Keep on truckin'
Wheely good food
Simon Williams outside his White Guy Cooks Thai truck. Photo: Ken Irwin
THERE WAS A TIME WHEN THE only food truck ambling suburban streets was the Mr Whippy van, accompanied by its music box tinkle. Now you're more likely to hear swampy blues wafting from an inner-city van serving gumbo and po' boys. Toto, we're not in Kansas any more. Well, actually, we kind of are.
The food truck scene is ingrained in everyday US life. Travelling lunch vans have pulled up at light industrial estates for decades. Modern food trucks have their own reality TV show (The Great Food Truck Race, a kind of gastronomic Survivor on wheels), their own awards (New York City's Vendy Awards) and you can even buy Running a Food Truck for Dummies at your local bookstore.
Classically trained chef Roy Choi is largely credited with kicking off the modern food truck scene in Los Angeles. When his Korean-Mexican hybrid Kogi BBQ hit the road in 2008, his $2-beef-short-rib taco quickly became the talk of LA, spawning a Kogi empire (and 101,000 Twitter followers). It also reconfigured the food truck movement by delivering innovative and sophisticated food to cash-strapped diners at college campuses, office blocks and car parks.
NYC's signature pretzel and hot dog carts have been joined by vans selling lobster rolls, schnitzels, grilled cheese and vegan dosas. Portland, Oregon, even hosts the country's only Norwegian food cart, Viking Soul Food, peddling pickled herring and potato flatbread stuffed with meatballs and cabbage.
The Australian food truck scene is still young, but it's got its foot on the pedal and it's revving up diners with some really great, fast food.
Adelaide has taken to the concept with gusto, with Cupcakes Please and Veggie Velo while in Sydney, street-eaters get treats such as Agape Organic and Eat Art Truck with former chefs from Quay and Tetsuya's.
Melbourne is leaning more towards US and Mexican fare, although it would be safe to say that its food truck scene is at its plentiful best at music festivals. In fact, this summer's Big Day Out featured Chow Town, a food hub curated by Ben Milgate and Elvis Abrahanowicz of Sydney's Porteno and Bodega, and food by restaurants Huxtable, Cookie and Anada, among others.
Rafael Rashid, from Beatbox Kitchen and Taco Truck, was a pioneer of Melbourne's food truck scene, driving Beatbox Kitchen to the Meredith Music Festival for the first time in 2009. ''I wanted to do food at a festival and I thought a pop-up would be a cool idea; just roll into a festival, do some food and leave,'' he says.
''I basically wanted to do something I didn't have to do every day. I also liked the idea of good food in non-traditional locations.''
Pulling up in parks and public spaces creates a real community feel. You'll see people heading down with a picnic blanket and the dog, ordering a burger and meeting friends for some sunset alfresco dining. And for diners there's the thrill of the chase, following the trucks on Twitter or Facebook, wondering where they'll pop up tonight. It's the perfect blend of old-school community and new-school social media.
''It's not a cuisine, it's a circumstance,'' Rashid says. ''You can just pull up, get something to eat and leave. Or you can just roll up in your tracksuit. All the fuss is taken out of it.''
Will Balleau, a New Mexico native who co-owns Richmond's Chingon Cantina y Taqueria with his chef brother Michael, remembers trucks rising to popularity in areas where Mexican immigrants lived, including southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
When his brother joined him here a couple of years ago, they noticed an absence of quality street food and decided to fill the gap with a food truck. The premises they rented in Richmond to store the van mutated into a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, with the van functioning as the kitchen, so they've built another van and will be hitting the streets soon.
But getting a truck on the road isn't as easy as choosing a concept and turning on the ignition. Confined kitchens have to be designed intelligently and meet council regulations. That includes road safety, food safety, proper refrigeration, electricity, water supply and grease extraction units.
''We'll always be heavily legislated; that's just who we are,'' Rashid says.
''We try to keep our food standards high and our footprint in neighbourhoods low. We don't leave a trail of grease and rubbish, we clean up after ourselves.''
Not even Melbourne's diva-like weather can dent business. ''Melbourne has the most resilient people,'' Rashid says. ''They just come out with umbrellas, grab their food and get back inside.''
So what does the future hold for Melbourne's food truck scene?
Rashid thinks it will continue to grow organically and slowly but will become part of our lifestyle. Balleau hopes we'll embrace big truck-ins like those held in San Francisco parks. ''If we can get that dynamic out here, even if it's just events a couple of times a year, and get everyone together, it would be so much fun,'' he says.
