By Nikkitha Bakshani
Food trucks are more than just kitchens on wheels. Even if the buzz around the food truck renaissance started off frenzied and then cooled a bit, the resilience of these mobile eateries is a testament to the fact that creative, quite literally chef-driven food need not be limited to wallet-busting restaurants with month-long waiting lists. Here is our fourth annual list of the best food trucks in America.
This year, we made it simple: We let you decide the rankings via a public survey. This year’s ranking is a result of 2,662 responses and a total of 5,634 votes (respondents were allowed to vote for multiple trucks). Thank you to everybody who took the survey — you made our list more reflective of the general population’s tastes. After all, if there’s any type of establishment that is most explicitly for the people, by the people, it’s a food truck.
What makes for a great food truck? “A great food truck has to have a crystal-clear brand statement,” shared Tyler Florence, host of Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race (season six starts this August). "You can’t be vague. If you sell burgers, tacos, ice cream, whatever, you need to clearly communicate that. ‘Spice It Up’ is not a good name for a truck if it sells curry (it doesn’t say anything about the food), but ‘Curry in a Hurry' hits it out of the park.
“Also, the best food trucks specialize in one thing. Do you make tacos? What kind of tacos? Korean? Indian? Traditional ones? Whatever you love, stick with it. Trucks that offer a global menu have a tendency to not be good at anything. And when it comes to the food, you and your team need to become authorities on your obsession.“
In our rankings of the top 101 food trucks (see the rest here), Boston (12), Los Angeles (11), Philadelphia (8), New York (7), and San Francisco (6), were among the cities that placed the most trucks.
Without further ado, here are the 101 best food trucks that you ought to travel from coast to coast for. Trust us; it’s worth it.
#15 The Grilled Cheese Truck, Los Angeles
Courtesy: The Grilled Cheese Truck
The Grilled Cheese Truck has been a mainstay in the top 50 portion of our 101 Best Food Trucks list since 2012. Their cheesy mac comes fully loaded with sharp cheddar and barbecue pork; their French onion soup melt features gruyère with onion soup compote and a parmigiano-reggiano crust; their Pepperberry Melt includes chili, cilantro lime sour cream, tomato salsa, and Fritos. Those are just a few of their classic and clever combinations. There are also savory additions, such as mac and cheese and bacon; sweet additions, like Nutella, toasted marshmallows, candied walnuts, and peanut butter; sides such as tomato soup and tater tots; and, finally, “crusts,” like jalapeño or bacon-parmesan, which line the corners of the mac and cheese.
#14 Smoke Et Al, Nashville
Courtesy: Smoke Et Al
Smoke Et Al collected an enormous number of votes from our survey takers, pushing them from their No. 101 spot last year to a spot much closer to No. 1. Chef and owner Shane Autrey calls his truck — which serves a variety of barbecue — a “boutique smoker.” Using real wood smoke and other techniques to flavor his barbecue fare, Autrey serves dishes such as Fiddlers Biscuits (shredded smoked chicken on sour cream-sage baked biscuits with wild flower honey and green onions) and a third of a rack of baby back ribs, dry-rubbed and hickory-smoked. Keep your eye on this chef, as Autrey took first place in the Chow Masters challenge on the Travel Channel in 2014.
#13 Cucina Zapata, Philadelphia
Courtesy: Cucina Zapata
Cucina Zapata serves up Thai food in a taco, so you can go ahead and cross that one off of your food fantasy mash-up list. Dishes include items like a Cap’n Crunch-crusted tilapia burrito topped with avocado, pico de gallo, and peanut sauce. Or the sweet potato curry. Or the Thai short rib tacos covered in veggies and topped with avocado. It’s a refreshing change from the Korean barbecue we normally see paired with tacos.
#12 Korilla BBQ, New York City
Courtesy: Korilla BBQ / Facebook
You’d have thought it would have hurt team Korilla BBQ to be called cheaters for adding more than $2,000 of their own money into their cash drawer on what has basically been the representative show for food trucks on cable TV (Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race). But the scandal certainly didn’t shrink this bright, tiger-striped truck’s popularity — they have over 27,000 followers on Twitter and just recently opened their brick and mortar restaurant in the East Village in Manhattan. Korilla BBQ offers a base of burrito or bowl; four proteins (bulgogi, barbecued pork, marinated chicken, and tofu); B.F.K.R (bacon, kimchi, sushi rice) or sticky rice; and various toppings.
