Hello readers! I know that I have been a VERY bad blogger and been absent for the past month. I can only say that spring/summer fever finally hit me and I spent all my non-work hours going to the usual round of summer fun to be found in NYC: outdoor concerts, films, outdoor brunches, happy hours, dinners, etc, etc. I'm back today to share some of the fun I've had over the past month and a half. Today's blog is bringing a bit of the food truck world into your living room and hopefully into your life if you haven't had the pleasure of experiencing it yet.
I'm sure everyone has been hearing about the food truck phenomenon and how quickly the trend is spreading to other cities within the US and worldwide. The concept of street food is not new, so why are food trucks such a huge deal? Coffee and lunch trucks have been a welcome sight for decades now in the suburbs, bringing anything from breakfast sandwiches in the morning to the mid-afternoon cup of joe. They can constantly be found at any construction site providing relief and sustenance for the workers.
With the downward turn in US economy over the past few years, more and more consumers were looking for economical ways to eat out. If I didn't want to spend a lot of money for my lunch, I would usually hit up the street cart around the corner from my office and pick up a huge, filling platter of chicken and rice or falafels for less than $5.
The trend of food trucks offered something different during this time by giving diners an option of "gourmet" street dining. No more sketchy chicken and rice man, instead I can check out Twitter or Facebook to locate where Taïm's truck is located. Taïm is one of my favorite food truck discoveries. At one point, they were parked around the corner from my apartment on the Upper East Side. I was so disappointed when I couldn't find them there after a few weeks, as I had become slightly addicted to their crunchy falafel balls that were soft in the center and bursting with so much flavor. When it's finished up with some of the pickled cabbage and pickles...ymm ymmm ymmm! If you see them in your neighborhood and there's a long line, suck it up and get up in there! It's well worth the wait!
Another favorite of mine is Eddie's Pizza Truck. I originally discovered them when they started appearing on Mondays in front of our remote office building in Chelsea. You have to understand that we are located right along the water on the West side of Chelsea, so there is NO WHERE to eat within a 5-minute walking distance except for a handful of places. Once I tasted the ultra-crispy, super thin crust and sweet tomato sauce there was no turning back. Honestly, I think the reason why I love Eddie's so much is that their pie brings me back to my high school years of coming home after school and popping in Jeno's combination pizza from the freezer into the oven. My sister and I, to this day, will stock up when we see it on sale for $1.99 (it used to be $0.99!); it is now only a treat for me when I go home to my parents in NJ. The only thing that could probably make it better is if they started making their pepporonis into tiny little square bites. Yes, it's awful but sooooo good!
Soon, Mondays in the office became "Pizza Mondays" and we ordered in miniature pan pizzas for the entire office with sides of the sweet potato gnocchi (pretty much tiny, lightly pan fried sweet potato gnocchi's rolled in cinnamon-sugar). THEN, they started showing up on Wednesday evenings by my apartment! Eddie's was there for a few months, before disappearing as well. The Upper East Side is obviously food truck unfriendly. Sniff, sniff... Though I have heard that they finally just opened a pizza cart on 72nd and 3rd...a little further away but I will be there for sure to check it out! They were at the event as well, but my plan was to try NEW trucks. So no Eddie's Pizza on that trip.
Zagat has even created a website to easily track the food trucks in NYC at any given time. Granted, it does not list all of them but it does include some of the best ones around. New York magazine also has a great listing of the 25 best food trucks. I am looking forward to trying some of Yvonne Yvonne's Jamaican food up in my hood to bring me back to my vacation last August in Treasure Beach, Jamaica.
When I received Zagat's email for their 1st annual Food Truck Frenzy on May 23rd in the far Western corners of Chelsea on 21st and 22nd Street between 10th and 11th Avenue (a hop skip walking distance from my office), I didn't even hesitate to buy my ticket. For $12, the pre-sale ticket included my entry to the event and my choice of sampling four food trucks out of the twenty-six trucks that would be there. A bargain for an unusual lunch break, especially in this part of Manhattan!
Map of the offerings at Zagat's Food Truck Frenzy...a little worn, but legible.
Originally, the event was supposed to be held the week before on May 17th. But there were such severe rain storms that week that it had to be rescheduled to the following week. The 23rd rolled around and I was sure it was going to be rained out as well since it was gloomy all morning with black clouds rolling over the Manhattan/NJ skyline. But when I received no email stating it had been moved again, I grabbed my umbrella and headed on out a bit earlier to beat the lines. As you can see, hungry lunch time diners were still lined up even though the rain had started coming down already. Each person was handed a plate and four tickets to use at the truck of their choosing, as well as a map showing the location of each truck on the two blocks and what they were selling. Let me also forewarn readers that all portions served during the event were tasting-style and not normal servings. So if you try them on your own, you are not paying $5-7 for a plate that will not fill you up.
Check out the Desi Truck! So bright and colorful.
First stop for me was Luke's Lobster truck for their famous lobster rolls served on a butter bun. I knew that most people were going to head over there for sure. Only four people in front of me...sweet. (Yes, I said sweet. Sorry, but it was one of those moments.) Look at it in its pure lobster deliciousness! So fresh with just a little bit of lemon-butter on it for some extra flavor. I hate when my lobster rolls come coated in a thick mayonnaise dressing because it just takes away from the beautiful sweetness of lobster meat. The toasted butter roll has just a nice crunch to it to offer a contrast to the silky lobster. Not chewy at all!
I decided to come back for the Big Gay Ice Cream truck for my finale. So, even though there was no line yet I walked on to the next block over where my two other trucks were located. Along the way, I had to walk along the West Side Highway where me and my fellow foodies found a random art installation.
When I looked inside the hole, this is what I saw.