Beatbox Kitchen Twitter @beatboxkitchen
Looking like a ghetto blaster on wheels, Beatbox Kitchen delivers cracking burgers and fries at music festivals, events and in quiet backstreets, mostly in Melbourne's north. The Raph Burger uses grass-fed beef and is served medium, the Shroom burger (a fat grilled portobello mushroom with salad and cheese) is veg heaven, and the fries come with moreish Stereo sauce, mayo or spicy relish.
Cornutopia Twitter @cornutopia
After less than 12 months, Cornutopia has a regular spot at Preston Market as well as cruising around selling its organic Mexican food, including tacos, nachos and quesadillas, from its yellow van. For an addictive snack, order one of the ''corn cups'' - a pile of warm kernels available in original (good old butter and salt), zesty (lime and pepper) or spicy Mexican.
Gidget's Beach Cantina Twitter @GidgetsCantina
Flying the flag for the truck-starved south, Gidget's Beach Cantina totes tacos by the bay. Chef Serena Cabello has created four fillings for the corn tortillas - slow-cooked, spice-rubbed beef; zesty chicken Pibil; Californian fish; and a lush mushroom, corn and cuitlacoche (corn truffle). They're crunchy with cabbage or nopal (cactus) and garnished with grated cheese. After a bingle, Gidget's turquoise vintage caravan is a little the worse for wear, so keep an eye out for Gidget 2.0.
Gumbo Kitchen Twitter @GumboKitchen
Bringing a taste of New Orleans to the streets of Melbourne, Gumbo Kitchen pumps out a dirty blues soundtrack as it slings its fried shrimp po'boys, ''beef debris'' (shredded, chopped beef) served on fries with remoulade and gumbo, and a spicy stew chunked with chicken, sausage and okra served with a side of rice and bread. Finish with a piece of Lemon Ice Box Pie - a cross between lemon cheesecake and a Golden Gaytime.
Mr Burger Twitter @mrburgertruck
With a semi-permanent undercover set-up in a laneway close to the Queen Victoria Market, as well as taking to the streets, Mr Burger serves up super-juicy US-style burgers, gooey with American cheese and sweet with pickles and caramelised onions, and there's a cross-cultural vego burger based on falafel. Produce is sourced from the handy market, and the meat patties are minced to their recipe by a family butcher. There are three simple choices - Mr Burger, Mr Meat and Mr Veg - plus chips.
Smokin' Barrys Twitter @Smokinbarrys
Hickory-smoked long and slow, Smokin' Barrys succulent barbecued meats are wedged into a soft roll and slathered in house-made barbecue sauce. With a tasty menu of rolls, ribs and nachos, you'll end up with sauce running down to your elbow, but that's what it's all about. The Barry-centric menu includes the Barry Manilow (with cheese and guac), the Barry Obama (with jalapenos and ranch) and the Drew Barrymore (with the lot).
Taco Truck Twitter @tacotruckmelb
Raph Rashid's Taco Truck hit the streets in 2011, with a simple and fresh menu. These soft-shell tacos come in a choice of fish, potato or chicken. Fish tacos feature a succulent strip of battered rockling with slaw, lime and poppy mayo, the chicken comes with corn salsa and chipotle, while the potato version has a chunky spud slice in a crisp tortilla, topped with jalapeno ricotta and salsa verde.
White Guy Cooks Thai Twitter @whiteguythai
Bringing a bit of the East to Melbourne's west, White Guy Cooks Thai dishes up traditional Asian hawker dishes such as chicken satay and sweet corn cakes, along with dudeish pork belly or prawn sliders. There's always a vegan, gluten-free option, and usually a queue.
Yogurddiction Twitter @yogurddiction
This cheerful candy-striped van is twirling out some seriously delicious fat-free frozen yoghurt with rotating daily flavours. Toppings range from fresh peach and pineapple to Anzac-y crumble and crushed-up Oreos, kooky fruit pearls and - from the ''Why haven't I thought of that before?'' department - smashed Almond Roca.
Grub Food Van Twitter @grubfoodvan
For those who don’t fancy jack-rabbiting down back streets in search of dinner and like to know exactly where their food truck’s at, Grub Food Van is a never-shifting, always gleaming 1965 Airstream van in Fitzroy, serving everything from meatloaf and gravy to prawn cocktail sandwiches, soba salads and rice pudding with lavender jelly. With vintage furniture, perky umbrellas, a drinks list scrawled on the side of a fridge (try the Bloody Mark with a beetroot and jalapeno kick), and Mutti the resident dog, this is one welcoming oasis.
87-89 Moor St, Fitzroy, Tues-Sun 8am-8pm.
FOLLOW WHERE THE TRUCK AT (@wherethetruckat) for an ever-growing list and map of who's trucking where. They have crowd-sourced funding through Pozible and are building an iPhone app so you'll never miss your favourite truck, which might be just around the corner. wherethetruck.at