#11 SeoulFull Philly, Philadelphia
Courtesy: SeoulFull Philly / Facebook
SeoulFull Philly won a Vendy for Rookie of the Year in Philadelphia this year for their Korean-American comfort food. You’ve got to admire them for the delicious ways they utilize Cheez Whiz: on tater tots alongside kimchi and scallions and atop a Korean-style cheesesteak. Our favorite item is definitely Corn on the Seoul: deep-fried corn on the cob, gochujang crema, cotija cheese, scallions, and toasted sesame seeds.
#10 Kogi BBQ, Los Angeles
Photo: Eric Shin
We might be able to thank chef Roy Choi, one of the coolest people in food and drink, for our love of Korean-inspired Mexican food, or even, arguably, our nation’s love of food trucks. “Kogi set off a flavor bomb that would shake up the foundations of the industry so that street food would never be looked at the same way.” That’s from Kogi’s site. What’s the saying? It ain’t bragging if it’s true? After appearing at No. 1 on our 101 Best Food Trucks list in 2012, No. 2 in 2013, and No. 1 again in 2014, it’s a bit of a surprise that Kogi BBQ is on the lower end of the top 10, though that’s by no means a bad thing. It could be because Roy Choi has extended his talents beyond food trucks, with restaurants like the Caribbean-inspired Sunny Spot and hip lounge Alibi Room, or it could be because so many new food trucks have popped up since Kogi first opened in Thanksgiving 2008. Nevertheless, Kogi BBQ still remains one of America’s very best, and you shouldn’t dare call yourself a food lover if you stop by Los Angeles without trying one of their short rib tacos.
#9 Emerson Fry Bread, Phoenix
Courtesy: Emerson Fry Bread
The colorful Emerson Fry Bread truck might very well be the only truck in the country that specializes in Native American cuisine — one of the most underrated cuisines of the world — with a Mexican twist. Offerings include a green chile chicken Indian taco (with fry bread instead of a tortilla), a carne asada-topped variety, and a cult-favorite prickly-pear-based drink. Apparently, these guys are doing something right, because they ranked at No. 82 last year. They are a testament to the creativity needed to run a successful food truck.
#8 Wok n Roll Food Truck, Cleveland
Photo: Andee Wells
The owners of Wok n Roll, Matt and Tricia, met while working together at KFC in 1999. Today, they churn out fusion foods, such as Korean poutine made with tater tots and topped with Monterey jack, kimchi, and black sesame seeds; non-fusion foods, like no-frills bibimbap or okonomiyaki; and specialties like crab rangoon, which fall into neither category. The truck is a newcomer to our list, but with its mouthwatering options and popularity, it looks like it’s here to stay.
#7 The Grilled Cheeserie, Nashville
Courtesy: The Grilled Cheeserie
Run by Los Angeles transplants Crystal De Luna-Bogan (a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef) and her husband Joseph, the Grilled Cheeserie has been winning Nashville over. Why? Well… it could be their fantastic specialty melts, among them a grilled pimento mac and cheese, a Buffalo chicken melt, and a “Melt of the Moment” that changes according to what’s in season. In the world of food trucks, creative takes on classics are always a good thing.
#6 Oink and Moo, Philadelphia and Various Locations in N.J.
Courtesy: Oink and Moo BBQ / Facebook
Oink and Moo has operated in New Jersey since 2012, enjoying its status as a well-kept Garden State secret in towns like Hoboken and Asbury Park. However, shortly after the truck expanded to Philadelphia in 2014, they won a Vendy award for Rookie of the Year. We’re pretty happy the secret is out. The concept is simple: beef or pork barbecue done well (not well-done). They do have two brick-and-mortar locations, one in Florham Park, New Jersey, and the other in Philly, but where’s the fun in that? You want to enjoy pulled pork like this as soon as it’s off the heat.
