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A couple of trucks, and suddenly a downtown

Who would have thought food trucks could be a downtown's ticket to cool?

But, hey, in the long-simmering rivalry between Tampa and St. Petersburg — particularly if you live in the scrappier port town and not its prettier waterfront sister — you take your cool points where you can.

We're not talking the trucks that used to pull up at construction sites, unkindly nicknamed for a certain skeevy brown insect associated with uncleanliness and then rhymed with the word "coach." Gourmet food trucks and carts are apparently the bomb, and extra cool points if you track them to wherever they happen to park that day via Twitter.

In Manhattan recently, I walked past a half-block-long line of people in heels and suits waiting for spicy lamb at a Halal cart. Fish tacos, wraps, sliders, dim sum (and then some) from a kitchen on wheels are a whole Cooking Channel show and the rage here from Miami to Orlando. And lately, in Tampa.

But in St. Pete, the rules say no to food carts.

Imagine — Tampa looking smarter than a town known for downtown living, art and ribbons of walkable green along the water. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's 10-year-old daughter once told him that whenever he drove her through St. Pete to swim meets at North Shore pool, he said bad words. Buckhorn says it's true — he muttered under his breath like a cartoon dog about St. Pete amenities he wished for his own city. Like, say, a North Shore pool.

So points to Tampa for its burgeoning food truck culture, including Buckhorn's plans for a monthly Mayor's Food Truck Fiesta to move around downtown.

Tampa — for the record, home to impressive amenities like the airport, the Bucs, the Lightning, USF and Ybor City — has had several such victories lately. A downtown that sports a dubious landmark of a high-rise known as the Beer Can Building also just got an impressive architecture award for its swanky Tampa Museum of Art on the Hillsborough River. In fact, with the sprawling city park and the Riverwalk in progress, people can now actually see the river. Walk along it, even!

Tampa's recently reopened Friday market — modest cousin to the party of food, flowers, fruit and music St. Pete has on Saturdays — gets crowds. The barbecue truck even sold out. Twice.

Downtown Tampa residents — and glory be, they exist — cheered the opening of Duckweed, a closet-sized market for fancy cheeses but also dog food and milk within walkable blocks. Suburbanites might not understand this as a milestone, since there already is a Publix at the edge of downtown that is closer than grocery stores that serve many subdivisions.

But urban living is supposed to mean you don't have to get in your car for everything, and the Frogger-like land mine of traffic you must brave to walk to that Publix is enough to make you grab your keys. (Walkability is another thing downtown St. Pete has in spades.)

This week, Mayor Bill Foster said he's actually a fan of food trucks and willing to accommodate them and any other way to make St. Pete "hipper, without selling our souls to tackiness," (Less a worry in Tampa — did I mention the Beer Can Building?) City Council will soon take up revising the rules to make it happen.

And the cool wars will roll on.

A couple of trucks, and suddenly a downtown 10/21/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 22, 2011 10:48am]
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