own. Instead, he found himself working for a decade as a kitchen manager at Perkins .

Three years ago, Sosa saw his opportunity. His boss at Perkins had tried unsuccessfully to start a hot dog business and needed to unload the carts. Sosa worked out a deal. "I always thought about having a big Mexican buffet. But you've got to start somewhere," said Sosa, 35 .

Today, Sosa and his wife, Cinthia, sell Mexican food to Largo's lunchtime crowd. Some customers even bring coolers full of beer. In September, the Sosas opened Señor Taco Mexican restaurant in Pinellas Park. They also plan to change the name of the cart to Señor Taco.

The goods: Tacos, burritos and more. Sosa cooks, even making his own corn tortillas and salsa. Popular items include the Mayan barbecued pork sandwich ($6.50); Sosa wraps the meat in banana leaves and marinates it in orange juice and spices. The steak taco ($2.25) is also a hit. Tuesdays, beef soft tacos are $1. The stand also sells Jarritos Mexican soda ($1.50) and Coke products ($1).

The cart: After moving the cart around Tampa Bay, Sosa anchored La Yucateca at its current location. It's still on wheels, but the structure is now more of a building.

Find them: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday at the northeast corner of Starkey and Ulmerton roads in Largo. Call Carlos at (727) 459-6093 or Cinthia at (727) 459-6094.

Vegan Beagle

Cheong Choi owns Cafe Hey, a downtown Tampa eatery that carries many vegan items. After his employees raved about a vegan cart in Orlando, last summer Choi and his business partner, Jen Saavedra, set out to start something similar.

"People expect the standard fare at a mobile food cart," said Choi, 34, of Tampa. "Some people just say, 'Give me whatever, as long as it tastes good.' And there are other people that say, 'I am very conscious where my food comes from.' "

The goods: Pan-seared vegan hot dogs, oversized soy sausages and brats, served delightfully hot on a bun ($4 each). Also try the Cafe Hey chili dog ($5), which is topped with the restaurant's vegan chili but is available only on the cart. For a lighter meal, get the pinchos with Cuban bread ($3). Choi buys all soy products, with the exception of the kimchi .

The cart: "It is a lot more difficult" than owning a restaurant, Choi said. "A fixed location is more flexible. You can have events, you can have catering. What you have for a … cart is convenience."

Find him: Outside concerts and other nightlife events throughout Tampa Bay, and occasionally outside Cafe Hey at 1540 N Franklin St., Tampa. For location updates, follow @veganbeagle on Twitter or search for "Vegan Beagle" on Facebook. E-mail him at veganbeagle@gmail.com.

Open Hearth Pizza

Chris Jones says mobile pizza ovens are all the rage in Vermont. And he should know; he used to own a restaurant in Granville, Vt. Last year, Jones sold his business, learned to make pizza and starting peddling his pies on wheels.

"We were having so much fun doing it last summer that I wanted to do it year round, so I came down to Tampa," said Jones, 41, who moved here in November. "I drove this thing down 95, praying the whole way."

Terry Kernan, who owned a deli next to Jones' Vermont diner, works with Jones.

The goods: Pizza by the slice ($3) or whole 18-inch pies ($16). There's no extra charge for toppings, many of which Jones buys at the farmer's market where he's stationed. For private events, Jones offers appetizers and salads.

The cart: "Cart" probably is the wrong word to describe the 2.5-ton Italian-style brick oven that Jones and his friends designed. "I have a friend who's a mason, a friend who's a plumber. It was kind of like a neighborhood project," said Jones, who spent about $10,000 on the endeavor.

Find him: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday at Largo's Harvest Marketplace, Ulmer Park, 301 W Bay Drive; 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays at Dunedin Green Market, Pioneer Park, Douglas Avenue at Main Street; and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays at Tarpon Springs farmers' market, Meres Municipal Plaza, Tarpon Avenue and Alt. 19. His Saturday locations are posted online. Call (727) 412-4844 or see openhearthpizza.com.

Trust Me BBQ

Six years ago, on her way home from a day at the beach, Lenae Snyder saw Roger Trusty operating a roadside barbecue. She pulled over for dinner.

"He was lighting his grill when I pulled up on him," said Snyder, 37. But the two hit it off, so Snyder didn't mind chatting while Trusty got the grill going. "I was probably there two hours, at least," Snyder said. Soon after, the pair started dating, moved to Riverview and began selling food on a corner of U.S. 301 and Balm River Drive.

When a Sunoco gas station opened on that corner three years ago, the owner invited Trusty and Snyder to barbecue in the parking lot and sell their eats inside. He grills the meat. She makes the sides. "He just lucked out that I can cook," laughed Synder, who learned from her stepmother.

The goods: Carribbean-style meat influenced by Trusty's native Jamaica, including the jerk chicken sandwich ($5) and rib meal with two sides ($9). They occasionally sell Jamaican-style full red snapper ($12 to $15 whole). Then there are the stick-to-your-ribs sides ($1.50 to $6 a la carte): macaroni and cheese, baked beans, collard greens and much more. Save room for Snyder's hot peach cobbler ($1.50 to $6 for a single serving or $15 whole). You can also buy a 16-ounce bottle of Trusty's barbecue sauce ($3.50).

The cart: A commercial kitchen inside a trailer.

Find them: Noon to 9 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, noon to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 8 p.m. Sundays at the Sunoco station at 8624 U.S. 301 S in Riverview. Closed Mondays. Call (813) 919-6410 or search "Trust Me BBQ" on Facebook.

Bean Fiend Coffee Roasters

Paul Ruch once owned a pool hall in New Jersey, where he'd get freshly roasted coffee delivered. Since then, Ruch has fantasized about selling freshly roasted beans out of his house. But that's illegal, so Ruch settled for the next best thing: a cart. He started Bean Fiend last April.

Watching the coffee being made is as therapeutic as drinking it. Ruch pours raw green coffee beans into a roaster, where they churn around and around. He sells 10 varieties of java from across the globe; his best seller is the Ethiopian. "Most of the customers that are into gourmet coffees are very fond of the African coffees," said Ruch, 48. In the summer, he also sells iced coffee.

The goods: Brewed coffee and iced coffee for sale only at events (prices vary). Whole and ground beans are always available. Hawaiian kona costs $23 a pound. All others cost $9 a pound. There's free delivery to anywhere in Pinellas County with a 1-pound minimum order.

The cart: Ruch built his "hut," as he calls it, from recycled materials. The wood came from old fences. He got the steel at a scrap yard. The roof is made from military pup tents.

Find him: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays in the parking lot of the Shell station at Park Boulevard and Oakhurst Road in Seminole (dry beans only); and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays at the Downtown Clearwater Farmer's Market. (727) 678-8486; beanfiendcoffee.com.

Dalia Colón can be reached at dcolon@tampabay.com.

What did we miss?

Don't see your favorite mobile food business in our story? E-mail tbteditors@tampabay.com.

Meals on wheels: Tampa Bay's best food carts 04/05/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 8, 2010 8:40am]

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