Food carts line the streets in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: John Dalton/Flickr)
Food trucks are having a moment. There’s the success of Jon Favreau’s “Chef” film, the long lines surrounding the trucks at the country’s most prominent music festivals, and the trucks regularly showing up in best-of lists like revered Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold’s top restaurants of the year. Recently, Pimco fund manager Jeremie Banet made headlines when he quit his job with plans to start a croque monsieur truck in California.
A recent study found that food-safety standards of trucks and carts in cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Miami often meet or exceed those of restaurants. And the Life Is Beautiful festival in Vegas announced its lineup this week — the event is hyping its culinary roster, including food-truck stars from both LA and Vegas alongside restaurant chefs, as much as headliners like Kanye West and Outkast.
It’s about time.
I’ve spent years dining around the country, and many of my best meals have been at food trucks and carts. This is where you’ll get a taste of a city’s soul and encounter its ethnic diversity, its sense of whimsy, and its philosophy about feeding the streets. Yes, these trucks and carts are often about inexpensive food and stoner-friendly fare, but they’re also often about refined chefs with classical training turning your lunch break into something amazing. And they’re often worth crisscrossing America for a taste. After doing just that, here are my picks for the country’s best food trucks and carts.
LA’s legendary chef Roy Choi, with his Kogi BBQ truck. (Photo: Corbis)
Roy Choi’s Kogi BBQ truck became a cultural revolution after it launched in 2008. It’s been the instigator for countless parking-lot parties as hungry revelers happily wait an hour or more for Korean-Mexican tacos, burritos, and sliders. Choi is now a celebrity who gets full-page profiles in national newspapers and went on a nationwide tour to promote “Chef,” the Jon Favreau film about a food truck that Choi co-produced. And Kogi, with four trucks that crisscross LA daily and a bonus truck for events like Coachella, is still the king of the street-eats scene in a city that truly defines itself by the excellent quality and wild variety of its tacos.
Over in Boyle Heights, old-school proprietor Raul Ortega’s Mariscos Jalisco truck serves crispy shrimp tacos to both Mexican families and industrial workers in the neighborhood, as well as regulars who will drive 45 minutes from the Westside just to get their spicy seafood fix. Everything about this shrimp taco — the crunch, the breaded shrimp, the kick of the salsa, and the creamy avocado — is just perfect. It’s as good as anything you’ll ever eat in LA.
Chef Wesley Avila prepares his unique tacos at Guerrilla Tacos, in Culver City. (Photo: Rachelontheave/Instagram)
But the most of-the-moment truck is Guerrilla Tacos, from chef Wesley Avila, which parks in front of hipster coffee spots downtown and in Culver City. Avila, who trained under Alain Ducasse in Paris and spent years in the kitchen of fine-dining establishments, likes to change his menu all the time. He’s served slow-roasted lamb, wild boar, and swordfish belly tacos. And his ridiculously good vegetable combinations, like squash blossoms with purple potatoes, are based on whatever produce he bought that day. Farm-to-food truck has never tasted better.
Las Vegas’s Fukuburger truck. (Photo: Kennejima/Flickr)
The Fukuburger truck, with its potent and playful Asian-inflected burgers and chicken sandwiches, parks in Chinatown, on the Westside, and downtown. But it’s also now got a stationary outpost at the new LINQ shopping/dining center in the middle of the Strip. That’s part of F.A.M.E., the Asian food hall that also includes a Beard Papa outpost for all of your cream-puff needs.
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Sausagefest, a truck that was among the vendors at the just concluded Electric Daisy Carnival dance-music festival, is known for items like its longanisa bahn mi, which combines Filipino and Vietnamese street food into one flavor bomb. And events like First Fridays downtown brings out Ben’s BBQ and Smokehouse, which smokes brisket for 10 hours and pork butt for 12 hours. Slow and low, that is the tempo.
Nong Khao Man Gai in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Star5112/Flickr)
The food-cart pods in Portland, with dozens of vendors wrapping around entire blocks all over town daily, are like nothing else in America. The most famous cart is Nong’s Khao Man Gai, which specializes in chicken with rice. It’s a beautifully aromatic version of a dish beloved in Thailand and Singapore, with poached chicken, rice cooked in broth and herbs, and a sauce that combines fermented soybean puree, garlic, ginger, Thai chilies, vinegar, and sugar. You have the option of adding chicken liver or skins. Get both.
J Mo’s Sandwich Shack is home to the most over-the-top sandwich we’ve ever enjoyed: a fried spaghetti and meatball sandwich called the Dirty Mo. The chicken parmesan sandwich is also beloved.
The perfect treat for a hot summer day at Portland’s Salt and Straw. (Photo: Rick Chung/Flickr)
And Salt and Straw, with Portland’s best ice cream, now has three brick-and-mortar locations, but its cart still shows up at farmer’s markets, street fairs, and festivals. The flavor combinations Salt and Straw comes up with on its own (and with help from top Portland chefs, bakers, and candy makers) are unparalleled. Honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper. Coconut with Petunia’s salted caramel bars. And Freckled Woodblock Chocolate, a collaboration between the “farm-to-cone” Salt and Straw and the “bean-to-bar” Woodblock Chocolate. That’s how Portland does it.
Bonnaroo goers line up for Pulp Fiction inspired food. (Photo: Misscatfishbilly/Instagram)
Talk about a roving food truck from a dude with a crazy story. Jeremiah Bullfrog, who cooked at El Bulli and wd-50 and is now rapper Rick Ross’ personal chef, recently drove his “mobile gourmet” Gastropod trailer to the Bonnaroo music festival in Tennessee and served movie-inspired burgers like his version of the Royale with Cheese. Gastropod doesn’t serve daily in Miami, but Bullfrog is known to make appearances at festivals and other big gatherings.
Another truck that comes out to play during Miami’s social season and at special events is Dim Ssam a gogo, which serves dishes like crispy duck buns. Chef Richard Hales, a protege of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, also brings the Asian fusion funk daily at his casual Sakaya Kitchen restaurant in Midtown. And his latest Midtown restaurant, Black Brick, is pure fire with Szechuan dishes like ma po tofu and cumin lamb.
Lobster rolls from Red Hook Lobster Pound. (Photo: Karen Blumberg/Flickr)
New York City
Of all the street-meat vendors that office workers and Midtown Lunch have obsessed over, our favorite is Kwik Meal, whose chicken or lamb (with rice or in a pita) comes with a thick yogurt sauce that cuts the heat of the spicy green sauce.
Roving trucks that park in Midtown and are worthy of their lunch-break lines include Red Hook Lobster Pound (lobster and shrimp rolls) and Bian Dang (Taiwanese fried chicken served with rice and pork sauce).
And in Brooklyn, Solber’s Pupusas is a Red Hook legend that has served its sensational Salvadorian fare at Smorgasburg and in front of indie-rock clubs. There are few things better than a late-night pork-and-cheese pupusa, smothered in salsa and pickled cabbage.
Andy Wang is founder of Consortium Projects HQ, a custom publishing firm specializing in luxury real estate, destinations, and food.