It was bizarre and amusing, but this exhibit only made me more convinced that modern art is crazy.
Next stop...Korilla BBQ! I had been hearing about Korilla for ages, but they were never in my neighborhood so I had never had a chance to try them. It is a similar concept to the wildly popular Kogi truck in LA which I have never had the pleasure of eating yet. They offered one taco of your choosing from their menu. Being the meat lover that I am, I decided to order the ribeye. (Since I attended the Zagat event, I have gone back to Korilla since it opened up on the Highline and the tofu taco is also quite tasty!) When the man taking my order asked what sauce and toppings I wanted with it, I looked at him in obvious confusion. Seeing my expression, he helpfully offered, "You want me to chef it up?" To which I replied, "Yes, please! Just not too spicy." I had no idea what "chef it up" meant, but I knew that I didn't have to make any decisions. My ribeye taco ended up being served with some pickled cabbage and sriracha. It was also topped with their special sauce which I could not figure out, but was too happy enjoying to even try to. My fellow eaters at my small table were quite pleased as well...most of them had the tofu version.
Here are photos of some of the other trucks and the queue to order.
Some more random art on the buildings in Chelsea. The majority of these are art galleries and Thursday evenings are famous for gallery hopping.
My last ticket (remember, I had already earmarked the fourth for the Big Gay Ice Cream truck!) I had to use for a nostalgic memory of my favorite thing to eat when I was young in Taiwan: bian dang. What is it exactly? Bian dang is the Mandarin word for lunch box. There are street carts all over Taiwan selling these little platters to go for Chinese workers as it was quick and inexpensive. It is pretty much the Taiwanese version of chicken and rice. I still dream of the fried chicken and pork chop platters we used to order from my mother's childhood friend's cart in Kaoshiung. Even though it has been tens of years since I've been able to go back to Taiwan, I still remember the flavors. Chinese fried chicken and pork chops are completely different from what is found here in the US. It is seasoned with salt, 5 spice, and various other spices I have never been able to quite figure out; the breading is also usually much lighter as it is not flour based like in the US. Typically, bian dang is served with your choice of protein (whether it be chicken, pork or tofu) along with rice, tea egg, pickled vegetables and a braised minced pork sauce. While I can buy it at the take-away food area of our local Chinese grocery store in Edison, the flavors are just not the same. Strangely enough, it is not a common thing to find even in NYC's Chinatown.
Bian Dang food truck made it's initial appearance earlier this year and was welcomed by the Asian community with wide arms who wanted a taste of this comfort food from home. Again, the truck has never been in my neck of the woods. So I was really excited to try their Pork Chop with Minced Pork Sauce as my last entrée. I shared my plate at a table with a family of tourists who had randomly stumbled upon the Zagat event. It was their first time eating the Taiwanese bian dang and from the sounds they were making, they were enjoying it as much as I was. Their fried pork chops are probably the closest attempt of what I remember having when I was in Taiwan for the summer. I could have had a full bowl of that lusciously savory minced pork sauce...as it was, I am not ashamed to say that I stuck my finger in to lick any last trace of it.
Even though the truck and their shop are not anywhere on my daily routes, I will definitely be making a trip soon for their zongzhi (they describe at as a Chinese tamale) and fried chicken platter soon.
My tummy was nice and full by this point. Thank god they had decided to do small portions! I decided to walk back over to 22nd St where the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck was located and see how long the line had grown since the beginning of the event. The lines in general had grown SIGNIFICANTLY from the time I had arrived. Luke's Lobster truck had at least 30 people lined around the block (whew!) and the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck now had about 10 people in front of me. Not so bad. Plus, it gave me a bit of time to digest my meal!
The Big Gay Ice Cream is now famous on the streets of New York. He is housed in an old school Mister Softee truck with additional signage painted on proclaiming him as the "Big Gay Ice Cream" man. In the past 2 years since he started popping up, he has been featured on Food Network numerous times, the New York Times and various other publications. With a name like that, how can it not catch on? What makes him more interesting than the Mister Softees or various other artisanal ice cream trucks are the unusual flavor combinations he offers. His Bea Arthur (which I was trying at the Zagat event) is his most classic: vanilla ice cream (Mister Softee style) with dulce de leche and dipped in crushed Nilla wafers. His other options are not so standard: the Salty Pimp (vanilla ice cream, dulce de leche, sea salt, chocolate dip) or Cococone (vanilla ice cream with toasted curry coconut). And then let's talk about his topping choices: sriracha, elderflower syrup, cardamom, balsamic vinegar, and wasabi pea dust. Crazy, but some of the combos I've tried of his so far has worked!
Here is Douglas Quint, the Big Gay Ice Cream man himself, creating the Bea Arthur for another happy customer. I was fascinated watching him squeeze the dulce de leche into the center of the vanilla ice cream at random intervals. It was definitely an art watching him make the cone.
And finally, my patience is rewarded with the Bea Arthur...a gooey, sweet delight with a slight crunch from the Nilla wafers and a surprise bit of the dulce de leche with my vanilla ice cream. Surprisingly, it is not as sweet as I expected from that combination, but it is definitely not something that I'd want to eat every day unless I wanted to gain an extra 100 pounds.
Just as I started walking back to the office, happily licking at my ice cream cone, the rain started coming back down in full force. I literally stepped into the building before sheets of rain pelted the streets of New York and the rest of the Zagat foodies. It was the perfect end to a perfect lunch time break.
So next time you catch a food truck in your area, don't be afraid to try something new or be scared off by long lines...it's part of the entire experience and you would be surprised at the wonderful people you meet once you start opening up and talking to the person in line with you. For some people, it has literally been a life-changing experience. Get out there and eat now!