#5 Rickshaw Stop, San Antonio
Courtesy: Rickshaw Stop
“We’re fairly certain you’ve never eaten anything like the kebabs you will order from our truck,” reads the Rickshaw Stop website, “unless you are friends with a Pakistani family or you’ve spent extensive time in Pakistan.” We’d have to agree. This family-owned-and-operated affair, run by Sameer and Meagan Siddiqui with the help of Sameer’s mother Gety, aunt Bina, and uncle Shabbir, marinates their beef and chicken for at least 48 hours, so the flavors are evenly distributed and provide the perfect prelude to the chargrilled, smoky tones that linger on your tongue. The kebabs are served taco-style in flaky parathas. Need we say more?
#4 The Cinnamon Snail, New York City and Red Bank, N.J.
Photo: Jane Bruce
When we first opened up voting for this year’s food truck list, the Cinnamon Snail, a vegan favorite, was not one of the options. People were outraged. How could this beloved truck, which won the hearts and stomachs of vegans and meat eaters alike — which was at No. 2 on last year’s list — not be a contender? It’s definitely not because of the food. Who wouldn’t love items like fig pancakes with pine nut butter, chamomile blood orange syrup, and roasted almonds or lemongrass five-spice seitan with curried cashews, arugula, Sichuan chile sauce, and wasabi mayo on a grilled baguette? Don’t even get us started on their pastries and doughnuts, which rotate daily. No, the explanation for their absence is that we were under the mistaken impression that the Cinnamon Snail had closed down. Adam Sobel confirmed that while they are more active in Red Bank these days, they still operate in New York (check their Twitter for updates) and frequently cater events. So the truck went back on our list — and look where it landed.
#3 Cousins Maine Lobster, Los Angeles and Other Locations
Courtesy: Cousins Maine Lobster / Facebook
Los Angeles has one or two excellent trucks serving fresh Maine lobster, but Cousins appears to be the most popular, based on the overwhelming amount of votes it got. This could also be because Cousins, though it started in L.A., operates in a handful of different cities, but nobody who eats food from this truck can argue that it is anything short of fantastic. Cousins Jim Tselikis and Sabin Lomac serve classic Maine- and Connecticut-style lobster rolls as well as lobster tacos, crab rolls, shrimp rolls, lobster tots, and deep-fried Maine lobster on a stick — not to mention lobster bisque and New England clam chowder — all while running a mail-order business and pursuing franchise opportunities.
#2 Two for the Road, San Diego
Courtesy: Two for the Road
This truck made quite the leap: it was No. 98 last year, and is almost at the top this year. Specializing in American comfort food, this truck’s menu changes weekly, but count on there always being a burger and interesting variations on the hot dog, as well as regional dishes like New England lobster rolls or not-so-regional foods like spinach and artichoke grilled cheese. Their ingredients are fresh, never frozen, and hormone-free, which is a telltale sign that owners Lisa and Roberto know what they’re doing. Other signs? Roberto attended culinary school in Italy before emigrating to the U.S., and has been the chef in several top hotel kitchens in Las Vegas and San Diego. Lisa’s background in the travel industry has allowed her to roam the world, so you know the regional specials are authentic — not to mention delicious.
#1 Ms. Cheezious Fresh Made Grilled Cheese, Miami
Courtesy: Ms. Cheezious Fresh Made Grilled Cheese
This year’s top honors go to a truck serving an American classic: grilled cheese. The menu at Ms. Cheezious includes 17 standard styles and a build-your-own option, with eight cheeses, about five breads to choose from, and six fixings to throw into the mix; the bread used most often is sourdough. Go for their standards, like the Crabby Cheese Melt (crab salad and sharp Cheddar), Croqueta Monsieur (ham croquettes, tavern ham, Swiss cheese, and béchamel), Frito Pie Melt (house chili, American cheese, jalapeños, onions, and Fritos), and the best dessert grilled cheese we’ve heard of yet: the Sweet Meltdown, with a ricotta and orange marmalade blend on Texas toast, served with chocolate dipping sauce. Ms. Cheezious has been a mainstay on this list since 2012, and we’re thrilled that husband-and-wife duo Brian and Fatima Mullins are finally getting the credit they’re due.
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